Time for an MRI

My appointment is at 3:30 p.m.
Some 25 miles away from my home.
The clock says it’s only 12:53 p.m..

Although it won’t be rush hour when I drive to the hospital, you never know what will happen when it comes to Boston traffic, so I want to provide myself a cushion of extra time, so I won’t be late for my annual MRI.
I loathe MRIs. I particularly despise the kind of MRI I must get. Of my brain and, every other year, of my upper spine as well. The doctors are looking for something new that’s worrisome beneath my skin and my bones, other than the stuff they already know is awry. They’re looking for more MS lesions.
When I arrive at the hospital for my annual scans, I must remember to remove any jewelry, as metal doesn’t play nicely with the giant magnets inside the MRI machine. I don those hideous gray socks with the white rubber grips on both sides, along with the threadbare blue and white hospital gown, and the blue drawstring pants that are clearly not designed for anybody with hips, or thighs for that matter.
After I work these ill-fitting pieces of clothing onto my body, a technician beckons me into the large room where the behemoth machine resides.
This is when the fun starts. And when I say “fun,” I mean the opposite of fun. I really mean “terror.” I mean a trapped-inside-something-and-can’t-get-out terror. It’s at this point when, after placing my head between two hard pieces of plastic, the technician clicks a hard plastic cage over my face and into those twin pillars. There is a relatively narrow rectangular opening above my face, but there’s no avoiding the fact that I am confined. The face cage is about two inches away from the tip of my nose. Its mere presence makes me feel like I can’t breathe. Like I’m being punished. Locked up.
Did I mention that I’m claustrophobic?
Even though the technician gently hands me a plastic bulb tethered to a cord that’s attached to an alarm she says will signal the staff to get me out of this contraption should I squeeze it, I don’t necessarily believe I’ll be able to immediately extricate myself from this face cage. I consider whether I could maneuver myself out of the face cage without assistance if I wanted to. However, if I try to get out and fail, I will definitely panic because then I’d know I am really trapped.
The technician, who’s freely walking around without a Hannibal Lecter mask over her face, presses a button and sends me into the maw of the machine. I slam my eyes shut and keep them closed until I’m on the outside once again.
Twenty minutes go by before the button is pressed, and the scanning bed expels me from the narrow canal. But I cannot move just yet. Over a series of MRIs over the past several years since being diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS, I’ve been sternly told, in no uncertain terms, not to move at this juncture because there’s a second phase; if I move, I’ll screw everything up, a tech once yelled at me. An IV inserted in my arm conveys contrast fluid through my veins which will help discern if any of my existing or new lesions in my brain are active. I’m sent back into the Willy-Wonka-boat-ride-of-a-machine for another 20 minutes. If I happen to be due for a cervical spine MRI, I’ll get another 40-ish minutes of MRI hell.
While I’m inside the machine, with my eyes closed and my sweaty hand curled around the escape bulb, I listen to the soundtrack of my nightmares, a cacophony of discordant, sinister noises, including some which sound like somebody is outside the machine trying to break it down and I’m just lying there, easy prey. Time moves at a glacial pace during these scans. Especially because I can’t move. Because I know if I open my eyes and see the inside of the tube, I’ll panic (it happened once. ‘Twasn’t fun).
But you know what really feels like an eternity? Waiting for the results to find out what’s happening inside my own brain, whether things are stable or about to get worse.
If I leave the house now, I’ll get to the hospital too early. Then I’ll wind up sitting in the waiting room and stewing over what’s to come. Then again, I’m just sitting here in my kitchen nervously  jiggling my right leg up and down. I can’t be late. I can’t be early. I can’t really have more brain lesions, can I? I can’t really have this incurable disease which has turned my future into a big, fat question mark, can I?
I dive into my latest issue of The New Yorker, hoping it’ll take my mind off my brain, off face cages, off sinister noises. I force myself to keep my eyes fixed on its pages for as long as I can before I check the clock again.
Okay, I say aloud. I give myself permission to plunge forward into uncertainty where the only thing I know for sure is that someone’s going to snap a plastic cage over my face, that I’ll keep my eyes squeezed shut for 40 minutes, then wait for days for the results.
Okay, let’s go.
Tags Healthcare, Treatment      3 Appreciate this
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Meredith O’Brien

Meredith O’Brien is a Boston area writer and journalism lecturer. She is a die-hard Red Sox fan who lives with her husband, three kids ,and two noisy dogs. Her fourth book, "Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir," about her MS experience, will be published in March 2020. Follow her on Twitter @MeredithOBrien, or visit her website at mereditheobrien.com.  

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  • Barbara d.   Oct 17, 2018 6:44 PM
    I feel you. That face cage is enough to drive anyone insane. I panicked once in the tube, but talked myself out of it, telling myself it’s only temporary it will be over soon. But this is what life is now, MRIs every six months to make sure the disease has not progressed. Not sure what the future holes but for now everything is stable. I’ll be thinking of you next time I have my MRIs, and hopefully you’ll remember that this test is only temporary And that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
  • LuAnn Hawk   Oct 17, 2018 6:50 PM
    I understand what you are saying. In 1981 when I was first tested for MS they did not have MRI machines. The test that were given was spinal tap and CT scans I was more afraid of the CT scan. I have come to enjoy the MRI’s if only they could figure out how to stop that banging.
  • Rebcca   Oct 17, 2018 7:00 PM
    I also look forward to my annual visit with the tiny tube - MRI. I was reading your words and it brought me to my fear if this process. I try to reason it out in my head but it didn’t work.
  • Milly   Oct 18, 2018 8:03 AM
    I get my MRIs at the Partners MS Center and they do a great job of trying to distract you during the MRI with earplugs and headphones. They ask you what channel you want to listen to and they help a little with minimizing those awful sounds. Sometimes, when I'm in there, regardless of the song that's playing, I'll still find myself focused on the sounds. Sometimes, they sound like beebop beebop beebop, and I just keep repeating it until the next "fun" one comes on (bonk bonk bonk bonk bonk - now imagine i've written this word 2 million more times) and I agree, I'm claustraphobic as well and that hannibal lector thing scares the crap out of me, but over the years, I have come to know what to expect. I now bring my own earplugs (since the ones they give me take forever to squeeze to actually fit inside my ears) and I think about as many topics as I can before heading in to the appt. so I can give myself things to think about. Of course, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but I still try. And yes, waiting for the results is no picnic either. I'll be thinking of you fellow MS Warrior!!
  • Avatar
    henrixn  Oct 18, 2018 10:11 AM
    Thank you Meredith,this is exactly how i experience it. They asked me once,can we put on some music to make it better? I suggested Carl Orff or some Norwegian black Metal.
    I got some east-european mambo! With the sound of the machine and the music, i thought : "this is as close to hell it is possible to get!"
    I am laughing with you,it helps :)
  • Sue   Oct 19, 2018 1:27 PM
    Sorry. Can’t say I have experienced any of the concerns you write about. I have had about 40 MRIs over the past 18 years. I relax, listen to the music and sometimes doze off. I usually have brain, cervical spine and thoracic spine all at once. It takes about 2 1/2 hours at most. No biggie. Having lumbar disc deterioration, facet joint disease and a herniated disk or two, once a year I have that included as well. Longer, but much easier to get it all over in one shot.
  • Jennifer   Oct 19, 2018 2:13 PM
    I too am a patient @ Partners MS Clinic; also in The Climb Study & w/ Google. I am a far & few patient who enjoys MRI’s. I’ll volunteer for a 2 hour one for different studies. Although I do not enjoy the Hannibal mask, I find the noise of the MRI machine soothing & it puts me into a sleepy trans.
    Think of it as your “me” time, and try zoning those bong bong bing noises into a soothing meditation.
  • Peggy   Oct 19, 2018 4:45 PM
    My veins are pretty hard to find so when I check in I request to get a line in prior to the MRI. It makes it easier when the time comes for the contrast. I'm so sorry you are claustrophobic. I can't imagine suffering through it. My heart goes out to you.
  • Leann Benson   Oct 19, 2018 5:43 PM
    Meredith I get it! I hate MRI's too! Try getting a nerve pill it really helps! And before you go into the tube ask for a towel. Put it over your eyes. This is the last image your mind sees so you think you are still in the open space. Also the music is helpful if you count the songs and focus in doing that. A song is about 3 minutes so a normal MRI is 45 minutes so 15 songs or so! Soldier on MS warrior!!
  • Melanie H   Oct 19, 2018 7:59 PM
    I am a 3 pill girl to calm down the claustrophobic anxiety before the MRI (I take 1.0 mg of Lorazepam an hour before and the final 0.5 mg when I arrive for MRI. One of the best suggestions from a tech was to close my eyes before I lay down and keep them closed until we're done. I also ask if they can not close the evil head cage down to touch my shoulders. Once there was a new tech who said she'd put some blocks around my arms and strap me in so I wouldn't move but my usual tech came in and said "she won't move" and I've never been so thankful. I also ask "my" tech to talk to me between tests with an estimate of time for next test. This helps me know they are there if I did NEED to come out. Hang in there - we will get through them!
  • lori   Oct 19, 2018 8:18 PM
    i can relate in so many ways! i hv have mris for cardiology and neurologist bc of chiari malformation and in searching for answers! i hv trouble staying still for long period s of time and any motion the monster vibration from table makes me vomit! i theew up in mris! i hate it but i do need them for preventive reasons and yes....i hate waiting for the results!
  • Diana   Oct 21, 2018 1:03 PM
    Thank you for your vivid description of the nightmare. I can't do it without a massive dose of Valium and pain meds from staying still for so long. Even with the medicine I spend my time doing odd games because the terror is still there and my panic is so great that I am not the least bit sleepy. I count backwards by threes, do times tables, recite nursery rhymes, anything to keep my mind off what is going on. I'm going to be in thfor awhile for brain, spine and specialized focus check on a pituitary tumor. The machine is surely going to explode at some point. The injection will surely cause cancer. Is it taking longer because they found something? Am I going to have a heart attack? Why can't I breathe? It is too hot, there isn't enough air. Can I keep my panic under control? Please don't let the football helmet touch me! Have they forgotten about me? Will I die in here? Will I die when I get my results? Will my brain stop functioning? When I finally escape the prison, I can't move. I'm in pain and paralyzed from the fear that if I open my eyes I may still be in there. I open my eyes and burst into great big, ugly sobbing. Why? I'm not sure. But I survived another bad date with the tube of terror. Now the wait. I feel worse, I know it will be bad news. Sometimes it is, but most times it is great news. I will survive this over and over for the rest of my life. I am the warrior. I have MS and I will fight it with my last breath. I don't care what people think, our terror is real. Love and thanks to you Meredith.
  • Viviane   Oct 22, 2018 10:35 AM
    I was offered to listen to the radio while having one of my first MRI done. It turned out to be the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. I'll take the clincking and banging noise any day now over that.