A Red Letter in the MRI Scanner

Last Friday was another one of those dates that have had a red circle round it on my calendar for some time now. I like this tradition. You have your favourite picture calendar on the wall and you get that big red pen to circle round important days.

Something to look forward to….a special day.

You know the sort of thing, birthdays. The ones you write down are usually the ones you are most likely to forget, relations that you are obliged to remember and who are placated by a cheap card with golfers or vases of flowers on the front.

Other times it is for when you managed to get very expensive theatre tickets for the best production of the year and you are frightened that you will wake up the following day after a night-in washing your hair or watching a rerun of another not very funny comedy series on television.

The circle could be, of course, that big date. You have done all the early stuff – meeting for a drink, talking about holidays, your favourite colour and the time you got so drunk your mates tied you up naked to a lamppost (hmm, maybe not that one) – but now it is the big one, the dinner when things could “move on,” the day you brush your teeth and wipe your shoes on the back of your trousers. A true red letter day.

Well, for me, that red letter day was last Friday when I was due for my third MRI brain scan. Hey! lucky old me!

If you want to know about these amazing machines, and my early encounters with them, I wrote about my second scan here on the fourth of January. I was practically unconscious for my first one which happened whilst I was still in hospital.

After the second one, the doctors found that the blood from my brain haemorrhage hadn’t dispersed enough for them to see what had caused the problem. I suppose it was a bit like that early date when things hadn’t quite made it beyond the “I like your hair” stage.

I had to go away frustrated but at least there was the chance of another go.

Four months on, it was time to enter the Mouth of Hell for one more go.

I was driven to the hospital in a torrential rain storm and we found a handy parking spot near to the MRI department’s entrance and, worryingly, close to a sign that read “Mortuary, please keep clear.”

The MRI department was one of those private clinics which are increasingly operating within the British National Health Service.

You know it is private directly you walk in.

There is a carpet, some slick interior decoration and, the biggest give away of all..a very large flower arrangement at the reception desk.

Those flowers were lovely, no doubt, in that rather over-elaborate way that you usually find in four star hotels. Maybe they had been left by some appreciative visitors to the neighboring morgue.

It was a shame that the receptionist couldn’t have matched that bright fresh look.

If this had been a first date, then I was heading for the nearest exit. If it was the second date, I was going to book in at the morgue.

If air-hostesses can smile even if they are serving tea or coffee whilst the plane is careering through an electric storm, then why couldn’t this sour-faced woman have made the effort to lighten that look of rigor mortis?

I suppose, I was relieved that she had made no effort to put on that insincere private medical care expression which is imitated from tooth paste adverts.

Maybe, she just didn’t fancy me or maybe she had been on a date last night and her date told her that story about being tied to a lamppost.

I had been warned by the neurologist that the scan could last up to about an hour and a half. This time, she said, they were going to check every inch of my brain and to really try to come up with, not just a report on the current state of my health but also some clues as to why I had had that brain haemorrhage in the first place.

I sat in the waiting area trying not to let the other patients know that I was staring at them. There were enough furtive looks away for me to know that they were sussing me out too.

So which bit were they having scanned? That was what everyone wanted to know.

The young man in the tracksuit? Not a runner obviously, judging by the premature beer gut. The old lady, also in a tracksuit but a rather fetching one in brown and orange, what was she here for? A pot of tea and a toasted tea-cake by the look of her pleasant smile – receptionist please note.

Why those tracksuits? Was I missing something? I looked at the glossy but worryingly soft-focus brochure that I had been given.

“Please try to wear light clothing with no metal fastenings, such as a tracksuit, so you don’t need to get changed.”

Oh, I see! Both of these people were wearing tracksuits covered in zips.

Who would have believed it! They obviously had a fetish for hospital gowns.

Well, whatever turns you on.

They were both called before me so I had time to check what I was wearing. Metal fastenings? No, I was very sensibly prepared, short sleeved shirt, jeans and some rather smart canvas shoes. Then I remembered, the jeans had metal fly buttons.

Too late.

Both the old lady and the young men were out of there like Bats out of Hell. Ten minutes maximum for both of them.

Did they try it on? Did someone spot that they were really only there for the nightgowns?

I will never know of course but maybe they were just getting some small extremities scanned.

Then it was my turn.

A young Asian paramedic, in light blue scrubs, ushered me into the MRI room. He smiled but struggled when it came to talking.

I wish I could have spoken his language then we might have got further than “there,” “lie down” and “take off.” I wondered briefly where he had learnt his English. Thailand?

My mind went back to the two previous patients. “Take off” – what did he mean? Surely not that.

I told him I had metal buttons on my jeans but he used another, more surprizing word from his vocabulary list: “No.”

He pointed at my glasses and took them away.

I was now lying on a bed near to the Mouth of Hell, the MRI scanning machine with its opening which is just big enough to swallow a human being.

A different man came in. He was very authoritative and briskly friendly, he was an alpha male for sure and he spoke English too. I was a bit disappointed by this because I was hoping to get a chance to practise my rudimentary Mandarin Chinese or even my schoolboy Latin. There was no need, he was as fluent in my native tongue as that man who came round the other night trying to sell me double glazing. He asked how I was, but got my name wrong.

“OK, Nigel, I need to pump some dye into your arm.”

Now call me over-cautious but I thought, what if Nigel was that boy in the tracksuit? The dye could have been for an altogether different body part.

As I lay there, with him trying what was by now the third vein to pump this stuff into, I just had to say it. I had to tell him that I was Wolfgang not Nigel.

He was unconcerned. He probably put it down to stage fright because he was then telling me not to move whilst he put some head phones over my ears and started affixing a neck brace and then a head guard which ended any ideas that I might have had of running away.

There was no music coming through the headphones,they were to deaden the noise and, anyway, I was soon to find out that, if there had been, I would not have heard it because of the noisy MRI technology.

So there I was, now called Nigel, strapped down and silenced on a bed which started to move automatically into the scanner’s opening.

Once I was deep inside, my eyes were inches from the cylinder’s top which was decorated with a thin white line.

The first noise was like the siren that a heavy vehicle emits when it is reversing. It was followed by a lower frequency, then a higher one. Some of them were long held notes and others were repeated rapidly.

Soon I was unable to predict what was coming next and then it was time for the extremely low frequency one which sent the whole machine and me too, juddering and shaking.

I now told myself that this could go on for one and a half hours so I had to take control and avoid any feelings of claustrophobia sending me into a panic.

I had nearly started screaming in a crowded London Underground train once on a hot summer’s day when the train broke down in a tunnel. I was stuck there, pressed into someone’s armpit, for just long enough to bring on a feeling of hysteria. Maybe it was the armpit.

This was a similar experience and I had to be very careful I didn’t ruin the photographs by screaming my head off and trying to break out of the head brace.

I practised a meditation routine that I had learnt some time ago. The nine Chakra points with a mantra for each stage. At first it was a struggle, then it began to work. In spite of the high pitched siren that was ringing at the time, I took myself away from the rising hysteria, then from the boredom to a state where the noises melted into the background and I arrived at what was really a form of self-hypnosis.

“OK, Nigel” came a voice through the headphones. “We are done. Oh, sorry, Nigel. I have a bit more to do. Another ten minutes, that’s all.”

I had long lost any sense of time and I managed to go back to wherever I was, over the rainbow, somewhere good. So good in fact that I was almost sad when the voice came back.

“OK Wolfgang, we really are done now. Well done.” He had even got my name right.

Then the bed began to move – it was a bit like those machines in the crematorium when the coffin goes off behind the curtains.

The nice linguistically challenged paramedic, took off my head and neck braces and said a new word. “OK” he said.

I fumbled for my glasses after he told me they were “there.” I wanted to say “where” but thought that that was maybe Conversational English Lesson Two.

And then I was free. The alpha male had already gone – I suspect they do that so you don’t ask how you got on and if you could have a copy of the pictures. I was out in reception again and looking at the clock, I could see that I had been in the machine for exactly one and a half hours.

I noticed one of the new patients was wearing another, very zippy, tracksuit – a man in his forties this time. Well it takes all sorts.

I smiled at the receptionist and she returned a shocked grimace.

I was off. I wanted to be away from all of this and out in the open air. The rain had stopped, just like in the movies, and it was now a sunny day.

Blue skies. Nothing but blue skies from now on. I hope so.

Here is a short clip to show you what the MRI scanner looks like. I would just like to say that I didn’t have that relaxing music but my shoes were definitely much cooler than the ones you see here.

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