Act Your Age… Getting an MRI

First appeared in the April 1, 2011 issue of Retirement News Weekly

When I saw the advertisement on Kijiji looking for people willing to get an MRI, there were many things that went through my mind. What if I had a “special” brain and this MRI revealed how unique I really am? What if I had a brain tumour and this MRI saved my life? Wouldn’t a picture of my brain make a cool Facebook profile? What never crossed my mind was the need for concern.

It was without concern that I signed up for the research study which promised to pay $90 and provide a set of pictures of my brain. Without concern, I visited the lab for the first time for various cognitive tests and word games. And it was without concern that I was led by a young German woman to the Neuroimaging Lab on my second visit to have my MRI.

However, when I was sat down in the viewing room and a man began to go over my medical history, it finally donned on me that perhaps I should have been more concerned. The man focused on questions that would help determine if there was any possibility that metal could be inside my body. He explained that the magnetic resonance imaging machine (MRI) worked with giant magnets and if there was any metal on or in me it would be pulled into the machine. However, to get to the machine, the metal would likely travel through my brain in the process and kill me on the spot.

“I’d hate to be the next guy getting an MRI,” I joked uncomfortably.

We determined that I was metal free and I finally entered the room with the MRI. The machine was enormous and seemed to take up half the room. If you’ve never seen an MRI machine, imagine a giant, long marshmallow made of plastic lying on its side. In the middle of the marshmallow is a hole and in front of the hole is a table on wheels. At the top of the table is a much smaller tube, slightly larger than a person’s cranium.

I pulled myself onto that table and the German girl taped a Vitamin B tablet to my forehead. Apparently it’s sometimes difficult to determine which side of the brain is left or right and the tablet would shine brightly on the MRI and identify the left side. I then lied down on the table and placed my head into the smaller tube. The technician who would be running the MRI (a man who would be played by Judge Reinhold if my MRI was made into a movie) pressed baseball-sized pillows around my head so I didn’t have to hold it steady by myself. I was then manually slid into the larger tube.

I point out that I was manually slid into the tube because there is a machine that would have slid me into the tube at the push of a button. However, the technician had warned me that sometimes it didn’t work when the patient was too heavy. They requested two additional technicians to help push me into the MRI. Very flattering.

The inside of the tube seemed almost black. My arms could not bend at the elbows without hitting the roof of the tube. And given that my head was lodged firmly where it was with pillows, I wasn’t going anywhere. Yet I was still fairly calm. Looking straight up from my lying position, all I could see was a mirror positioned directly in front of my eyes. This allowed me to see outside of the tube and into the viewing room. A radio in the headphones I was wearing allowed me to keep in contact with the experimenters, while playing a local radio station when we weren’t talking.

“What radio station do you want?” they asked. I’d recently been hanging out with a quirky lady who was a part-time promotions girl at Q104 so I asked for that station. The soft rock music began to play through the set. They let it play for a few moments and then it abruptly cut out, while they warned that the first scan would start soon. The music returned, but was soon drowned out by the whirring of the machine. It sounded like a piece of heavy plastic being flicked every few seconds. It was a grating click, click, click sound.

It was during this first scan that I panicked. I was lying in this tube, unable to move, with the radio playing in my ears. But what got to me was the fear of being bored. I’d spent six months applying to jobs, getting over a horrible break up, and ultimately just trying to keep pushing forward. Trapped in this tube I was suddenly without distraction and faced with the weight of everything I was trying and failing to do. I took a deep breath. I took another. And I forced myself to focus on Neil Young’s Heart of Gold.

Before too long, the clicking stopped and I was calm once again. The experimenters asked if everything was okay and I told them to crank the music. They adjusted the volume, made a few reassuring comments, and then the next scan began. Each scan took 7 to 14 minutes and I would try to lie as still as possible.

Other than this minor panic, the MRI was no problem. During the third scan, I felt my nose start to itch and as carefully as possible, without moving my head, I lifted my right hand to scratch. Around the fourth scan, the rhythmic clicking and soft rock lulled me to sleep. After 80 minutes in the tube, the radio turned off and Judge Reinhold’s look-a-like told me the MRI was over. Four technicians entered my room and pulled me out.

Judge said with a smile, “You looked relaxed.”

“No problem,” I told him. I was debriefed, given another $30 and three days later my Facebook profile was a picture of my tumour-free, typical brain!

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