Notes on an MRI

I’m having an MRI on my shoulder, since it’s been bugging me for months.

“I don’t want to alarm you,” the doctor said last week, “but it might be arthritis.”

I told him I’ve already had cancer and don’t alarm easily.  Global warming alarms me.  So does George W. Bush (still!) in the White House and Dick Cheney riding shotgun and Condi Rice stumping for peace in the Middle East.  Ten thousand square-feet houses and monster SUVs — now those are frightening.

Arthritis, in contrast, is not alarming.  Big deal.  Bring on the MRI.

Which is how I found myself in some sort of mesh cage, staring up at a ceiling, with my shoulder jammed into some kind of machine.  This will take an hour, the attendant has told me.

An hour?  Have I mentioned I’m claustrophobic?

“Lots of people just go right to sleep,” the attendant says.

The machine whirs.  It begins to crackle like a snare drum, with a bass beat pounding in the background.  A lot of people just go to sleep?  What are they, deaf?

I stare at the wall.  I stare at the ceiling.  I realize I need to concentrate on something.  If I were really ambitious — like one of those annoying multitaskers I’m always reading about — I’d do something constructive.  I’d conjugate irregular French verbs.  I’d recite the digits of pi, like a character in a book I’m now reading.  I’d plan the novel I’ve been claiming I’m working on.  But, oh, no.  I just stare.

The machine suddenly grows silent.  I would ask the attendant how long it’s been.  But, no.  She’d probably frown and say it’s only been 30 seconds.  Why don’t I just shut up and go to sleep, like everybody else?

Besides, I’ve already put the small office into a crisis.  I had to take off all my jewelry, including my new watch.  Unfortunately, I’d just put on the watch once and it has one of those fancy clasps; I had no idea how to take it off.  So, I sat with the attendant and another of her colleagues, trying to figure out how to unclasp the damned thing.  We pulled, we pushed, we wiggled the band.  It stayed put.  I begin to worry: What if I were being mugged?  Somebody would shoot me for not being able to take my watch off.

Finally, in desperation, I called my friend Lynn, who has a similar watch.  This was fortunate, since Lynn is one of the only people I know who wouldn’t find an MRI-new watch crisis unusual.  She yelled out directions about grasping and pulling and yanking, while the two attendants labored over my wrist.  Finally, the watch came undone and I got to crawl into the mesh cage as my reward.

My back hurts.  My legs are restless.  The machine clatters.  I begin to realize I may still have my earrings on.  Great.  Since they’re metal, they’re probably completely messing up the MRI.  I decide not to tell the attendant, since she already thinks I’m a jewelry dolt.  The earrings will be my little secret, mine and the MRI’s.

“You’re almost finished,” the attendant says.  “We’ve done six scans.  You only have two more to go.”

The machine stops.  The attendant lets me out of my cage.  I take my watch, necklace and rings, stopping to talk to the attendant, who is practically pushing me out the door.

“I’ve got another patient,” she says.

“That’s too bad,” I say.  “I was really beginning to enjoy this.”

The joke falls flat.  The attendant stares at me.  You can’t wear metal to an MRI, I remind myself.  You might as well dump the iron-y, too, you moron.

I gather up my watch and necklace and rings, then feel my ears.  Sure enough, my earrings are there.  Somehow, given my unhealthy relationship with jewelry, the medical profession and enormous technological marvels like MRI machines, I’m not the slightest bit surprised.  And I’m not even close to being alarmed.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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