Date with an MRI: Welcome to the Machine

Here’s some mean-spirited irony: it all begins with a recycling bin. Save the planet, small carbon footprint, and feel like I’m not among the decimating and despoiling human herd. A big blue plastic bin, overflowing with magazines. It’s impossible to drag from the sides without busting it, the damn thing is so heavy. So I lift from the bottom, like a Bulgarian Olympic dude in tights with those blocky shoes and wrapped knees. Big mistake. Something clenches in my lower spine, like a chomp of tiny teeth. What was I thinking? Answer: I was not.

Want to use a bent-waisted chimp walk the rest of your life?  Live on a diet of Hydrocodone and Flexeril? Would it be OK to never again straighten your right leg? I should think not. My orthopedist is a experienced and talented man who has seen legions of broken, gimp, pained and creatively dysfunctional people but he does not have x-ray vision. It’s time for diagnosis.

So, the MRI room. It’s that secret door in the basement of the medical building. Inside is a small room, an inner sanctum with a chair and a chatty flat screen tv overhead. You ring for the technician. A man named Carl in medical scrubs says Hey! and hands me a checklist to make sure I have no pacemaker or ear implants because they will be scrambled by the MRI. Carl patiently explains what the MRI machine is: it’s a “giant magnet” that creates a magnetic field to align the hydrogen atoms in the water molecules of your body. Then a radio frequency alters the alignment of the magnetization causing the hydrogen atoms to produce a rotating magnetic field detectable by the MRI scanner. It’s “totally safe,”  Carl says in a casual, reassuring way. Though as any Whole Foods shopper could tell you, how many huge humming machines fresh from the military industrial complex that mysteriously map your insides are completely and knowably “safe?” Can cell phone usage, or living near power lines, or air travel be described this way? And what happens twenty years from now when the researchers connect the dots?

But a pain spikes through my hip, so bring it on.

Carl’s bedside manner is good, he’s an affable mixture of REI employee and a guy you might meet in the snack line at the ballpark. He tells me to change into scrubs and then, the control room computers illuminating his grinning face, he offers me my choice of music on satellite radio —  a hundred channels! Whatever you like! I’m momentarily stymied by this universe of choice. My decision: spa music, all the way. Soothing is good for forty-five minutes of not moving in a tight space. Right?

The conveyor bed has an insulated belt to be clicked on, last seen when Hans Solo was carbon frozen by Darth Vader. It’s an open MRI which means you’re slid under a huge round wedge, shaped like the foot of the elephant. There is an ancient human instinct not be in such places, under propped trees or between tight shelves of rock. Stuff that instinct. Carl has offered ear plugs, but those are for sissies. I want the whole experience. He closes the door to the control room, and there is an outrageous space lab suction noise. My wife sits in the room with me, but with earrings off because the giant magnet will “tug them out of your earlobes.”

“You OK?” Karl asks from the control room. He warns about the first four minute session, and reminds me not to move. Humming and grinding above and below like a chorus of people banging with rubber hammers. The Spa music is flutey and calm, like I’m getting a massage. But my God, spa was rather a dull choice. I recall a friend whose delivery room musical choices included Neil Young (Congratulations, you’ve given birth to a tiny folk singer) and Radiohead’s Kid A (Ma’am, it appears your baby has been born with post modern techno angst). Sinead O’Connor would have been an interesting choice, or the other soothing female voices I favor like Enya, or Tori Amos, or PJ Harvey, or Sarah McLachlan. But melodrama would then be a risk, like a soundtrack to some doomed hospital bed scene. Here’s a thought: how about some Sigur Ros? This would have been a fine choice. Some atonal Icelandic harmonies, some rising symphonic weirdness inspired by fiord gnomes.

About twenty minutes in I sense a twitching — my hydrogen atoms aligning; I sense their rotation as the machine, with its own bass chords of vibration, syncs with the spa music. I can’t help but think some Pink Floyd might have added valuable texture (as well as subtexts of alienation and industrialization), maybe “Time” during that crescendo when David Gilmour opens it up on lead and blows the roof off. Though Carl might drift back to memories of hazy evenings in his college dorm and lose track of some important gauge. The Floyd is a bit too intense for a medical procedure. After all my orthopedist did mention possible surgery, but couching it as a super-easy microsurgery, a cute and Japanese pokemon-like version of surgery where people shuffle in and out as if attending some invasive sporting event.

Above and below me is a shuddering, a thumping and murmuring, the radio waves mapping and I surrender to the vibrations. My molecules are being jazzed, a bombardment of radio waves last experienced near the speaker stack at a Porno For Pyros concert. I am one with the machine. I crave some  AC/DC or Van Halen, the calamitous thump of Alex Van Halen’s drum kit surely pushing things over the edge. But such music, with it’s connotations of redneck carnies and greasy long haired people wearing black t-shirts would quickly grow tiresome. “Carl? Please kill that shit.”

I leave the MRI room with a disc in hand. It’s a magical grainy image, a ghost picture that zooms down through my spine, down the vertebrae, along the nerve roots. It turns out all my discs are fine. The vertebrae look good. Yippee for nerve irritation on L-4!  Hooray! There will be no love-able microsurgery, just a slow recovery. But a full one. And I’ll be saving the planet at the same time.

**KNOWN THING NO. 16: Your complaints about the high cost of health care will evaporate when something busts in your lower back.

**KNOWN THING NO. 17: Do not question the machine. To question one is to question them all. Just go with it.

**KNOWN THING NO. 18: You may be tempted to select Van Halen during your medical procedure, but remember: Jane’s Addiction is a better band and David Lee Roth can no longer do flying splits.



By robbskidmore

Robb Skidmore writes upmarket literary fiction. He is the author of “The Pursuit of Cool”, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age novel about love, music, and the 80s, and the novella “The Surfer.” His short stories have appeared in many publications.

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