You’re taping what to my foot? Ramblings from a first-time MRI

I had a lot of surprises in store for my first ever MRI today, but the biggest surprise was the Vitamin E pill the assistant taped to the bottom of my foot to mark the place where I feel the most pain. Apparently, it helps the radiologist know where to look when reading the MRI without messing up the reading. Seriously?

I never went to med school, but I’d like to think that a doctor could read the MRI of my foot without needing a pointer in the form of a pill taped to my foot to identify the problem area. It also made me wonder if they could miss other problem areas – there was no vitamin E taped to the spot of second-most pain, but what if that’s the real source of my pain?

Being nervous about something so new and strange, I did a bit of browsing online yesterday. My only experience with MRIs before yesterday’s reading was with the TV show “House.” If you watch the show, you know that dreadful things typically happen to the patient in the MRI machine. Convulsions, seizures, heart attacks, hallucinations. I figured nothing that dramatic would happen to me, but I still wanted to know what to expect in a real-world MRI. 

There are some really good children’s hospital videos about MRIs online – I highly recommend them for your first MRI – whether you’re a kid or not. So I thought I was pretty calm driving to my appointment. One of the comments online said to imagine yourself as the Dalai Lama getting an MRI. Another said to “find your happy place.” I was ready to practice serenity and calm breathing and had several happy places in mind.

I didn’t know if I’d need an injection beforehand, and so I was grimly bracing for that (fortunately, the Vitamin E was all I needed). I’m a chicken when it comes to needles.

Feet first
I also didn’t know if my full body would go in the machine. I had joked with my mom and dad that maybe they could just put me in backwards, since my foot is the problem. Sure enough, they strapped my foot in a small case, and I went foot-end in first. Whew! That was a relief.

I knew to expect a lot of noise and some movement of the bed while I was to keep completely still. But I wasn’t prepared for how loud the machine would be over the headphones piping in our local classical radio station. Mid-way through the procedure, I was wishing I had asked for a country or pop station to help count the number of songs, and therefore better guess how close I was to the end of the 40 minutes the MRI would take. Plus, I couldn’t even hear the classical music.

For the first several minutes of the MRI, I had to keep reminding myself that it was okay to breathe. I found that I was holding my breathe … and gritting my teeth. And some people supposedly fall asleep during their MRI? Passing out, I can see, but falling asleep? I had totally forgotten about finding a happy place.

So to calm myself down and encourage regular, relaxed breathing, I started counting slowly – trying to figure out how many seconds made up 40 minutes (it’s 2400, simple multiplication). It’s amazing how simple math skills fly out the window when there’s an erratic banging and whirring going on around you. My math difficulties made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi short story Harrison Bergeron – except that I couldn’t remember that Vonnegut wrote it.

If you don’t know the story, you owe it to yourself to check it out. It’s a great account of an all-equalizing futuristic society, where strong people carry extra weights so that they’re no stronger than the weakest person in the society. Harrison Bergeron is a genius, who has blasts of noise blown into his ears at erratic intervals so he can’t follow through with thoughts that might make him act out in – or rise above others in – the society. It was one of my favorite stories in high school. I don’t think it’s required reading, but it should be, especially for anyone who teaches, works in a school, or sits on a school board.

Anyway, I digress. But that’s the whole point. I couldn’t string two thoughts together during the MRI. I had thought I’d be able to go in and think about the blog post I would write today and spend some time praying and maybe even think through other things I wanted to accomplish today. I think I counted to 100 … five times. Even that was a struggle.

And then, just like that, the tech’s voice broke through the noise – I couldn’t tell what he said – and shortly after, he and his assistant appeared to free me from the enforced stillness.

I learned two tangible lessons about MRIs today: (1) There is an inexplicable ecstasy to wiggling your toes like crazy after 40 minutes of holding them still. (2) If I ever have to go in head first, I’m going to need a tranquilizer.

The other less tangible but more valuable lesson? Life is like an MRI sometimes. We have to fight against relentless noise and fear and uncertainty that surrounds us and threatens to overwhelm us. It’s good to soak up quiet when we can … even if we are wiggling our toes a bit.

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