Six years ago I went through a series of MRIs. I was experiencing a lot of back pain, something I was used to after nearly two decades standing in the trading pits of the Chicago Board Options’ Exchange. What I wasn’t used to was the weird tingling and soreness in my extremities, something that troubled me, and my doctor, who suspected multiple sclerosis. So I went in for an MRI.
The first one was acceptably uncomfortable. Sliding into the chamber, I was given a mirror to see outside. I could also peek out on my own to see the ceiling. I’m not claustrophobic, and it was a reasonably short test. What I wasn’t prepared for was the loud clanging of the magnets, a sci-fi metallic banging that changed its rhythm when a different scan began. It was disconcerting, to say the least. The test was inconclusive and I was scheduled for another, a bit lower than the first brain scan. It was spinal time.
Number two seemed easy, until I was shoved in to the gaping maw of the machine and found I couldn’t see anything, nothing but the glowing white innards of that seemed pressed against my face. I freaked and pressed the panic button, signaling to the operators that I needed to get the hell out of there. I was a wreck, but they guilted me into going back in. “Sir, we really don’t want to have to reschedule.” I composed myself and was conveyor belted back inside. There, I occupied my time thinking of baseball, trying to name every Mets’ manager (I forgot about Art Howe).
They ask before the exam whether you have any metal in your eye. Seems like there was a case where someone had an industrial accident of some kind and the powerful magnets contained in the Magnetic Resonance Imaging device tore the metal shards from his or her eyes. I think that was later used in a Saw movie. I realized I had my wedding ring on, which didn’t count as dangerous metal, but I didn’t know that at the time and flung it across the room. It took a while to find it. That test was also without result.
Once more into the breach and this time it would be a double whammy: 90 minutes inside the giant tube. No way. I knew couldn’t hold out that long. Then a surgeon friend suggested Valium and, though I shy away from pills, I was eager to fill that prescription. The longest test went the easiest. I slept through most of it, and when I woke up I was calm, though extra-toasty. That thing heats up.
The results were definitive - cord compression, disc compression, and arthritic conditions up and down my spine. The solution was vaguer. I had back surgery scheduled, though the two neurosurgeons that looked at me had varying opinions. Eventually I backed out. I knew enough guys from the pits who had back surgery that ended up badly. One died, though, to be fair, it was in a car accident years later. But still.
Lately I’ve been feeling lousy, though my back pain is virtually gone due to weekly chiropractic work. I have what is called “All Shook Up” disease: my legs are shaky and my knees are weak, so weak that I have the occasional knee-buckle that leads to near-falls or completed falls. My legs are a constant combination of numbness and pain, like the tingling you get when you’re coming out of pins and needles. I deal with it but, when a doctor friend commented as he watched me walk, “Dude, you’re all fucked up.” Not much of a clinical diagnosis, but enough for me to act on. With much reservation, I went back last night for both thoracic and lumbar MRIs, a double whammy redux.
I left my wedding ring at home this time, but not my pills. I had my Valium in hand, and upon arrival one hour before the test, I was fairly relaxed. At 6:30 PM I downed my little round friend and watched Modern Times in the waiting room. I felt very much at peace. I was called in to change, and, upon lying down on the tongue of my old nemesis, began to sweat. I thought I’d be near-sleep by then. Instead I was near-panic, and very much concerned I couldn’t go through with it. Dan, who would administer the test, talked me through it before he sent me into the mouth of the machine with panic button in right hand, and wouldn’t leave until I said so. He’d given me earplugs which expanded and muffled him as he spoke, so I may have missed something.
To my surprise and joy, the white plastic roof above my head seemed much further from my face than I recalled. Maybe an inch or so away, but it felt downright spacious. The incessant banging of the magnets hammered their discordant melody. To occupy my mind, I visualized my future publishing success: the call from my agent telling me my proposal had been sold, the glowing reviews, my appearance on The Daily Show, the follow-up Maybe Baby book, and so on. I even had a new idea or two. Before I knew it I heard Dan announce that the first part was finished.
He put me further into the machine, where the white became beige and gave me even more room. I worried that this might put me in more confined space, but it felt like Howe Caverns compared to what I was expecting. When I was slid back I almost lost control of my distress button, but I quickly tightened my grasp.
There’s a bit of a pause when the imaging area changes. It’s short, but, for a moment, a gap struck me as far too long. The night before we had all watched Liam Neeson’s Unknown and there’s an MRI scene where Neeson’s character is on a gurney, a bit drugged, and in danger of his life. That was on my mind during the long silence. At first, I thought it unlikely that Dan had been murdered and I was in a perilous situation, but a terrible thought crossed my mind. He could have had a heart attack and died, leaving me bound in the machine, the buzzing of my signal screaming “let me out” left unheard. I wondered if I could squirm out, whether the strap that held my head down would prevent me from escape. The Valium helped lessen the growing stress, but, though I never thought I’d think it, I was relieved to hear the pounding of the magnets start up.
By then I wanted out, though not in a wild way. I’d had enough, it was getting warm, and I was running out of things to think about. Finally, I could feel the cool air from an opened door and then Dan’s presence. I was done.
Back home, the family gathered around to watch The Concert for Bangladesh, one day after its 40th anniversary. I needed the sound of “Awaiting on You All” to wash away the clanging of the MRI and the memories of an unpleasant 90 minutes. Thanks to George Harrison, all things passed.