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MRI – A postscript

Firstly, who has MRIs on a Sunday?  ‘Arrive 15 minutes early for your appointment’ said the letter and, being a technician, I therefore arrived 25 minutes early for my appointment.

Barts Hospital, on a Sunday, is silent.  I nearly said ‘deathly’ silent, but that might give the wrong impression – one boosted by the large number of memorial benches scattered round the hospital’s inner courtyard which, while adding a comfortable place to sit and a certain aura of fondness to the place, arguably do give the wrong idea about the hospital’s success rate.

I was born in Barts, and therefore feel a certain sentimentality towards it that is matched only by my complete ignorance of how it works.  Spread across a strange conglomeration of buildings ranging from the majestically old to the functionally modern via every possible permutation of dilapidated and refurbished respectively, its patchiness does, if nothing else, make it remarkably easier to navigate around than most other hospitals in London.  (The Royal London Hospital – could be a hole in space and time, for all I know, and Guys Hospital absolutely is…)  We therefore found King George V imaging department very easily.  ‘We’ was myself and the gentlemen – who I think we’ll call Wallace for this blog – who had kindly agreed to accompany me for this trip.  ‘We’ were also the only other human beings in the world, it seemed.

The main reception in the King George building?  Lights out, silent, not even a coffee maker politely ticking over.  The reception at imaging?  All computers off, all doors locked, every institutional rubber chair, empty.  In desperation, we wandered elsewhere, looking for a department, a nurse, a janitor, who might have some idea what to do next.  A single touchscreen at the entrance to Minor Injuries invited us to complete a satisfaction survey.  A sign on the abandoned desk at Outpatients reminded us to fill in our questionnaires before seeing the doctor.  There being no tumbleweed to roll mysteriously across the locked doors of the hospital shops (all the best hospitals have a shop), I would like you merely to imagine it, or perhaps its urban equivalent – the empty, inflated plastic bag, drifting listlessly on who knew what epic adventure.

By 3.20, with the sun growing grey and the silent oppressive, we sat down on a memorial bench in the inner courtyard and Wallace attempting, by the miracle of his smartphone, to google the hospital opening times, just in case my appointment letter had got it wrong.  Meanwhile, I phoned that universal standby of all good stories, my Medic Mate.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Well.  You’re probably stuffed – have you tried the switchboard?”

I tried the switchboard, but finding myself suddenly faced with various automated options considered that maybe, we should simply try the imaging department again and see if, magically, someone had appeared.  Back through the empty halls we went, feeling increasingly like escaped extras from the set of 28 Days Later – but then!  Miracle!  A single man sat behind the reception desk!  And more than that, more than this simplest miracle, he took my appointment letter and not five seconds later, I was being whisked into the MRI unit!

Now.  You may think that this is a rather anti-climactic conclusion to the zombiefied tension that was building up here, but if you do, you’ve clearly never been to an NHS hospital.  There was no waiting time.  I arrived and didn’t even have a chance to decide not to buy the suspicious grey fluid that sometimes squirts like an incontinent newt from the tea machine, before I was being whisked past doors proclaiming ‘no entry’, ‘danger’ and ‘MAGNET’ in giant, not-at-all friendly letters.  Believe me; I would have been less surprised if the dead had walked than how quickly they bundled me into the machine.

I’ve never had an MRI before, and can’t say it’s a chipper side-splittingly entertaining experience.  For a start, there’s the form you have to fill out first, inquiring as to whether you’re pregnant, object to having radioactive dyes injected, if you have metal in you, if you have splinters in your eye etc. etc. and for every box I said I was fine, but no where was there an option to tick a box labelled ‘probably, but could you make sure before putting me inside the super-powered magnet please?’  Instead, and with as much ceremony as catching the 73 bus, I was plopped on a plastic bed and a white cage wrapped round my head without even a polite, ‘are you sure you’re not explosive?’  I wasn’t put into any other clothes and for a moment, as they wound me into the machine, I wondered – will my bra explode?  I mean, as thoughts go, it’s not the first that you’d necessarily leap to but then again, when you’ve just read an entire questionnaire about things that could possibly go wrong inside this machine, and when every other sign is a ‘danger’ sign and frankly, you’re now the bottom line beneath those firm words, your mind goes to interesting places.

I was given a pair of ear plugs, and a pair of headphones, and once they were on I was asked such helpful questions as ‘can you hear?’ to which the answer was a slightly annoyed, ‘yes, should I be able to with all this on my skull?’  I was given an emergency button to press, which at once was a marvelous comfort and simultaneously a great terror as really, why is there even the slightest risk that I might need it?  And finally, as he shoved me inside the machine I will confess, my heart rate rose and so did my breathing, so much so he pulled me out again, imagining, I suspect, that I was two gasps away from a claustrophobic attack.  I’m not particularly claustrophobic.  I guess you could just say I don’t like being rushed into things, and two – slower – breaths later, he shoved me back in.

MRIs are claustrophobic.  At roughly the same size of a coffin, there’s something about having your head confined inside a plastic vice to make looking down the length of your body to a tiny gap of light at the other end, feel like a deeply lonely and distant thing.

I kept my eyes shut.

MRIs are frickin’ noisy.  Hence the ear plugs.  Even with the ear plugs, they’re noisy.  I was lucky – as they were only interested in my head, the procedure took only 15 minutes, but actually, 15 minutes of staying motionless is hard, particularly around about the 12th minute when the scan is in full motion and you begin to realise that a) you have an itchy nose and b) the plastic back your head is rested on really isn’t that comfortable after all….  Longer scans, they say, can take up to two hours.  Two really, really boring hours.

The sound, which is the only thing to keep you occupied, moves around as it scans.  Sometimes it thunks, sometimes it whirs, sometimes it whines, and as it does so you become gently aware that it’s moving around your head.  I became aware, fairly quickly, that my face was hot.  After a few minutes considering this, I decided it was probably a psycho-somatic reaction to being tucked away in a massive electromagnet having my head electronically dissected, and so ignored it.  After a while longer, I became aware that all the hairs on the side of my arm were prickling.  To this day I cannot tell you (because I couldn’t frickin’ move my head!) whether this was another psycho-somatic reaction, a symptom of being cold, or genuinely the result of putting fine blond hair that’s been wearing a fleecy jumper for a long walk, inside a moving electromagnet.

“You alright, Louise?” asked the doctor, between scans.

‘Louise’ is what all doctors call me, as my middle name was the one registered as my preferred name with the GP when I was a baby and 26 years later, I hadn’t got round to fixing it.  Having now heard it called down a tube at me under tense circumstances, I can attest… I kinda like it.  Perhaps I associate it with happy childhood years and making mud pies.  Perhaps any human contact during a stressful time would’ve released endorphins, who’s to say?  ‘There will imminently be a loud noise – don’t freak out,’ I reminded myself between scans and indeed, by the time the last scan kicked in I was really far more bothered by my itchy nose than by any of the things which had bothered me on the way in.

In conclusion?

I very much doubt the MRI is going to tell us anything we didn’t know before, except, perhaps, on an emotional level… more importantly, I have now been through this particular medical procedure and can attest that, despite everything, nothing in fact exploded on, near or around my physical person.  Bring on your magnets, universe… I can take ’em…