An MRI condenses as many phobias as possible into one scan. It's a supercollider of fears: enclosed spaces, loud noises, suffocation.

You're loaded onto a gantry, swaddled in blankets, then strapped down as the great machine thrums and whirs. The scanner emits no X-rays, but its tight, cacophonous entrance still radiates menace, a cavemouth aflutter with batwings.

Adding to the intimidation, as you slide headfirst into the cavity red crosshairs pass right between your eyes, advancing ominously toward your trunk like the bead of a sniper’s laser sights.

Inside there’s precious little clearance, as if you’re being measured for your coffin; it’s enough to make you wonder if your radiologist is in cahoots with a mortician, tailoring your tomb. Never has advice to think outside the box seemed more impossible to follow.

Then the magnet, done with its warm-up rotation, really starts spinning, slinging fastballs after getting loose in the bullpen. The sound is deafening and disorienting, the clamor hard to place, a plangent whalesong heard through the deep.

Before you can find some aqueous peace, alarms erupt: a drumroll followed by the most insipid electronic beats, alternating shrill treble with seismic bass. The sound waves hit your back with concussive force, making it even harder to stay still. But you must. The clarity of the images hinges on you remaining motionless throughout. At times it's even necessary to halt the tidal movement of your diaphragm.

Through a tinny loudspeaker, the tech coached me on my breath holding, an exercise which felt like a mix between Lamaze and swimming laps: “in, out, hold it … hold it … hold it … relax.” As soon I heard that last command, I started greedily gulping the tube’s paltry contents, a parched wanderer in the desert stumbling upon an oasis.

There’s also a peculiar warmth that accompanies all your molecules quivering in unison, standing to attention rank and file in obedience to the mighty coil. I could suddenly count my fillings, each one a tiny heatsink in my teeth. It would be a bad time for a soldier to remember a shrapnel wound. The Teslas are so strong, I’m surprised there’s no sparking.

For all that was incommodious, though, there was an antidote: the reassuring, nearly intangible vibration of my wedding ring. Gold is permissible inside the scanner so I had been allowed to keep it on my finger, a reminder of my wife quite literally at my side. The circle of metal trembled like I had at the altar.

I thought of my bride, then I thought of our children, and then I thought of my patients. They call the MRI the torpedo tube, and the CT scanner the donut, much preferring the relative freedom of the latter's broad aperture. Those with claustrophobia shudder when I require the tunnel vision afforded only by the close, raucous magnet.

I understand why. For as much as I tried to remain calm in there -- to intellectualize and escape by envisioning my pancreas & its vasculature being beamed to a remote screen for dispassionate inspection -- the MRI traps you with your worst nightmares. Inside, the amniotic whooshing of the magnet isn’t soothing at all. Rather than a comforting return to the womb, it's far easier to sense the approaching grave.

Mark Lewis2 Comments