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The Light Touch / "MRI: The Tunnel of Terror"

Published 1:01 am, Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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If you've ever had a reason to place your body inside an MRI machine with an opening the size of a bagel hole, read on and brace yourself as we relive this thrilling adventure. The problem was I didn't brace myself. I didn't do anything but show up in my sweat pants and T-shirt eager to lie down and relax for a half hour.

What I didn't realize was that MRI and relaxation don't go hand in hand. And even though I was treated with TLC by the caring staff over at radiology, once you're positioned in the machine, you're on your own and life changes within moments.

I should have been suspect when they handed me the earplugs. I might have assumed when they checked me for any metal accoutrements that something was up. And when they ordered me not to move, I knew for certain I was in deep doo-doo.

"Not moving is key," the technician said. "Otherwise, we won't get good pictures."

As If I cared about pictures at a time like this. I wasn't auditioning for a screen role. I wasn't gearing up for a photo shoot. All I cared about was how I was going to get inside this ominous looking contraption, and even worse, once there, would I be able to extricate myself from it?

For most people, doing the MRI is no big deal. They schedule their appointment, get in and out and move on through their day as though it's business as usual.

For me, business as usual is getting up each morning avoiding as much stress as possible. It certainly doesn't include magnetic resonance imaging with a claustrophobic chaser. As it is, I have trouble standing in the same room with a fully operational microwave oven. But having my body placed in a strong magnetic field with the ability to pull out all my teeth, was only one in my repertoire of ominous fantasies. It's one thing not to lift heavy machinery, but having heavy machinery lift me is an altogether different matter.

I never knew the meaning of claustrophobia until now. On a good day, an elevator ride puts me over the edge. I consider an airplane an MRI with wings. I would sooner be a window washer on the top floor of a skyscraper than be sequestered deep inside a tunnel with no obvious means of escape. And so, when I waved goodbye to the tech, as I was gently maneuvered into the hole, my worst fears were realized.

Add to this scenario, ear-shattering noise analogous to being at a rock concert with jack-hammers blasting inside your head, and your neck turned at an angle that defies even a stunt man's acumen. But, luck was with me. Just before takeoff, I had a rubber ball placed in my right hand that I was told I could squeeze in case of emergency.

As I lay there attempting to ignore my surroundings, I tried deciphering what constitutes an emergency. Was claustrophobia reason enough to give that ball a tweak, or would I be considered a wimp if I dared interrupt the process for an excuse like that? Instead, I did what I usually do when confronted with adversity: I pretended I was anywhere but here. When that didn't work, I cried. Not a big cry, not a sob -- just a few tears that I prayed would not interrupt the magnetic flow or cause sudden electrocution.

Strange thoughts cross one's mind when they are temporarily incapacitated. For me, I make deals, promising myself that if I emerged intact, I would never again complain about anything. I would be kind and generous to everyone I knew. I would stop on all yellow lights; I would eat my daily serving of fruits and veggies. My reverie was interrupted by a voice from "the world beyond" instructing me to "breathe."

I had assumed I had been breathing all along, but perhaps not. Maybe I wasn't even alive, but I couldn't check my pulse point to make sure. All I know is that by now I had probably flunked MRI 101 by not utilizing proper breathing techniques.

"You're hyperventilating," the voice returned. "Just be calm, relax, inhale and exhale gently."

And here's where it got particularly funky. I decided to divert the situation by humming show tunes from my favorite Broadway shows. For the duration of my stay I sang out with such enthusiastic fervor that rivaled any seasoned performer, and, without moving anything except my vocal chords.

The good news is I passed with flying colors, and was successfully removed from the MRI without the use of forceps. I was obviously so impressive that the technician asked if I had ever been in musical theater.

"No," I said, with a sense of pride, "This was my first performance in front of a real-live audience."

"Don't give up your day job," he told me.

Westporter Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views every Wednesday in the Westport News. She can be reached via e-mail at joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com.