It’s been hard to write for the past few days. I had this experience on Tuesday that has been difficult to process or understand. There was a lot to hold onto, so it felt impossible to even begin writing. But I’ve been able to talk though it a bit in therapy, so I want to try to write it out here.
*Mild trigger warning for content (medical trauma)*
Earlier this week I had to get an MRI. Which, for those who don’t know, is a type of image taken of the body using magnets. The scans vary in length and type, but the entire procedure is generally around 45 minutes or so.
I was prescribed an MRI due to a previous injury to my hamstrings and hip muscles. Since my bone x-ray was normal, the orthopedist wanted a scan to see what might be going on with the soft tissues in that area to cause me pain, or that may be attributed to slow healing.
I wasn’t given very much information about what to expect. Some friends in the radiology program at my school informed me that the machine would be very loud (and to ask for ear plugs if they didn’t offer), the room would be cold, and I’d probably only have to go halfway in the machine.
When I got to the hospital, the security guard sent me to the wrong location (to be fair, he directed me to inpatient MRI, which sounds pretty similar to outpatient MRI) so I had to walk across the entire hospital to the correct location. Luckily this appears to happen often because there were blue arrows stuck to the floor that followed directly to the outpatient radiology clinic.
As I was making this walk, I passed the psychiatric emergency room. It’s probably worth mentioning that this hospital has the same parent name and logo as the hospital I was admitted to last August, so just seeing the entryway to that ER made my heart jump.
Once I found the correct location, I filled out some paperwork and was taken to the changing area. I had to remove everything from the waist up and put on two hospital gowns (another trigger. Also, one of them was blue and white stripes, which seems a little distasteful). They locked my belongings up in a locker, gave me the key and pointed me towards the restroom (they “strongly encourage” you to at least attempt to pee since you’ll be in the machine for 45 minutes).
Once I completed that task, I was escorted to the MRI waiting area. A nice gentleman named Carlos came out to get me. He took my locker key (no metal in the machine!), went over my paperwork and asked me once more if I had any metal in or on my body or if I could be pregnant (no, no, and no). He briefly talked me through what to expect and then asked me to sit on the hospital bed. I did.
He placed a large metal plate over my body from belly button to my knees and strapped it to the bed, which had a similar metal plate underneath my body so I was literally strapped between these two plates. He asked me to turn my toes in and taped them together to hold my hips in internal rotation. He said this was necessary for the scans my doctor ordered.
He handed me ear plugs and reminded me that the machine is very loud and makes a lot of clicking sounds. He said those clicking sounds would indicate that the images were being taken and that if I needed to scratch my face or move at all, I should do that once the sounds stopped between images.
He asked me to cross my arms over my chest and put an emergency switch in my hand. Then he said that I needed to hold that position for the entire duration of the MRI. Which probably wouldn’t have been terrible except he raised the table so that I was very close to the top of the machine. Then he moved the bed all the way into the machine, enclosing my entire body and head.
It is very similar to what I imagine it is like to be in a coffin while alive.
I tried to just keep breathing and talking to myself, reminding myself that I had a “kill-switch” if I absolutely needed to get out. There’s also a speaker overhead so Carlos was walking me through it and asking if I was okay. He said the first scan was 30 seconds, just to make sure I was in the right place and position.
No problem. All was well.
The next scan was three minutes. Still sort of okay.
Then there was a five minute scan. Almost as soon as I heard the machine turn on again, my hip started to ache. As the machine kept clicking and humming, the ache turned into actual pain. I was hanging in there, though.
Another break. Another five minute scan.
At this point my hip was screaming at me. I was in so much pain. Once the machine stopped, I tried wiggling my toes and legs to get more comfortable. No luck. There was very minimal movement even possible due to the way I was being restrained in a specific position. All I could really do was shift my foot around, so I just kept tearing the tape apart at my toes.
By the next scan, I was in excruciating pain. I could feel myself starting to leave my body, but I really did not want to switch. I was terrified of who would switch out because many Insiders would be massively triggered if they switched out into a body that was strapped to a table with their feet taped together, face only inches away from the top of a narrow tube making obnoxious noises.
So I kept breathing and I kept talking to myself – trying to breathe positive, healing, relaxing energy into my hip. Then the pain started radiating down my thigh, leg, calf, and into my foot which was tingling. My body started writhing, trying to relieve some of the pain.
That scan ended and Carlos asked me what was wrong. He said I had moved too much so the image would need to be re-taken. I was not happy about that. I told him I was in a lot of pain and I was also tearing the tape at my feet. He reminded me that it was almost over and that it was imperative that I stay still. I reminded him that I was in tremendous pain.
He said, “I’ll be right in.”
He pulled me out of the tube and asked me what was going on. I explained the pain. He explained that he was sorry, but there was no other way to take the scans. I asked him to please let me move around a little. He agreed to un-tape my feet for a bit and re-tape them in slightly less internal rotation.
When he removed the tape, I realized just how little I could move, even without being in the machine. I propped myself up on my elbows and jammed my hipbones into the plate, trying to relieve the intense pressure on my screaming muscles.
Carlos was not into this. He stayed calm, but firm as he said, “You cannot move. You cannot change positions or I will have to start over.”
I snapped back, “I’m not fucking moving! I will stay in the same exact position you put me in, but if I don’t relieve some of this pain, I cannot keep doing this.”
He sighed and said, “Okay”
Once I seemed to calm down a little, he asked if I would be okay for the final two scans (one of which was a repeat scan since I moved too much). I asked how long they would take.
“Five minutes and six minutes.”
“Ugh. Fine. let’s just do this.”
He slid the bed back into the machine and I prepared myself for worsening pain. He said he needed to repeat the 30 second scan first to ensure I was still in the correct position. I was (see Carlos! I told you I wasn’t going to move!). Then he said he was starting the five minute scan. I was starting to get delirious from the pain.
At that point I started doing some mental gymnastics.
First, I imagined that the clicking sounds were actually synthetic voices, repeating the same word over and over (almost like a broken record). So, for example, one of the clicks sounded like the word “Pow”, so I heard “Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow…” and pictured some macho looking superhero stuck on a bizarre cycle of punching the bad guy over and over, unable to stop. It made me laugh.
Then, when that was no longer amusing, I started making up stories about people that had been in that machine before me. I tried to get as detailed as possible: what were their names? What did they look like? Why were they there? Who was with them? How did they feel about being in this damn tube? Etc…
The character that developed to the most fruition was an older “sassy black woman” who was not at all impressed with this ordeal (pardon my painfully obvious stereotype).
I imagined she was there for similar hip pain, possibly a torn labrum, and she was freezing cold from the fan incessantly blowing on her. Her daughter brought her to the hospital and was waiting nervously in the waiting room. This woman would hum while the scan took place to keep herself calm and distracted. At some point, there was a long pause between her scans. Curious as to the cause of the delay, she turned her face towards the speaker:
“Carlos? What in the world are you doing back there?”
“It will just be a moment.”
“Listen Carlos, I have places to be. I can’t be waiting in this damn tube all day while you sit there. I’m about out of patience and it is too cold for anyone to be lying on this bed with just a flimsy sheet. So either turn this machine back on and finish my test or bring me a damn blanket!”
“I’m sorry for the delay, Ma’am. I’m ready for the next scan. If you’re cold, I can bring you a blanket.”
“It’s okay Carlos. Just get back to work. Goodness.”
And her scans are finished without incident.
This served me pretty well, actually. I managed to get through the rest of the MRI. I may have even started humming myself. When Carlos came in the room to get me, I ripped out my ear plugs and noticed that I was crying. My face was grimacing and my lips were quivering – likely because that’s the only part of my body I was permitted to move.
As soon as he un-strapped the metal plate, I sat up and lifted my hips off the table. I slowly shifted my legs into slight external rotation and stretched out as much as my angry hips would allow.
Carlos said I could stand up and put my sneakers back on. I stood and immediately noticed that I couldn’t bear much weight on my injured side. When I went to bend down to pick up my sneaker, I couldn’t bend far enough to reach. So I kicked my shoes towards the nearest chair and sat down to lace them up.
He walked me back to the lockers and opened mine for me. I grabbed my stuff and went into the changing room to put my own clothes back on. I stumbled into the reception area and asked something about my scans. The receptionist told me they would be processed and sent to whoever prescribed them. I asked for the fastest way out of the hospital and hobbled to the elevator.
As soon as I stepped onto the street, I started crying again. It was beautiful outside and the sun was just setting. The juxtaposition of the gorgeous weather and visually stunning sunset against the harsh, cold, and painful experience I’d just had was overwhelming.
I gathered myself and caught my balance. Then I took a deep breath, put on my headphones, and started walking towards the train. But the entire commute home felt surreal. I didn’t feel real. None of it felt real.
I think I was in shock. I think I understood that something really terrible had happened to me, but it felt very far away. I couldn’t let it get too close to me. I was already removed from the experience and it was getting hard to remember it at all.
I held onto all of those emotions and foggy memories until my next therapy session, where I walked my therapist through the incident. I completely opened up all of the pain and horror I was feeling and promptly dropped it into the therapeutic space. It was too hard to hold it alone – I needed her to help me.
And she did.