The War on Terror Spectator

The MRI and I

The closest thing to a near-burial experience.

By 3.9.09

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Had an MRI today (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which is a little like living through an eruption on Mt. St. Helens while lying at the summit.

It is instructive and historically redolent. This was a "closed" MRI. They omit "casket" from the "closed" but the awesome resemblance is immediately apparent. "Keep your eyes closed," was the best advice I'd gotten, but which I ignored once inside the tube. Sure enough; there was the ceiling, or casket's roof, inches from my nose. And I had been given a little device that could signal the operator that I had had enough and wanted out, pronto. It reminded me of the other caskets used in the pre-coroner days of jolly old England in which a string was attached to the supposedly-deceased hand that led up to a little bell on the surface of the earth. Should the unconscious victim of a premature burial suddenly awaken, all he had to do was jerk the string and ring the bell. Hence the phrase: "Does that ring a bell?"

There was a great-Aunt who beat them to it in the last century and was discovered sitting up in her casket in her living room. But I digress.

An MRI victim can usually select music, which becomes inaudible when the first shot of magnetism shudders through the machine, something like a .50 caliber machinegun being operated near one's ear. What is happening, we are told, is the alignment of the hydrogen atoms in the water in one's body that will produce an image on the film. After some twenty minutes of varying sounds, a technician's voice commands, "Don't move, now.  I'm taking you out to inject the contrast in your arm." The roof slowly slides past your nose and you are returned to the end of the machine, where the contrast fluid is injected and you are moved back into the casket for another fifteen minutes or so of thunderous noise, which again blots out the piano music you have ordered. Now and then the disembodied voice intones, "Now, three and a half minutes of this," and the sound is resumed, until finally the voice declares, "All finished." Images of a tiny bell ringing unheard in an English churchyard recur.

I am told I may retrieve my clothing and be given the images that a doctor had ordered. As I take them I cannot resist explaining to the technicians, "You know, that water-boarding at Guantanamo that got us in such trouble was totally unnecessary. All they had to do was ship one of these MRI machines down there."

Nobody laughed. And neither did the receptionist when I told her that if ever I reappeared in the office she was to call the police.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.