Wednesday night, I spent 3 hours in an MRI tube getting brutal imaging done of my brain and cervical spine. In general, I actually enjoy MRIs — I find them soothing and almost always fall asleep (the keys to making it relaxing are really good earplugs and eye shades that you never take off) — but the majority of the scans I had done the other night were in extreme flexion and extension of my neck, so it was very uncomfortable. I didn’t get home until 10:30pm.
I’ve already seen the radiology reports and they’re not great, unfortunately. I hoped things would be stable, but there are further degenerative changes to my cervical vertebrae with herniations impacting my spinal cord. More concerning to me is the lack of CSF flow in my cerebellum (posterior foramen magnum) is still noted (was first seen in a previous CINE MRI two years ago) and now there also is restricted CSF flow in the cerebral aqueduct. This is probably being caused by low-lying cerebellar tonsils, which is probably being caused by my tethered spinal cord pulling down on my brain stem. It’s overwhelming. But more on all that some other time.
I had some thoughts about managing these sorts of tests, especially with covid concerns. I’m unvaccinated (inching closer and closer every day to taking that gamble, though), so it was especially nerve-wracking as I pictured Delta shedding off the MRI techs in thick clouds (during those 3 hours, they probably spent a total of about 20 minutes standing a foot or less from my face as they had to add and remove bolsters and adjust me in different ways. They were both wearing very flimsy surgical masks, like limp paper towels. No well-fitting N95s here. Shudder).
I should have asked the techs to back up because they really didn’t need to be so close, but… well, it’s complicated. It comes down to the really embarrassing fact that I think I’m trying to be liked. A people pleaser. I expend an enormous amount of energy during appointments because I always wind up chatting and making jokes and acting normally due to adrenaline surges. And, in this case, because I am so bloody complicated, I tried to be easy and low-maintenance when I was in the hospital.
The lead tech went to unbelievable lengths to help get these MRIs approved and executed properly. He talked to my neurologist, he got the appointment moved to the Northwest campus, he emailed me updates, he let me fax the orders and doctor’s notes to him since they were having such a hard time getting my doctor’s clinic to do it. He left his shift at the UW Medical Center and drove across town to do my scans (at night) to make sure they were done properly (which was good because the other tech had never seen anything like them — we did a dynamic motion series, which involved moving my neck/head fractionally from full flexion into full extension, stopping 16 times to hold still for an image to be taken).
The imaging orders took over a month to be written properly and get approved (one of the schedulers was almost in tears talking with me. She said, “I told my supervisor: ‘We need to get this done! Our motto is patients first. Help this woman!’ I was shaking!”), so the upshot is, I didn’t want to cause waves or be a pain in the ass by asking him to step way back. Really hope that decision doesn’t give me covid. But I’d already told him my immune system was compromised and I was unvaccinated, so I guess he must have been pretty confident that he was not asymptomatically infected. I’m feeling weak-willed, though. I advocate for myself at every turn and then I don’t make sure we’re distanced? Ridiculous.
Back to the reason for this post:
Oh, wait! I had the craziest thing happen. The tech stopped the imaging at one point and said, “There’s something metallic in your armpit area. Can you see what it is?” HUH?
I have my eyeshades on, so I can’t see and I’m fishing around in my armpit and I find a little metal stick. “What is this??”
The tech has come into the room and he says, “It’s a bobby pin!”
“But I don’t wear bobby pins, I swear!”
And he says: “Oh, you know what, there’s a chest pocket inside the scrubs we gave you because they’re reversible, I bet it came through the laundry.” WTF?
Sure enough, there’s a little pocket and I guess the bobby pin was sucked out of it and into the armpit of the scrubs by the giant MRI magnet.
And then what do I do? I drop it, thinking it’ll just fall on my stomach. Not sure why I did that, but I hear him say, “OH NO, DON’T” and, in a flash, the bobby pin has bulleted straight into my face. It stuck to my chin by one end, the length of it horizontal to the floor, like a teeny arrow. WTAF?!
It didn’t hurt because I had a mask on, which cushioned it, but I had no idea everything was so magnetized when the machine wasn’t taking images. I couldn’t help thinking: What if my eye shades were off and it had torpedoed into my eyeball?! Jeesh. Luckily, we all got to laugh about it.
Here are my top tips for getting an MRI during a pandemic when you’re unvaccinated and your immune and autonomic nervous systems are haywire:
* You can’t have metal in an MRI machine, which means removing the nose piece from most masks. I didn’t want to wear my Cambridge or Airinum masks because I wanted something disposable (albeit an N95 rather than the equivalent of an N99 in the case of the cloth masks). I taped the mask all around my face with paper tape because, without the nose piece, it didn’t fit well. The paper tape was a bitch to get off and stretched my skin off my face alarmingly, but, hey, better than covid. I had a face shield, but didn’t wind up wearing it since I had to take it off as soon I got in there. I also put a surgical mask over the N95, which was undoubtedly useless, but I felt better “double masking.” These N95s are legit (I called the company, Kimberly-Clark and they gave me the Amazon link) and even though the duck bills look silly, they are much easier to breathe in. After being in the MRI tube for so long, I was really happy not to have one of my heavier reusable masks on.
* These are the other precaution suggestions I’ve collected over the past year: Some ME doctor (Klimas?) said xylitol nasal sprays can help in a protective sense before possible exposure and saline nasal rinses might help afterwards. I also bought Nasal Guard (a gel that you put around your nostrils and mouth that might catch allergens/germs before they enter your airways) and Nasal Screens (little sticky “filters” that cover your nostrils). You could also use WoodyKnows filters, but I can’t seem to get them to stay in my nose. So, during my MRI, underneath the taped-on paper N95 mask, I used the nasal screens and gel.
* Make sure to bring good earplugs. They have some for patients, but a) who wants to use the hospital ones? and b) they are never good enough. I like these chunky foam ones that expand to totally seal my ear canals. They don’t cost much for a huge box (I wear them to sleep) and I cut the ends off of them, so it’s not sore sleeping on my sides. Make sure you know how to insert earplugs. I literally needed a lesson: roll them in between your fingers until they’re as skinny as possible and then put them into your ear (you can pull down on your earlobes to get them further in) and then gently press the outside to keep them in place as they expand. These changed my sleeping life. After hours, the pressure inside the ear canal can get sore, but your ear toughens up pretty quickly if you stick with it. Anyway, they are a necessity in an MRI because the headphones do sweet FA. Plus, in my case, I couldn’t wear the headphones in any position except neutral.
* I usually bring my own eye shades, but because of covid, I used theirs, which are in a plastic bag and disposable. They smell new-plasticy/nylony, but, with my mask on, I didn’t notice. Like I said, put them on before you’re moved into the MRI tube and then DON’T TAKE THEM OFF. You don’t want to see how close the antenna (face cage) or the walls of the tube are to your nose. It breaks the “I’m fine” spell and can freak you out. MRI machines these days are pretty roomy and they have cool air blowing, so you really wouldn’t know you’re in a restricted space as long as you don’t look. (Another tip: you can ask them to turn the blowy air up or down.) I had to move the padding under my head and shoulders over and over again for the different positions and my elbows kept hitting the walls of the tube, which is a sure way to break the spell that you’re lying on the beach, just fine. Luckily, I don’t have claustrophobia. For the dynamic scans, the tech asked me to just leave my arms above my head, which was the only time I felt slightly unnerved because it was so cramped (back arched, neck in extension, arms above head, but not too bent because he didn’t want me to touch the tube and create some sort of looped current or some shit. Yikes).
* If you’re getting an MRI, ask for it to be done on a 3T machine, so you have the best quality images and don’t have to redo them.
* If you’re getting a supine cervical MRI ask to add in flexion, extension and rotation, so you (hopefully) don’t have to do an upright MRI (agony), which the tech called “garbage” since they are done with a 0.6 Tesla magnet (most neurosurgeons prefer 1.5T or higher).
* Find out the location of the 3T machine. In my case, I could get them done at a company called CDI, which is right by my house and it’s inside a small imaging clinic versus a hospital (less covid risk). But, it turned out, the 3T machine was in Bellevue (much further away from me) and would involve my husband taking the day off of work and sitting in a lot of traffic etc. I was switched to the University of Washington Medical Center, but the radiology suite is a long walk through a big hospital and would, again, necessitate my husband leaving work (and expose himself to covid risk) because, although I could probably drive there myself and walk to the MRI, I didn’t know how the flexion and extension would hurt my neck or exacerbate my symptoms and there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to walk back to my car and would need a stranger and a strange wheelchair. Or I might not be able to drive myself home and would be forced to get an Uber. Hell no. Ubers were bad before covid.
More importantly, the other location option — UW Northwest — is a few minutes from my house and I already know that the 3T machine is in a quiet building, separated from the hospital and that the MRI room is literally a few steps down from disabled parking, which is always empty. It’s a small suite and it’s always been just me and the tech every time I’ve been there. Last time I had an MRI at the big UW Medical Center, there were dozens of people teeming around and I had to wait for over two hours because of a backlog of scans.
* Ask for an appointment on a weekend and/or the first appointment of the day and/or the last appointment of the night to avoid humans.
* After you check in, wait outside, if you can. For those in my area, this is really easy at Northwest Hospital. They just pop their head out the door when they’re ready and I’m right there at my car.
* Wear hardly anything. I left everything I possibly could at home. Jewellery, purse etc. I only brought my phone, hand sanitizer and my emergency MCAS stuff that I bring everywhere. I wore nothing but underwear, a long skirt pulled up to be a “sun dress” and shoes.
* If you are getting any imaging done that involves different positions, bring something for support and bolstering of your skull and neck. I brought a big pile of washcloths from my house so I wouldn’t be using the hospital’s foam wedges. I rolled them under my head and neck to help with the flexion and extension images and under the sides of my face to give support when my head was in rotation.
* Ask the MRI tech to let you know in advance how long each sequence will take and whether you can move and adjust yourself. It can get sore staying so still, but every time you move off of the mid-line, they have to recalibrate the machine with a “scouting series.”
* Pretend you’re in a medical pod and the MRI is healing you. I usually drift off to some sci fi place, imagining all the blerp blerp blerp gramma gramma gramma patel patel patel noises are curing my disease.
* I bagged the washcloths and my clothes when I got home so I could wash them later and took a shower. I also sprayed alcohol on my shoes and backpack. Oh and I used mouthwash for the first time in a decade and just hoped that I didn’t have some weird reaction to the alcohol/flavourings/colourings (I didn’t).
What I did wrong: I didn’t eat and drink enough before leaving. Everything takes longer than you think it will, it seems, and with a taped-on mask, there was no sneaking a lozenge or anything. I was parched and ravenous and wound up eating dinner at 11:30pm.