A study in contrast(s)

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Black & White Night, by Simon & His Camera on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

I’m recuperating from my big day of scans. Despite the relative non-invasiveness of these procedures, the very fact of having them done is enough to sap me of all energy. I had the foresight to tell J I didn’t think he’d be able to make his basketball game tonight. (I felt badly, but not as bad as if I’d said yes and then made him cancel.) He moved the car, made dinner, put the kids to bed, and went grocery shopping instead. Good man.

This morning it took me forever to get moving. I stayed in bed until the last possible minute, then had to rush. I wasn’t nervous, mostly just annoyed that I had to start the week this way, now that the kids were back in school and the house was quiet and there was no need to plan fun outings.

When I got off the train at 33rd Street, I had to face the steep stairs up to the sidewalk, or, as I have come to think of them, El Capitán. Today I actually managed to fly up them without difficulty, but failed to catch a crosstown bus to the hospital, so I then had to take a long walk in the biting cold.

Everything in the hospital seems like a vector of disease transmission, confirmed the one time I made the mistake of using the restroom on the lobby level. The proliferation of hand sanitizer bottles on every surface is no comfort to me. The waiting area for imaging is permanently jammed, so much so they issue you a pager, just like the Cheesecake Factory. The wait is just long enough to be irritating, but not long enough to make you feel worthless. There is no Oriental Chicken Salad on offer.

Today they seemed to be enforcing separate men’s and women’s areas in the gowned waiting room, for which I was grateful. Something about seeing mens’ naked legs with just dress socks and shoes makes me profoundly sad. I did not need to shed my pants, since I was wearing my scan-friendly yoga pants. I wish more people thought through what they wear when they’re having a scan done. It isn’t that hard to plan ahead!

I got settled in my gown and started in on my bottle of berry-flavored barium sulfate. You’re supposed to drink a cup every ten minutes, but I’m such an impatient overachiever, I usually finish it much sooner than that. It’s so vile the only way I can deal with it is by making it disappear as quickly as possible. Somewhere in the middle of drinking the guy called me in to place my IV. I didn’t cry today and didn’t even flinch that much. I’ve been through worse, at this point. I mean, I’m not about to watch or anything, but I can handle it.

IV in place, I went back to the waiting room, where a most irritating man had taken up residence on the women’s side, along with his wife. He was annoying the crap out of me, beginning with when he came in and they gave him a locker key and then he totally forgot he had one and was bothering me about where to put his clothes, and his gown was gaping open and DUDE FIND A NURSE TO HELP YOU. With his wife there he was a little more relaxed but they were talking the whole time. When they called him in for his scan, his wife stood in the middle of the hallway looking lost. I thought she might try to go in the CT room with him. Another annoying thing: People who do not know the rules, and do not seem to care to figure them out. (Yes, I was using my phone in the gowned waiting area, in defiance of posted signs, but I wasn’t: a) speaking to anyone on it, or b) taking photos of anyone in a gown.)

The CT was fine, not difficult, and they tell you when to breathe. I listen to the prompts (a man’s voice with lots of hubbub in the background) and try to decide if it’s live, or a recording. “Breathe in / breathe out / breathe in / hold ya breath,” goes the poem. After the machine releases you, a millisecond before despair, you get, “Annnnnd breathe.”

Halfway through the scan they inject you with contrast. The CT contrast is apparently made from shellfish, which is something I don’t eat. I imagine if I did eat shellfish I’d get the same weird effects I get from the contrast – a metallic taste in my mouth, and a sudden warm feeling spreading through my pelvis, as though I were about to pee. (I think I will continue avoiding shellfish.)

I mentioned to the technician that I’d be having a brain MRI directly after the CT, but I didn’t know whether I would need an IV for it. At the end of the CT scan they forgot all about checking if I still needed it, and removed the IV. To be fair, I could have reminded them too, but I was too anxious to get out of there and walk eight blocks to my next appointment. I’d been fasting since 8:45 and it was almost 1 p.m.

I walked as quickly as I could to the MRI place. The midday sun couldn’t penetrate the long shadows of the buildings around the hospital. I spent about 15 minutes in the waiting room, filling out a sheet full of “no’s” – they wanted to know if there was any metal inside my body, anywhere. (I had no idea you could even have so many metal things inside your body!) There were some mobiles suspended from the ceiling that looked vaguely seasonal (pinecones and bare branches) but also a bit amateurish – I wondered whose kid made them.

I learned I’d need another IV, so I resigned myself to having both arms stuck today. Luckily the nurse who placed the IV sympathized and found a way to get the IV in the arm that had been used already. The good thing about being a generally healthy cancer patient is, your veins haven’t collapsed. They work when they need to. I’m grateful for that.

I didn’t need a gown this time since I wasn’t wearing anything metal. I was led down a corridor I never imagined was there (the place seemed to expand as you walked through it) and deposited in a chair outside the MRI room. It was a hallway that ended with a door to the outside, and it was damn cold. I wished I hadn’t left my coat in a locker.

As I rubbed my arms for warmth, a nurse or tech, or maybe just a random dude in scrubs who had wandered in from the street, asked if I was cold. He turned on some space heaters and brought me a gown and insisted on tucking me in under it, “just like my daughter, snug as a bug in a rug.” It was sweet, I guess, but also super weird, especially because he looked a little bit like a Ramone, or some other hard-living musician from the 70s. My comfort didn’t last long because no sooner had I been snugged like a bug, they were calling me in.

I hadn’t had an MRI before and I was a little worried. I am not typically claustrophobic but it does tend to flare up at random moments (like, say, when I’m stuck in a too-small dress or sweater in a fitting room). I decided I would try to keep my eyes shut as much as possible, breathe deeply and try to “enjoy” the experience (meaning try not to lose my mind). I had an emergency bulb to squeeze if I needed out.

I was given ear plugs and then earphones, and selected classical music (I’m not sure what Pandora was playing but it seemed like Classical Lite). I was warned the machine would be loud, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the feeling of a jackhammer all around my head. I tried to listen to the music through the noise. Unfortunately, when one piece of music ended, an ad came on at full blast and almost blew my ear drums out. (Actually subscribing to Pandora to get ad-free music would be more classy, perhaps I should write a letter.) I squeezed the bulb to let them know I needed the volume lower. They responded immediately to see if I was okay. Yep, I said. The music blared on.

I opened my eyes at one point and directly over them was a piece of the camera which had a small window that showed me my feet. Like a short-range periscope. I moved my foot slightly, to make sure it was my foot. That was stupid, but reassuring.

I squeezed the bulb a few more times to get status reports. I learned that 18 minutes and two minutes and five minutes all are about the same length of time when you are immobilized inside a big, loud machine. I thought perhaps I had what it took to be an astronaut, at least a movie one. I thought about my friend Sarah telling me about her first experience of an MRI, but then I was sad and had to think about something else. I thought the classical music combined with the loud beeps of the machine was slightly reminiscent of Stereolab.

And then it was over. I booked it to my favorite chicken place in the neighborhood, swallowed a salad as fast as I could, and jumped on a train, arriving in time to get the kids from school. I powered through homework with Young J, then turned on Netflix and collapsed. Apparently fatigue is a common side effect of an MRI, if only because the experience is so overwhelming to the senses. I’ve been lying down most of the evening, when I’m not drinking crazy amounts of water to flush the two doses of contrast out of my system.

Compared with today, going for my results on Wednesday will be easy. J will be with me. I won’t need to do anything except maybe tithe my customary three vials of blood to Phlebotomist B. And then I’ll get some good news. Right?! Good news!! Well, let’s hope so.

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4 thoughts on “A study in contrast(s)

  1. I’ve had 5 or 6 MRIs. Never thought about Stereolab. Surely that will help a bit next time. Thank you! You are on my mind, and will be again tomorrow. xx

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