Tim Dowling: it’s my first MRI. Can I manage not to hit the panic button?

Telling myself that nothing terrible is happening, it’s just a bit snug in here, proves deeply counterproductive

Even though they sent me a map of the hospital with an arrow pointing to where I’m supposed to end up, nothing about where I’m heading looks right to me. I’ve gone round the back of the whole building, past lines of parked cars, towards a section of the complex that appears to be abandoned. There are no walkways. There aren’t any people either, but then it is early: not yet 7.30am.

Eventually I find a small sign that says Community MRI Hub, pointing towards two doors. Nothing happens when I ring the bell next to the first door, so I enter the second one, where I find a receptionist at a small table.

“It’s the other door,” she says. I’m sure this is not her only role.

I’m hoping they know I’m coming, because I’m not entirely clear why I’m here. The ear doctor I saw a week ago ordered an MRI of my internal auditory meatus, but I haven’t yet looked up what that is, and I don’t know what he might be either hoping or dreading to find in it.

The technician in charge is primarily concerned with whether I might have metal in my body that could get pulled out of me by the powerful magnets of the machine.

“Any bullets or shrapnel?” she asks.

“No,” I say.

“Do you get claustrophobic?”

At this point I notice that my heart is pounding. I’ve never been in an MRI machine before, and I suddenly realise I have been deliberately not thinking about the prospect in order to trick myself into turning up.

“I’m,” I say. Nothing else comes out for a while. The technician waits.

“Mildly apprehensive,” I say, finally. I think: wow, my heart is really thudding.

“Well, the machines are a little bigger inside than they used to be,” she says. “And a bit quicker. We should have you out in about 20 minutes.”

“OK,” I say, thinking: 20 minutes seems like a long time to spend in a magnetic coffin.

“But it’s important that you keep very still, and that you don’t swallow when the machine is going.”

I’m given earplugs, and headphones to wear over them. A bulb is placed in my hand that I’m supposed to squeeze if I start freaking out – a panic button. I’m also wearing some kind of hat with an angled mirror on it so I can see forward while lying down, iron-lung-style. After telling me something I can’t hear, they slide me in.

I try to calm the thudding of my heart because I can feel it making my head move, but it’s no use. I’ve spent too little time training myself to endure confined spaces to know what works and what doesn’t. Closing my eyes is bad; trying to imagine myself anywhere other than where I am is also bad. Telling myself that my fear is entirely unnecessary – nothing terrible is happening to you: it’s just a bit snug in here – proves deeply counterproductive.

The machine is extremely noisy even with the ear defenders, and the pounding becomes increasingly polyrhythmic, as if more than one person is repairing the machine while I’m in it. I listen to that for a while, and relax a little. Then I think: oh my God, did you just swallow?

In the end, because they’re concentrating on my head, I am never totally entombed – my elbows stay outside the machine. But I don’t know this beforehand. Every time the conveyor belt nudges me an inch further in, I think: oh no.

When it’s all over I collect my things from the little locker they assigned me. I feel, in some small way, forever diminished.

“You’re back already?” my wife says when she finds me sitting in the kitchen. “How was it?”

“It’s not a ride I would choose to go on again,” I say. “But hey, it was free.”

“Did you panic?” she says.

“Absolutely,” I say, “but it turns out I am able to panic and follow orders at the same time.”

“I think I would probably panic,” she says.

“Hard to tell,” I say. “I know people who pushed the button straight away, and people who found it soothing.”

“But everything was OK?” she says.

“I have no idea,” I say. This is the first time all morning I’ve considered the possibility they might have found something awry deep inside my head.

“What did they say?” my wife asks. I have to think about this for a minute – my memories of the whole episode are patchy and disjointed.

“They said, you’re free to go.”

Join Coco Khan, Tim Dowling and other Guardian writers for an entertaining look behind the scenes of the Saturday magazine on 29 June at 8pm. Book an event ticket here


Tim Dowling

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