Just checking: Thoughts inside an MRI machine

Everyone has a party trick. Mine is teenage cancer.

I had Stage II Hodgkin's lymphoma at 15 and went through 9 months of chemo and radiotherapy. I've decided to never have cancer again, but I'm in a risk group — so I get checked every year. This short piece is based on that annual event.


— Do you use a hearing aid? — Say that again? — Are you wearing a hearing aid? — No, but it looks like I should be. She doesn’t smile back.

— Any body piercings? Shrapnel injuries? Coloured contact lenses? — None. — Have you had an MRI before? Her question makes me think of that meme: “Have you been to Nando’s before? — Bitch, please.” Yes, I’ve had MRIs before. I have one every year, just before Christmas.

I used to live on the coast, and my local MRI unit was in a resort town. God’s waiting room, they called it. It was where pensioners moved after city life got a bit too much. Local old ladies were outraged when the dilapidated tea rooms were turned into a modern art gallery. They had campaigned against it with all the fervour of unyielding, deaf-mute conviction that only comes with old age, but modernism won, and cream tea was now twice the price and served by graphic design students with manbuns. The first time I came down, I was greeted by a fox. It was rolling in the wet grass right in front of the hospital ward. There were dog’s toys scattered across the lawn. Various balls, a fluorescent yellow bone, and a pink-glazed rubber doughnut. The fox sat up, and we looked at each other for a moment. Then I walked in. “There’s a fox outside,” I said to the receptionist. “That’s Ginger Snap. He lives here.” she replied, as if having a pet fox was the most normal thing for a hospital. I took a photo of Ginger Snap on my way out, but it was too grainy and his eyes shone red because of the flash. I didn’t see him on my next few visits, but his toys were still there.

My new hospital is in North London. It takes an hour on the Underground, followed by an endless walk across a flat rain-soaked park and then around all of the hospital wards. The MRI unit is next to A&E. Turn left if your visit has been planned months in advance; turn right if being here today was the last thing you’d expected. Mine is a planned visit, but since I have decided to never have cancer again, this annual appointment isn’t at all stressful: just a grey December afternoon, usually on a Saturday, and always in the rain.

Christmas and hospitals are a bad combination. After filling out the forms I study the décor: a scanty plastic tree with a few mismatched baubles standing next to the reception desk; a music Santa toy on the stand; blue and white Christmas lights flashing in a neurotic rhythm. “Please leave your valuables in the locker and change into this robe for me.” I am then taken to a room for a contrast liquid injection. It’s a cluttered little alcove separated from the corridor by a pleated blue curtain made from the same material as my robe. I present my arms to the nurse. She's not impressed with my veins. “Sorry, they all hid away after the chemo. They do come out eventually. Try the right one.” She puts a cannula in and secures it with a complex combination of plasters. Handing the syringe with contrast liquid to me, she asks me to wait and disappears behind the curtain. I start looking around. “Alcoholic 2% hydrochloride. As recommended by Epic and Nice guidelines.” I wonder if Epic and Nice are actual surnames of the people behind the regulations. Did they team up purely to be able to put those two names on 200-sachet boxes of disinfectant wipes for years to come? Did they try to change the order to Nice and Epic? I wish I could hear that conversation. There’s a sticker on one of the rolling carts reading ‘MR NON-MAGNETIC.” Just as I start imagining what Mister Non-Magnetic might look like, the nurse comes back and takes me to the MRI room.

‘You’ll have to take your boots off.” I’m still holding the syringe in my right hand, so this takes forever. It’s followed by a series of simple instructions. Sit up. Now lie down. Lower. Lower. Perfect. This will take thirty minutes. Try not to move. It will get noisy. Here are some headphones. Christmas classics, Disney soundtracks or Kenny G? The only album my old seaside MRI place had was by Jack Johnson, and I still can’t listen to it. “No music, thank you.” Hold this. It’s an emergency bulb. Squeeze it if there’s a problem. The emergency bulb is a comforting oblong shape in smooth rubber, begging to be squeezed. I almost wish I was claustrophobic, just to have a reason to press on it as hard as I can.

The bed is rolled into the MRI tube. It would look like a space station interior if it wasn’t for the anaemic pink of the walls and the ambiguous pale green of the blanket. A system of mirrors lets me see my hands stretched out over my head. Walls, blanket and my hands: that is my view for the next half hour. Frida made multiple paintings of her feet when they were all she could see for months, bedridden after the bus accident. Perhaps I could paint my hands, except that I would need them to paint with — and the rules of the MRI game don’t allow movement. Also, I can’t draw.

The MRI machine begins its simple two-tone recital. It’s more rhythmic than musical, but the tenth time around, it feels almost soothing, mesmeric in its repetitiveness. My brain goes into something of a zen state: a brief annual meditation. At some point a nurse comes in and injects the contrast liquid. Every year it has the same two effects: puts a strange chemical taste in my mouth and sends an inexplicable warm rush of blood to my nether regions. Go figure. By the time I’m pulled out of the machine, time has lost all meaning, and I'm half way through a fantasy about hibernating in a sleep capsule inside a space station. The nurse’s words barely reach me through a heavy, slow-moving fog of artificially induced cosmic slumber. The cannula is taken out. I change back into my clothes and look into the unframed rectangle of the bathroom mirror lit by pale blue hospital lights. The face rest has left three deep red lines across my cheeks and forehead. I sit down by the reception desk and pull out a book, waiting for the lines to fade. Five minutes later, I am still running over the same sentence without taking in a single word — a hazy, pointless attempt at reading. After fifteen minutes I get up, peel the cotton wool and plaster construct off my arm, and say goodbye to the receptionist. With the quietest of whirs, the automatic doors slide open. For a moment, the cold starless silence of the late winter afternoon stares into the sterile, fluorescent silence of the hospital. Breaking their gaze, I cross the border between worlds, the heels of my boots counting one-two-three-four on the tiled floor before being muted by the invisible wet leaves of the yard, and head back to the station.

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