Since last fall, my internal gyroscope’s been a little off. And as much as I like boats, it gets old feeling like you’re on one all the time. Eventually, my doctor said I should get an MRI. When the hospital asked for the full $1,375 payment up front, I looked at my health savings account balance and said, “How about a thousand?” And they agreed. Did you know you can haggle at the hospital? I should’ve offered $500 and told them that was my final offer or I’d head down the street to Crazy Larry’s Magnet Barn for the Springtacular Scan Event—$499 and you keep the hospital johnny.
The morning of my appointment, I wear a shirt with metal buttons, which turns out to be a bad idea when you’re getting shoved into a giant magnet tube. Thus I get to wear a stylish backless number from the Fall 2017 hospital couture line. If you’ve seen the clip of the guy at Fenway trying to figure out the rain poncho, that was me for about five minutes before the MRI. The gown had three holes, presumably for my arms and head, but they all seemed the same size and were asymmetrically arranged—hole, hole, open part, hole. I know this shouldn’t have been hard to figure out, but remember that they’re handing these things to people who might have something wrong with their brains.
So, MRI rule one, leave your chainmail shirt at home. Rule two, use the bathroom right before you go in, because you don’t want to be calling for a potty break once you’re lying on the human microwave tray. You have to remain perfectly still, so they use the latest high-tech cranial positioning equipment, by which I mean they jam blankets around your head.
The MRI tech, a woman named Sarah, hands me a rubber bulb connected to a tube and tells me to hold it in my left hand. “This is the panic button,” she says. “We need this because the machine is so loud that I won’t be able to hear you scream.” At the sight of my pained expression, she adds, “Just kidding! Squeeze that if you need to. But if you do, then we have to start over.” I confidently assure her that there’s no way I’m squeezing the tap-out bulb while mentally preparing my excuses for when I squeeze the tap-out bulb.
Now for rule three, the important one: Close your eyes. Because once you’re on the microwave tray, blankets around your ears and a metal Hannibal the Cannibal mask clamped a few inches above your face, you’re motored into the machine. From the outside, you think this thing must be pretty spacious, given that it’s the size of a dump truck. But the part they slide you into is about one percent wider than a human body, and that body is Kelly Ripa’s. For anyone else, prepare for instant all-consuming terror when you open your eyes and see that you’re entombed in a coffin that, based on the industrial aural assault, was buried just beneath a Berlin nightclub.
The solution is to close your eyes and imagine that you’re actually at that club, sans coffin. “ClunkClunkClunk. RrrrRRR! RrrrRRR! Bip-BRR, bip-BRRR!” goes the machine. Yeah, I’m really into this new DJ. You haven’t heard of him. But he’s called General Electric 1.5T Signa Plus, and his beats are so dope that I had to pay $1,000 just to listen to them. Not that I’m dwelling on that, no sir.
If the skull-piercing bionic alien woodpecker noises are bad, the silence is worse. After what might be 20 minutes or two hours, the ruckus stops and all is quiet. What’s going on out there? I imagine the worst. A janitor walks past, pushing a mop, glances at the screen depicting my brain and abruptly pukes all over the floor. Doctors huddle around, grimacing. “There must be something wrong with the machine,” one of them says. “Otherwise, what’s in there is not of this earth.” Another janitor happens along and runs screaming from the room. Why are there so many janitors here, and why can they read MRIs?
Eventually the machine fires up again and I slide out. I admonish Sarah for the scary quietude. “Sorry,” she says. “I was typing.” OK, tip 3.5: Don’t freak out if there’s an intermission. She’s just typing. But typing what? You’ll know, in a general sense, very soon.
My sister-in-law, Elena, had an MRI a few years ago when she had a mini-stroke, so she provided a final bit of advice. “If they let you walk out of there, that’s a good thing,” Elena told me. “If they say, ‘Wait right here for a minute,’ then that’s not a great sign.”
Well, they let me walk out. And I’m fine. Yeah, I wasted a thousand dollars, but things could’ve been way worse. It could’ve been $1,375.