Navigating your first MRI: tips and insights

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is a commonly used form of imaging to help diagnose conditions that might not be visible in an X-ray. The MRI scanner is a large cylindrical tube-shaped machine that creates a strong magnetic force and radio waves to capture images of the interior areas of the human body. Out of the numerous magnets in an MRI scanner, there is one main magnet, and the magnetic field created by this magnet is thousands of times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field. That fact prompts one to think. The patient is lying down on a flat, movable table, which moves into the tube at the start of the procedure and then moves back out when the MRI scan is completed, which may take up to 1 hour.

Some related facts: A physicist named Isidor Isaac Rabi is credited with developing a method to measure the magnetic properties of atoms in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1977 that medical professionals performed the first MRI scan on a human, and by the 1980s, MRI scanners became available commercially. MRI statistics in the United States indicate that more than 30 million MRI scans are performed every year. Hopefully, a good portion of them helped save lives, rather than being a needless experience for the patient.

Although the MRI scan can be thought of as a life-saving tool, for the patient who faces this procedure for the first time, it can be very intimidating and downright scary, especially for those patients who tend to be claustrophobic. Also, the repetitive tapping and thumping noises made by the scanner are very loud—so much so that the patient must wear earplugs.

What follows is a realistic summary of a patient’s experience facing an MRI. Hopefully, this might shed light on what your patient feels and experiences during this procedure. What may be mundane for the medical professional might be a nerve-wracking experience for the patient. Please familiarize your patient with what’s involved in undergoing an MRI because knowledge is power and will quite possibly help to reduce stress and anxiety.

I am lying on a table …
An IV in my vein,
A dye passing into my body.
I wonder if I will glow in the dark
From now into eternity
With this foreign liquid
Coursing through me.

The table moves into a long narrow tube,
And I can’t avoid the inevitable.
I disappear.
Will I lose myself,
Never to be found again?
A faraway voice speaks to me,
But there is no human touch
Or emotion.

An invisible magnet pounds away,
Like a jackhammer,
Sending waves through the body,
Exposing the secrets hidden away.
I am inside a cocoon, but I don’t feel protected …
I am separated from the world …
Just me and the pounding … pounding … pounding.

Time passes slowly
As the hammering continues.
I imagine myself elsewhere …
Running free in an open field …
Looking up at a blue sky …
I smell the sweet scent of lavender
And I breathe in deeply.

Then I hear a voice saying it is over,
And the table moves
Back into the real world.
Now I must wait to hear
What secrets have been revealed
And if my life continues uninterrupted.

I can still hear the pounding
In the silence,
Or is it my heart?

Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient advocate. 

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