I lay there, head clamped securely in place, staring up at the token cartoon picture of a tortoise. Clumsily cut out and laminated, it looked lost and pathetic stuck, as it was, upside down to the roof of the scanner. Initially irritated by the upside-downess of it, over the course of the next hour and 10 minutes I grew to love that tortoise, imagining it as a character in one of my stories – The Upside Down Tortoise – where all it wants is to flip over the right way and live like all the other tortoises.
I needed the distraction of the tortoise. My latest MRI scan was one of the longest I have had to endure as well as being the most claustrophobic. I was required to keep my face covering on for the duration, despite there being no-one else in the room – but this is a pandemic after all. I felt stifled as I lay there, desperately trying to keep my focus on the wonder of it all. You see, I try to think of MRI’s as an immersive experience, like a theme park attraction in which you willingly and eagerly enter this surrealist world of science fiction. You become Alex from ‘A Clockwork Orange’ or Dave in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, neither of whom you particularly want to be – but then, isn’t that the thrill?
There were other things to distract me. A slither of a mirror was suspended above me in which I could see the radiologist and his assistant – upside down, like the tortoise – occasionally moving around, but mostly sitting still and staring at computer screens. What could they see? What could they see going on inside my brain? Could they see my thoughts? Were they amused by my internal monologue or horrified at the growing number of scars in my nervous system? I tried not to think of that.
As they shifted the scan down to my cervical spine I lost sight of the tortoise. I instead tried to imagine I was in some kind of new age night club where the magnetic tapping and jumble of other strange sounds provided a rhythmless beat in which to dance to. But I mustn’t dance. I must remain statue still in the scanner. Suddenly, a muffled voice came out of the in-built speakers, “We need to just do that one again – can you try not to swallow for the…..” For the what? For the next 5 minutes? 10? 30? The last part of the sentence was lost, so I had little choice but to cease swallowing for as long as is humanly possible – which, it turns out, isn’t very long!
Finally moving on to the thoracic spine, I was submerged deeper still into the tubular void. By this time my legs had tired of being still and began doing those painfully annoying involuntarily kicks. This soon turned into spasms, the stress of which awoke my overactive bladder, which I’d felt sure I had emptied prior to the scan, but evidently not. This last part of the scan was spent in agony while I tried (and failed) to keep my legs still while fighting the urge to wet myself. Hold it in, just hold it in.
I did hold it in. Just.
I had entered the hospital at 7.15am, when it was still dark and deserted. Now, as I walked back along the corridors, it was bustling with life and the sun was streaming through the windows. My ears were still ringing from the onslaught of noise and my eyes were adjusting to a world outside of the cave. I left the hospital in a disoriented daze, stumbling my way back to the car and feeling very much like that poor upside down tortoise.