Sunday, April 19, 2009

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

I could have just as easily called this "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" but the Proust title popped into my mind first, so that's the one I'm going with.

I have a medical condition that requires me to get a CT Scan and an MRI every few months. Well, that isn't quite true, so let me rephrase it in a way that is. One particular treatment for my medical condition requires me to get a CT Scan and an MRI every few months.

As you probably already know, CT Scans used to be called CAT Scans. I don't know why they changed the name, but they did. "CAT" stands for Computer-Aided Tomography, so it makes sense to call a scanning method using this technology a CAT Scan. And when they were first introduced, that's what they were called, possibly to help differentiate them from DOG Scans. But somewhere along the way, that extra letter in the middle must have seemed too cumbersome, so they dropped it and the CAT Scan became the CT Scan.

As far as I know, MRIs have always been called MRIs. But that doesn't mean all MRIs are alike. In the early '90s, when I started having back problems, I had a few MRIs, usually whenever I popped a disc in my lower back. So I can speak with some authority when I say that MRIs are no fun.

As a matter of fact, one time as I was entering the tube, I had a mild panic attack. I'm not sure why, because I'd already had a couple of MRIs before and they didn't make me panic. The feeling went away pretty quickly, and the whole procedure took about 20 minutes, so brief panic attack notwithstanding, it was not an unpleasant experience.

People who have had MRIs usually complain about the loud throbbing noise or the claustrophobic feeling. Or maybe they complain about both.

I happen to like the noise, it gives me something to focus my attention on. You can think of an MRI as a huge percussion instrument that you're inside of, and you can think of the noise as beats, which you can divide any way you want. I suppose it's natural to divide them into fours or sixes or eights, but I sometimes like to count them out in fives or sevens or elevens, just to make things more interesting. And if that doesn't seem all that interesting to you, you should understand that there isn't much else you can do when you're all but completely immobilized inside a narrow tube.

So I like the noise, but I'm not wild about the claustrophobic feeling. As a matter of fact, that's what caused my panic attack in the early '90s. Some MRI facilities provide you with prismatic mirrored glasses that let you see at a 90 degree angle, so even though your eyes are facing forward, what you see is the opening at the end of the tube where your feet are.

When I learned I was going to have an MRI every few months, I bought a pair, but the truth is, I don't really need them, because it seems like MRI tubes aren't as cramped as they used to be. Either that, or I'm just getting used to them. Still, the glasses are pretty useful when you're first being drawn into the tube.

Anyway, I had a CT Scan and an MRI on Friday, which is why I'm telling you all this.

The MRI was pretty much like the previous one, except this time, after I was all strapped down and covered with supplementary magnets, the technician put some headphones on me so I could listen to music. I've never listened to music during an MRI before, and I didn't really want to this time, but I'm always open to new experiences, so I didn't voice any objections.

The music wasn't all that bad, by which I mean it could have been a whole lot worse, but it was as bland as music can be and still be considered music. It was insipid and uninspired "lite jazz." It didn't even deserve to be called "light jazz" because when music is this bland, proper spelling is no longer an issue. The music was streamed over an advertiser-supported internet radio station, so the ads were the reason for the station's existence and the music was just a means of getting people to listen to them. Remember the old adage "Corporate rock sucks"? Well guess what? Corporate jazz sucks too. What a surprise.

It was basically "easy listening" music with a saxophone, which might be just what some people want to hear when they're having an MRI, because it helps soothe and relax them. But it had the opposite effect on me -- I like music with a little more personality so it just made me annoyed. "Easy listening" music is safe and tasteless -- it's an easily-digestible lifeless mush that's designed to placate and calm you and make you a willing subject of our corrupt and cynical corporatocracy.

But even worse than the music were the advertisements I was forced to listen to. The first time they came on, I asked the technician if she could turn down the music, but I guess she didn't hear me. The technicians are in a separate room, and there's an intercom they use to communicate with you, but I guess they can only hear you when they flip the switch, and they only flip the switch when they want you to respond to a something they ask you. So basically, they can't hear you unless they want to. I was holding a push button that I was supposed to use in case of an emergency, but as bad as it was being forced to listen to advertisements, I knew it wasn't worth stopping the MRI for.

I can't stand listening to advertisements. They are one of the the most venal forms of noise pollution, and when I'm not stuffed inside an MRI tube, I do my best to avoid them. They're toxic waste for the ears. Whatever damage the radiation from all these scans is doing to my body, the advertisements are doing to my mind.

During my time in the tube, there were three sets of advertisements, but fortunately, the throbbing noises masked out most of them. But one time it was relatively quiet inside the tube, so I was forced to hear them. But at least I wasn't forced to obey them, because the technology for that doesn't exist yet. It's only a matter of time, though, so be prepared.

By the way, the MRI is supposed to take 45 minutes. That's what they tell you when you make the appointment, and that's what they tell you when the procedure begins. And for some reason I always believe them, even though they always last a lot longer. The one I just had must have taken about twice that long, and the previous one probably lasted about an hour and a quarter.

And that isn't just based on my subjective sense of time. It wasn't a matter of time appearing to pass very slowly the way it does when you're really bored or you're forced to endure excruciating torment and agony. It was more a matter of looking at my watch when I got there and looking at it again when I left.

I've tried to account for the time, but if it was only a 45 minute procedure, then things just don't add up.

I got there before 11:00, waited a short while before I went through the admissions process, and then I had the CT scan. The CT scan took about 10 minutes, but I sat in the waiting room for a while, so it was about noon when I was done.

Then I went to the MRI waiting room. I wasn't there for very long, but let's say I was there for a half hour before the MRI began. So if the procedure began at 12:30 and it only took 45 minutes, I would have been finished by 1:15, but the MRI wasn't over until 2:00.

So that's an hour and a half. And in case you're wondering what it's like being stuck inside a tube for an hour and a half, almost completely unable to move, well, let's just say that it isn't a lot of fun.

And another thing is, I've never liked wearing headphones, so being forced to wear them for 90 minutes didn't make things any easier for me. These were the big bulky kind that pilots wear. They fit over your ears, and if you had ears that stuck out before you put on the headphones, they'd be flush with your head by the time you took them off.

And here's something else you may find interesting (and by "interesting" I mean something you can occupy your mind with while you're crammed inside a tube): A lot of images had to be taken while I was holding my breath, presumably because each inhalation and exhalation would have moved my internal organs around a little and made the images turn out blurry. I didn't mind that -- it was never more than 20 seconds or so, but what I found amusing are the breathing instructions that the MRI technicians gave me.

For my previous two MRIs, the guy just said, "Breathe in and hold." And then 20 seconds or so later, he'd say, "Okay, breathe." It was simple and straightforward, with very little room for ambiguity.

But for the one on Friday, the woman said "Take a little breath and hold." So I took a little breath, but the oxygen I inhaled from that little breath was barely enough to sustain me for the entire 20 seconds. So all the other times she said it -- and she must have said it at least 20 times -- I took a bigger than normal breath. I just wanted to make sure I had enough air to last the full 20 seconds.

I don't know why she kept asking me to take a little breath -- maybe she thought that if she told me to take a deep breath, I'd puff myself up like a blow fish, or maybe blow myself up like a puffer fish. Whichever.

In any event, halfway through the procedure, they changed technicians for some reason.

The new technician didn't tell me to take little breaths. Instead, whenever he wanted me to hold my breath -- and I can quote him exactly because he must have said this at least 30 times -- he told me, "Breathe in. Hold it in. Don't breathe."

My first thought was, "Is he an idiot?" but then it occurred to me that maybe he didn't think I could follow simple instructions. I quickly dispensed with that idea, of course, and decided that he must talk that way to everyone, because perhaps some people don't realize that holding one's breath is exactly the same thing as not breathing. Or maybe he finds reassurance in all the redundancy somehow.

By the way, the previous time I had an MRI, they switched technicians halfway through as well, which further supports my assertion that the procedure takes a lot longer than 45 minutes. You don't change technicians in the middle of a short 45 minute procedure -- that's something you do for a long hour and a half procedure.

So the MRI took a lot longer than 45 minutes. That is an inarguable fact and I don't know why everyone who works there thinks it doesn't. Or maybe they just say it doesn't. Maybe they know full well that the procedure takes a long time, but if they tell the patients it only lasts for 45 minutes, then it won't seem so long. It is out of kindness that they lie to us.

On the other hand, maybe the constant exposure to high-powered magnets messes with their sense of time somehow. That, plus they spend all day in a suite of basement rooms with no natural lighting, so they never have a good sense of what time it is. It could be day, it could be night, or it could be any time in between, but they'd never know the difference because they can't look out a window. Their biological clocks could be broken beyond repair. Maybe time as we know it is nothing more than some intangible and incomprehensible abstract concept to them, like fractional-dimensional spaces or M-theory.

It makes a lot of sense, but do I really believe it? No, not necessarily, but those are the kinds of thoughts that pop into your head when you're stuck inside a tube for 90 minutes.

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