fixing my head

i didn't know what an mri machine was until they shoved me in one

Rating: NNNNN

until recently i had no idea what an MRI is. A degree from DeVry? How is it that everyone else who hears those three letters immediately responds with “You’re having an MRI? They’re really hard to get.” Apparently, the lengthy waiting list for magnetic resonance imaging was successfully publicized to everyone but me. The letter from the hospital said the wait could be up to a year. How did I get in within just six weeks? Call me lucky.I have this noise in the right side of my head. Constantly. Not a ringing. Not a singing. No quotes from Antonin Artaud. More of a loud, dull pulsing thunder that might be what you’d hear if your ear were full of water while your head was submerged in pounding surf. But then you’d be drowning, and it would all be over in a few hideous minutes. El ruido, as I call it (Spanish for “the noise”), never ends. Been getting louder since way last June.

Although this noise dominates every waking and sleepless moment, I learned that it was pointless to mention it to anyone. When I did tell, I was initially shocked by what I soon gathered was the common reaction. After my attempt to describe this indescribable condition, the listener would snap, “Oh — I have that.” Odd that none of them had ever said so before. How weak I felt compared to these paragons of endurance. No wonder doctors are stumped by my problem. All these strong people with big head noises have never sought help. Either that or they’re lying because, this being nasty Toronto, even if you have something horrible, everybody else has to have it, too.

I distinctly remember the first time my head creaked — that’s what I called it then. It was the summer of 1983 in a strange roadside inn in France. I thought, “What’s that?” Then it went away. The creaking returned periodically, but only for an hour or two. Last year, when it started hanging around for longer stretches, I said aloud — for effect — “I’ll bet this is the kind of thing that, if it became permanent, you could go all over the world to specialists (picturing myself a woman of means, circa 1890 — private sanitoriums in the Alps, et cetera) and none of them would know what it is. Well, I’ve been all over town, and so far I’m winning the bet. Lucky.

The road to getting my MRI has been a real education. Maybe it won’t surprise you, but I couldn’t believe that the professionals behind our high-tech med. sys. of polyester heart valves and invincible viruses were serious when they advised me about the best course of action. Get a louder noise. Play a radio. Have another noisemaker installed in my ear. Great idea. Maybe I should just rent a jackhammer. I’m someone who believes there is no such thing as “background noise.” I have not trained myself to ignore TVs and soft pop-rock favourites with traffic and weather together. I respect music. I relish silence. The sound of a bug walking by in the next room is enough to distract me. So the idea of adding more noise to the one I’ve got left me profoundly unimpressed.

If I hear a noise, then, concluded more than one MD, there’s something wrong with my ear. Nope. But I was fascinated by a certain Doctor R. who flushed my aural canal with something that looked like a cake decorator from the Inquisition. It hurt, so, naturally, I thought it worked. It did. With my ear clean, I could hear the noise even better. He tried to cheer me up. “That sure is a nice hat you’ve got.”

I spent a couple of weeks steaming my head, but it’s not a sinus thing. A harried but attentive doctor at a walk-in clinic really tried to help. He listened at the artery in my neck for a “brewie” (French for noise) and sent me off to specialists.

I can’t sleep. Desperate for relief — it never stops — I think, “I can’t tolerate one more minute of this.” I’m an oddball in the first place, so it’s very important to make a calm presentation of my situation to each new practitioner. A woman, or a “female,” as the authorities say, complaining of a noise in her head that no one else can hear could easily be classified as — how shall I say? — mental.

I think we can eliminate stress as the culprit, unless the pressure of being on time to watch Coronation Street four times a week has cracked my head.

I must say I found ultrasound to be downright enjoyable, something women would pay for at a spa. The pleasant attendant takes a lubricated ball and gently rolls it all over the body part in question while monitoring waves on a video screen and once in a while listening to the “whoop” noise produced. Sadly, the results revealed nothing about el ruido. The doctor who read them is convinced I have a “kinked artery,” and I gladly followed his off-the-record suggestion of drinking red wine.

In deference to all those who decry western medicine, my doctor visits are not determined by my belief system but by that of OHIP, which does not cover alternative therapies. The first acupuncturist suggested that pot-smoking could cause the noise. If only. I realized, at the next acupuncturist’s, that some people actually enjoy wearing someone else’s slippers and being touched and pricked by strangers. The third one, himself an Occidental, told me I think like a westerner and then compared my body to a car. I took many little pills that fulfilled the listed promise of curing any tendency I might have had toward giddiness.

I had a CAT scan, and my cat is fine. Ha. That’s it, Sheila. Keep your spirits up. Those head transplants they’re doing in Australia could be good news.

About the MRI, they warn you, “It could be in the middle of the night.” Our culture’s diurnal bias means nobody ever warns you about appointments that really are at inconvenient times, like before 6 pm. Then they ask ominously, “Are you claustrophobic?” Isn’t everyone? “Why?” “You’ll see.” The weeks or months of waiting are filled with visions of being shut up screaming in a sterilized coffin.

Western Hospital used to have a beautiful grove of flowering crab apple trees in front. Now there are a few more parking spaces. Nighttime, and the place is deserted inside. Except for the weird medical furniture in the halls, it feels like an abandoned school.

I’m early. I have time to read up on golf courses in the Caribbean before I answer questions about metal in my body. None in my eyes or leg or anywhere. No shrapnel. What about all my metal teeth? Will they be sucked from my head by the ultramegamagnet?

A patient in sock feet exits the MRI room and utters an exclamation that is completely ambiguous. In my metal-free pajamas, I enter what looks like the set of a 1960s sci-fi film. A huge white cube with rounded edges, digital gauges and pipes leading someplace else is waiting to swallow my head. Incredibly, along with a general motorized racket, there’s that distinctive “bloop bloop” sound just like a sci-fi laboratory soundtrack.

One of the women operating the machine gives me a package of ear plugs. I’ll still be able to hear their voices over an intercom inside the big magnet that, along with a series of noises, will be making my molecules spin to get a good picture of my brain and “soft tissue.”

I lie on a table. They throw a sheet over me. A cage is lowered over my head like on a really dangerous midway ride. The staff keep asking if I’m OK. I guess some folks have started freaking by this point. I’ve been handed a rubber bulb, a “panic button,” to squeeze if I want to stop all this.

They tell me it’s best to close my eyes. I don’t. Then a mechanism slides me halfway into the tunnel. It is rather narrow, and I want to ask if anyone ever gets stuck. I’m told to remain still. “Here comes the knocking.” A couple of minutes of banging noises, and I have a few seconds before the the next round of three and a half minutes. It sounds a little like inept techno. Kraftwerk the first day they got a new synthesizer. Some people dance to this stuff. Four more minutes and it stops. The noise in my head continues. Irrationally, I had hoped it would stop, too.

I browse waiting-room art as I try to find my way out. All in all, not a bad night out in Toronto, where being ill feels far more acceptable than trying to have a speck of fun.

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