My 40 Minutes of Terror Inside an MRI Machine

I woke up at 5:10am, showered, got dressed and downed two cups of coffee. I got on the 6am train and made my way to my 7am appointment with a laboratory tests medical office. I rang the buzzer a total of ten times before I was let in at 7:25am. I was pumped up on caffeine. I was angry by the delay.  I was distracted by the television news story of Aaron Hernandez’ arrest. Hadn’t he just signed a huge multimillion, multiyear contract with the New England Patriots? Why was he arrested for murdering someone near his newly-bought mansion?  I wondered as to how quickly he could unload it so he could cover what would soon be immense lawyer fees?  Wow, what a life. Shake my head. I filled out the five pages of paperwork providing the medical facility with the right to my first-born daughter. Ok. Not so crazy but they were asking for all sorts of information. I noticed that on one of the forms they asked about whether I had ever suffered from claustrophobia (amongst 30 or so other ailments and conditions). I marked no all the way down, except for asthma. I handed the receptionist the paperwork and saw that there was a big sign partially covering her face asking patients to alert medical personnel as to whether one is claustrophobic.

I ran to the restroom, but the door kept jamming. Finally, got it to lock. Whew!  Ran back out and a tall, calm-looking dude called my name and escorted me inside near the big machines. I had to take my earrings, bra and anything with medal off and keep the gown open in the back. I locked my bag in the locker. I had nothing of mine with me.

I made silly jokes as I tend to do. Many people have often commented on how they appreciate my laughter: both its quantity and loud boisterous (maybe even joyful) quality. I always tell people if I don’t laugh I will cry. That sentiment doesn’t seem to strike many as very funny. But I always picture that scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where one of the characters (candela) is crying in front of the police and they ask her why she is crying and she states “her clothes, her clothes are so ugly” or something to that effect in Spanish. Don’t get it? Do me a favor and watch it. It is a hilarious scene.

Back to the glass room with big beeping machines.

The tall calm dude explains to me that it will take 30-35 minutes since I was getting both a brain MRI and a cervical spine MRI.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to visualize internal structures of the body in detail.  So, my brain and essentially the top of my spine were going to be visualized in grand, grand detail. At that point things start to go in slow motion.  35 minutes?  Breathe. 35 minutes. Piece of cake. Breathe. Gulp. Smile. Ok. I’m ready. I lie down on the device. Lay my head into a carved out space that leaves no room for movement.  A facial contraption, that reminds me of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, is placed on me. I am given a ball to hold for which I am instructed I should squeeze if I have any problems. You mean now? No, once in the tunnel deviceReady? Ok. I am rolled in.

Blackness. Heart racing. Labored breaths. No, no, no. I cannot do this, I scream to tall calm dude. Look up, look up. I see calm dude’s face up above through a tiny slit in the machine cover. He is calm. But I am not. I need to get out. He rolls me out. Omg. What is happening to me? It appears you are claustrophobic. Aha. The sign. I saw the sign in the waiting room. I saw the box on the form. I checked no.  I am not claustrophobic.  Tall calm dude lets me decompress alone for a few minutes. He comes back with a proposition. I go into the machine and stay in it for 15 minutes and then he rolls me out; followed by another 15 minutes back in the machine. I had my own proposition, how about a couple of basil lime daiquiris? Brilliant! Why not have a cocktail bar as part of the MRI facilities? Ok. Calm dude’s proposition wins out. Let’s kick it and get this ordeal over with.

My Hannibal Lecter mask comes back on. I close my eyes tightly and I feel myself wheeled in.  My eyes are still closed. The drumbeats begin. Bang, bang, ting, ting. Chacha cha chacha cha. The endless tapping noise is disconcerting. I open my eyes. I just want to push my way out. I don’t see tall calm dude through the sliver of light above.  I want to squeeze the ball. I want to squeeze the ball. Oh god, I need to get through this. One two three four five. That’s it. I will count all the way to  900, that would be 15 minutes. Six seven eight nine, ….. sixty. Yes. First minute done.  That noise, that noise is unbearable. Bang bang bang. Ting ting ting ting ting ting ting ting ting ting titing titing titing.

713, 714, 715, 716, 717, 718, 719, 720. Ok. Time to wheel you out. What? Alleluia. That was twelve minutes.  I must have counted really slowly. Awesomely goodness. Light. I’m wheeled out. The mask is still on. Ready to go back in? Gulp. Hmm. Yeah. I guess. Let’s kick it. Where’s that cocktail? Hmm. No cocktail. Sigh. Oh look there is an opening on the other side of the MRI. There is a literal light at the end of the tunnel.

I feel myself wheeled in. Stop. I can’t do this.  I need that mask off. How did Hannibal hide a pen in that mask? Eek. Tall calm dude gives me a few minutes alone. I wish I could hold my asthma inhaler. I have not had to use it in years but it sure would provide me some comfort. Apple pie would help as well. Or rum. Ok. I can do this. I can do this.

Calm dude re-masks me, wheels me in. My eyes open right away. The drumbeats start again. Where’s that light? Years ago, in San Francisco, I attended a sound art installation (noise) performance.  My friends and I giggled non-stop while everyone else in the dark dome room pontificated on the merits and delights of the various noises.  Ok. I am back there. It’s funny. I sat in that installation for over 45 minutes laughing all the way. I can do this. Of course, I have read the latest research that shows that our emotions can actually affect how we hear and process sound.  Thus, my high anxiety and fear arousal levels were going to make me perceive the MRI machine sounds in a highly distorted way. No way, was I going to transfer the giggles from the sounds installation experience to this enclosed, dark machine context.


I started counting again. At the count of 720 the MRI started shaking while continuing to drum. Oh god, seriously? Gulp gulp gulp. Oh no, calm dude said to not move a muscle, not even to clear my throat.  Why aren’t I being wheeled out?  Keep counting….839, 840. You made it! I am wheeled out. Tall calm dude notes everything is cool and I can leave.

I go to the locker and grab my stuff. I hold onto my inhaler. Get dressed. Is there anything else I need to do? Nope that is it. Hola como estas? The morning cleaning crew is coming in. I nod at the lady with the mop, que tengas buen dia.

I ride the elevator and wobbly walk the ten blocks to work. I stop at a great old gramercy bakery and get an apple crumb pie and a coffee with nothing in it. Later on I get some mac and cheese and fried chicken. I just needed some good ole comfort food, all the while getting over my jittery self. I am amazed at my reaction considering that over ten years ago I underwent the MRI experience and had been totally cool. Why did this one produce feelings of sheer terror in me?

In two weeks I get to sit down with my doctor and go over my results. Two weeks. How many minutes is that?   That would be over 20,000 minutes, over 1.2 million seconds. Here we go again. One, two, three, four, five……

If I weren’t hopped up on meds, I would be enjoying a cocktail or two.

29 replies »

      • You should definitely do that! LOL I’m really not claustrophobic; MRI doesn’t bother me. But I landed here looking for “mri noises make me laugh” because one particular noise makes me giggle almost uncontrollably (like right after the time I had laughing gas – over NOTHING that’s remotely funny).


      • Well, I have my own issues – I’m kind to claustrophobic people, so long as they’re sympathetic to my instant regression to terrified 3 year old when a needle enters the room. And I dispatch cockroaches for those who fear them, if they deal with my spider-dragons.


  1. You made me feel like I was in the damn MRI tray/tunnel with you. Intense! And now I have a new found empathy for some of my clients who have been through the experience, but could never describe it quite like you did.


  2. Had a full spinal scan. Yes it was claustrophobic and the noise was heard even with music coming through the earphones. Endured the MRI for 50 mins, and motionless but it was bearable. Would if I had to repeat this procedure.


  3. I have had scans on my spine before and been fine, but this time when I turned up, for the first time, they fitted me with earplugs, headphones, and then a cage like contraption, which held me firmly and made me feel trapped. I didn’t even wait to be wheeled in to the scanner. I panicked, got up and said ‘I can’t do this, I’m not having it.’ I never knew I was claustrophobic. Maybe it would have helped if I had been warned in advance and prepared for this vice that had never been used before. Is this something that is only used for neck scans or is it always used now for all spine scans?


  4. I had a very similar experience. It took everything not to squeeze he ball and end it. Funny, i did the same thing with the counting it kept me sane. Apparently though I count fast because it never ended on time! You left out the part about the profuse sweating and the head so hot you thought you would explode.


    • oh my. Sorry you went through that as well but nice to meet someone else with whom I can share the experience. Yeah, I counted too fast as well. lol. I have decided I am not going into another MRI without valium or the like.
      Happy new year!


  5. I have to have 2 MRIs on Monday and I am scared and anxious. I do have claustrophobia – didn’t know it until they put me in that tunnel about 20 yrs ago. I also have vertigo and am afraid I’l mess up and move. I know they have you secured down but that only makes it worse. I get a sense of falling and if I don’t move it won’t stop. The doctor told me to take a Xanax 1 hr. before. I’l already scared. Any advice — HELP! I don’t want to blow it and have to repeat agai!!


    • Oh no. Yikes.
      I recommend two valium. One about an hour before and your second half an hour before.
      Maybe music or just counting overall to 1300.
      Could close your eyes the second they start pushing you in and don’t open them.
      Best of luck. Hope it turns out ok


  6. Just had my first MRI and I get hot easily, so I wore my trusty terry cloth sweatband to make sure I didn’t get sweat in my eyes. Worked like a charm…my face sweated a lot during the MRI but didn’t get in my eyes at all!


  7. I had many MRI scans. The worst thing is, in that tube you leave the outside world behind, and are left alone with your fears. To me, it was a confrontation with thoughts I usually try to avoid thinking about. It’s easy in everyday life – there is work, there are friends, movies, games, books etc., however during an MRI scan, there is just you, your thoughts, and a costly medical aparature that gives a horrendous concert of terrifying sounds to remind you about the fact that you’re sick. Longest I had was 80 minutes of this torture.


I welcome your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s