“First timer?” George, the med-tech, asks as he escorts me down the pristine hallways of Fontaine Research Park.
“Yup! First IV too!” I reply, a little too cheerily for someone who just had a needle stabbed in them. George gives me a smile that says, “I’m charmed by your enthusiasm, but I pity your ignorance.” I smile back in full confidence.
This is my first MRI. I am a certified first-timer — first MRI, first hospital gown, first real medical concern. When I told people I was getting an MRI, they looked at me like my puppy had died. But I couldn’t understand their concern. I honestly felt pretty bad-ass in my pastel hospital gown and paper pants. It was like I suddenly gained membership to a rare tribe of individuals privileged enough to enter this rite of passage and come out more knowledgeable of the world and all its inhabitants.
We walk down the narrow corridor and pass door after door emblazoned with aggressive red signs reading, “WARNING: DO NOT ENTER. HIGH MAGNETIC RADIATION. DO NOT ENTER.”
We enter through one of those doors.
Inside is a colossal machine that looks something like that panther-cave in Aladdin, except it has no panther face. It’s much more “sci-fi” than “Arabian nights,” and it’s more of a tunnel than a cave. I gingerly lie down on the table, careful not to tug at the IV dangling from my arm, and rearrange my hospital gown so I’m decent. A glowing picture of the Rotunda in the spring stares down at me from the ceiling. As George fiddles with an obscene amount of cords surrounding the machine, he speaks to me in a soothing voice.
“So, this is your first time, huh? Are you nervous? There’s nothing to worry about. You’re going to hear a lot of banging and the machine will shake a little, but that’s all part of the game. You can even listen to music to drown out the noise. Your job is to simply lie down and be still. That’s your only job — be still.”
He asks me what music I’d like to listen to, and I say “Hozier,” because I’m angsty and hipster. Then I lie back on the table and stay utterly still as George leaves me alone with the high magnetic radiation.
He was right. There’s a lot of banging and drilling and shaking. It sounds a bit like a little boy had just discovered a mass-machine gun from the future and was riddling the walls of a Styrofoam-covered room. I guess I could see how this would be uncomfortable.
Encased on all sides by white walls, this would certainly be horrifying if I was claustrophobic. But since I am not, I am almost comforted. When I was little, I was obsessed with small spaces. My parents often found me napping in their closet or snoozing in the dead-space between the couch and the wall. This felt a lot like that, except Hozier was there asking me to take him to church, and I had to be utterly still.
So there I lay, thinking of nothing, then everything, then nothing. I think of old stuffed animals, middle-school boyfriends and whether I bubbled in my computing ID on the physics exam. I think of the hymn my mom sent me half an hour before and the Spongebob GIF my brother sent yesterday. I do not think about the fact that I am in an MRI, that the doctors do not know what is wrong with me or that by next week, I could very well be a “patient,” instead of just a “girl.” Instead, I let this command of “be still” drown out the worries as Hozier drowns out the bangs and the shakes.
After around an hour, George pulls me out of the machine and my half-sleeping state. I blink a little in the glare of the light as if emerging from a cave after several years. “How was it?” he asks.
I shrug. “Honestly, pretty relaxing.”
He laughs, “That’s the first time I’ve heard that one.”
And it was true. I was relaxed. It had been a while since I had felt that still. Four exams and an MRI had kept my mind fully running with enzymes, definitions of morality and WikiHow articles on “How to get an MRI.” In the machine, however, I could be still — I absolutely had to be still — and it was freeing.
George helped me up from the table and I shuffled to my locker to get dressed. I hummed “Cherry Wine” and snapped selfies in my ridiculous hospital gown. I surreptitiously swiped four of the complimentary “MRI snacks (Please Take 1),” waved goodbye to the receptionist, and skipped out of Fontaine Research Park like I had just come off a ride at Disney World.
Little did I know in that moment, laughing with the med-tech named George, that this would soon be the first of many MRIs, and not all of them would have music or snacks. Little did I know, that this was the beginning of my very own “Great Before” — that soon, everything would be thought of as “before the stroke,” and “after”— and that I would not always feel so relaxed.
But in the coming weeks and subsequent MRIs, I came back to this command to “be still.” When they played an hour and a half of Bollywood love songs instead of Adele for MRI number four, I said “be still” and I laughed. When the anesthesia from my transesophageal echocardiogram made me so sick I puked every time I stood up, I said “be still” and I breathed in and out. When I found myself in UPMC Hillman Cancer Center talking to a neuro-oncologist, and my parents were holding back tears beside me, I said “be still” and I prayed.
So now, when they tell me, “We don’t know what is happening. You’ll just have to wait and see,” I breathe out “be still” and I wait. I wait for answers, or at least some closure. I wait for the strength to come back in my hands. I wait for my family to talk to me without crying and for my friends to just say “Hello,” instead of “How are you feeling?” I wait for the spiritual journey people tell me I’m having, and in the meantime, I say, “be still.” I waltz through the Diagnostic Imaging Lounge like it’s my own backyard and I barely notice the sting of the needle poking through my vein. I head into my sixth-going-on-three-hundredth MRI and I lay down yet again to be still.
(Side note: I did not end up having cancer.)
Aly Lee is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.