What It’s Like to Have an MRI (On a Friday Night)

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I recently had my first MRI. It was on a Friday night in a hospital basement, which was a little creepy. As usual, I had a lot of anxiety about what to expect, but it ended up not being a big deal.

In December, I developed an infected abscess and saw a colorectal surgeon who drained it and prescribed antibiotics. While the abscess improved a lot initially, it had been over four months and I still had small lump that got irritated and oozed pretty frequently. My gastroenterologist recommended I have an MRI to determine if I had a fistula, or a tunnel from my intestine to the abscess. So that’s how I found myself having a pelvic MRI with contrast on a Friday night.

One thing I had been worried about was whether there was any preparation for the MRI, but for my procedure, I didn’t have to do anything. (I would recommend checking with your doctor as to whether any preparation is required, since it may be different under different circumstances.) I was allowed to eat beforehand. Because it was in the evening, I had a light, early dinner, since I knew I’d be lying down for awhile and I don’t like to lie down right after eating. When I scheduled it, they asked me a series of questions, including whether I was claustrophobic (I’m not). I let them know that I have the Nexplanon birth control implant in my arm and two titanium clips in my breast from when I had a biopsy done; both were fine for the MRI.

MRIs are very safe, as the technician kept telling me, because there is no radiation (he kept calling me “dear”, which normally would make me angry, but in these circumstances I found it comforting). Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, uses a magnetic field to create images of organs and tissues within the body. To help with my anxiety, I tried to approach the whole thing with curiosity and remember all of the details so that I could write about it here.

Before the MRI, I was taken into a changing room to change into a hospital gown. There were lockers to store my clothes and purse. Of course I couldn’t figure out how to work the lock, and after I got it locked I worried that my stuff would be stuck in there forever, because that’s just how I am. I was also worried about what to do with my glasses, because I wanted to wear them as long as possible. It turned out to be fine; the technician had me leave them on the counter in the room during the MRI.

After changing into the gown, the technician put in an IV for the contrast and asked me about ten times if I needed to use the bathroom (there were plenty of opportunities to use the bathroom during this whole process, which was another thing I had been worried about). Then he took me into the little room where he would be operating the MRI, and asked me what music I would like to listen to during the procedure. At that point I panicked and my mind went blank. I’ve always been self conscious about my taste in music and I couldn’t think of anything to request. After standing there saying nothing for what felt like twenty minutes while he looked puzzled, I asked to listen to Kacey Musgraves. 

Next he took me into the room with the MRI machine, and I left my glasses on the counter and lay down on the gurney. He placed something rectangular over my pelvis and strapped me down, and hooked up the IV. He gave me headphones so I could listen to the music. He also gave me a rubber bulb to hold, which I could squeeze if I needed to be taken out or talk to him during the procedure. Then he arranged my arms so that they wouldn’t be in the way and put a blanket over me. I went into the tube feet first, which felt less scary than going in head first. My head was right at the entrance to the tube, so that if I tipped my head back I could see the ceiling. There was a square light cover with a scene of trees and sky, which I guess was comforting.

He left the room and the MRI started. Earlier in the day, I had reread the part of Geraldine DeRuiter’s very funny book All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft where she talks about getting an MRI, so I thought I was prepared for the sounds it makes. She describes the sound as “the passionate mating sounds of a fax machine and a semiautomatic rifle,” which turned out to be a very accurate description. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the variety of sounds it would make. I lay there wondering what all of the sounds were for, and how one machine could possibly make all those different noises. Sometimes the sounds would stop completely, and that made me more anxious for some reason. The gurney also moved back and forth a little bit at various points.

At first I was able to relax. I focused on the soothing music - Kacey Musgraves had turned out to be a good choice. I tend to daydream pretty easily, so for a little while I was fine just lying there, listening to music and daydreaming and observing the strange sounds of the machine. Sometimes I closed my eyes, but I found it really disconcerting to open them and see the white tube right above me, so I mostly left them open.

I gradually became more and more uncomfortable. I got really hot under the blanket, and also really thirsty. My hand fell asleep and I desperately wanted to move. I moved the parts of the body that I thought I could move slightly without messing up the images, like my toes. It felt like I lost all sense of time in the tube and wondered how many images they could possibly be taking. I thought about asking to be taken out so I could move for a minute, or have him take the blanket off, but I figured it must be almost over and I just wanted to get it over with. I was also worried about interrupting at an important point.

After what felt like forever, he said something I couldn’t understand (I think he was telling me that the contrast was going in). Then an automated voice told me to hold my breath and then to resume breathing, which I’m pretty sure I messed up. After a few of those, it was over. I got out of the tube, managed to unlock the locker without any problems, and got lost trying to get out of the hospital at 9 pm on Friday when no one was there.

All in all, the MRI wasn’t a big deal. Though it felt like I was in the tube forever, it was probably around 40 minutes, and they made it as comfortable as possible. The only bad part of it was that the MRI showed that I do in fact have a fistula, which is a story for another day.