Getting My Head Examined (On the MS Journey)

How long will my legs work? It’s not only time that tells.

For the fourth year in a row, I have November date with my own sanity. It’s time to have my head examined. Time to prepare for hospital gowns, head games of rhyme-making and intermittent long and short stints of stillness. Time to check in on the constellation of lesions in my head — the scars from MS attacks past and maybe present.

I’m a pre-auth and a phone call away from my annual date for a Brain MRI.

Last year, I fed the cats, got dressed and backed out of my driveway at 5:30 am for the 55 mile drive to the hospital. I tell this story in the present, because I will do it again.

It is clear and dark as the moon sets. I make a right turn and then a left onto the highway. At first, I can only see what my headlights illuminate in front. I imagine the trees and cliffs to my left and sweeping vistas to my right. The interstate gets busier as I pass each exit — a mix of weary commuters and merry travelers en route to prepare for or attend the next day’s Thanksgiving dinner.

I steel myself with a soundtrack — the Piano Guys version of Begin Again on more or less repeat. By the time I arrive at 6:45, the sun reveals the landscape.

A short sign in procedure, 20 “no” responses to repeat questions asked at the time of scheduling and a swap of clothes for a gown behind a closed door. Then my feet walk across the cold floor as I am escorted to the machine. I lay down, squeeze foam in my ears and allow the tech to maneuver my head in a sandwich between more foam. The umpire mask snaps on top and I am wheeled into the machine, a plastic squeeze ball for emergencies in one hand.

And the marathon begins — back to back brain, cervical and thoracic spine MRIs. Each series begins with a cue, “this will be five minutes” and often sounds like the shuffling of a deck of cards at the start. I make up rhymes with the names of friends, family and colleagues — “Bonnie did it, Bonnie did it, Bonnie did it.” I change them up to match the beats, thumps and pulsing rhythms, “No, she didn’t. No, she didn’t. No she didn’t…”

I have a job to do here. To be still. I last for over 90 minutes. When told, “this is the last set of this phase…the next one will be seven minutes, followed by a three minute, a six, a four, and then we’re done until the contrast” I speak. “I have to pee,” I say.

Can it wait? “I’ll try my best.” Somewhere during the six, the tech says “You moved. We need to redo this segment.”

“Not yet. I need to go now.” They pull me out. My head wriggles free from the foam. I walk to the bathroom. Away from view, I bend. I touch my toes. I stretch. I breathe. I feel like I have misbehaved. If only I could have held out a little longer.

It’s back with ears in the foam sandwich and the umpire mask for the last two segments. Then I am pulled out again and everything comes off. “Give us your left arm. Make a fist. A swab of alcohol.” In goes the contrast. Back into the foam ear sandwich, the mask, the machine. I lose count of the number of sequences. There are no more rhymes.

And then — a little less or more than three hours after we begin — it is over. Release forms are signed, request for copies submitted. Hospital ties and unisex garb exchanged for clothes I picked out. I tie my shoes. I say my goodbyes to those who helped me and examined me.

I feel like I have just provided the medical testing equivalent of a buffet for radiology voyeurs and medical students. I imagine their dialogue: “Here is all the evidence of the disease we can put on display for now. We’ll save the spinal tap for a day when we have more staff — or less evidence to confirm the diagnosis for another patient.”

The wait between the tests and the results is like the period of quiet after a kid falls on the playground. I’m not sure whether I will smile, laugh or cry. Maybe a little of both. There’s a wait to know, and a decision to make on how I will respond.

I choose to walk to the car filled with gratitude that I still can feel confident taking one step and then another. I am thankful that my insurance premiums and pre-auth will cushion the medical bills. I am grateful that I can see clearly to drive home and that I have friends and family who will care about me.

I start the car. I turn on the audio, and skip to Track 7 on my Piano Guys 2 CD “Just the Way You Are.” Regardless of what the tests show, this is a large part of my new Thanksgiving.