Sprint with Jackie
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Sprint with Jackie

The soundtrack to my MRI.

Five weeks after the birth of my daughter, I woke up with a funny sensation in my right ear — like I was underwater. Things were muffled and strange.

PSA: Sudden hearing loss or “sudden deafness” is considered a medical emergency. The sooner you get to a doctor, the more likely it is your hearing will return. If this happens to you please go see a doctor.

My daughter, River Colburn at about five weeks. (Photo by Matt Johnson.)

There must be a pressure change happening, — I thought.

But then, it didn’t go away. My hearing seemed to be getting worse and I was continuously asking people to repeat themselves.

What?

I’m sorry, could you say that again?

It was harder to hear in noisy settings: at the grocery store deli counter, in a room with music, at an event where presenters were on stage. I was straining to hear.

I googled hearing loss and of course, the results were: Ear Wax or Brain Tumor

I’ve never had trouble with earwax but I assumed it must be earwax. While in the back of my mind thinking: “Brain Tumor?!” I tried a few earwax dissolving drops in my ear to see what that might do. The drops went in and came back out clear. No earwax.

I made an appointment to see an ENT.

The appointment was six weeks after my daughter was born and one week after my hearing started to go. They showed me to a room that was designed in the 80’s. I was given headphones and a tech sat on the other side of clear but dirty glass and played me lots of tones through my headphones. I had to push a button every time I heard a sound.

Listening room at the ENT clinic where I received my hearing test.

The hearing test revealed assuredly, hearing loss in my right ear. The low tones were what I was missing, which is why everything sounded muffled. The test also revealed that there was nothing in my ear causing it. The audiologist and doctor told me that sometimes people lose their hearing suddenly for NO REASON.

Sudden hearing loss is likely due to a viral infection that attacks the nerves in the ear. The doctor told me that if it were a tumor causing the hearing loss, my hearing would have been disappearing slowly not suddenly.

Hearing in my left ear (blue line) vs in my right (red line).

But, they would set up an MRI — just in case.

I was crying in the doctor’s office, feeling especially vulnerable due to my hormones and recent world-shifting experience of having a baby. My mind was saying “yes, no big deal” but there was another voice screaming “but maybe it’s a brain tumor!” My grandfather had brain cancer.

I received a prescription for Prednisone: 60mg a day for a week followed by a tapering. They told me I’d have a 50% chance of regaining my hearing if it were truly an inflammation issue.

I started my prednisone the next day and along came the side effects of edginess and sleeplessness. I couldn’t sleep at night and had plenty of time to think about a million little things and big things. I anxiously anticipated my MRI; eager to get it over with…just in case.

I arrived to get my MRI and there was a man crying in the lobby.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect other than that I would be inside of a small space for an hour. They asked me in a pre-screening call AND in my intake paperwork: “Are you claustrophobic?”

No, not normally. But I’m nervous about getting my brain scanned.

There was not a box to check about how I was feeling.

The tech who escorted me into the imaging center took me to a room where she told me I could undress and lock my things into a small locker. No metal allowed. No phone. No personal items. I locked my things up and then stepped back into the hallway.

Next, she took me to the imaging room which contained the giant MRI machine and little else. She had me recline on the table and get my head in position. She told me they’d need to give me an IV so that the dye could easily be injected partway through the hour-long scan. Then, she asked me to think about what kind of music I might like; I could choose anything from local or satellite radio.

I thought to myself, “Minnesota Public Radio. That would help pass the time.” And then I thought better, “The programming might stress me out. Who knows what’s happening politically today or what the news is.”

“The Current. I’ll listen to 89.3 the Current!”

The Current is our local public music station in the Twin Cities. It’s amazing. The sound of music was faint at first, as if it were in the distance. The sound of the MRI machine was like metal on metal pile driving.

The soundtrack to my MRI = an interesting ride.

Song 1: Get Out — CHVRCHES

Can we get out, get out
Get, get, get out
Get, get, get out of here?

Answer — no — we cannot get out of here. We are trapped in this MRI machine.

Song 2: I said Hi — Amy Shark

Tell ’em all I said hi, hope you’ve been well
You’ve been asleep while I’ve been in hell
Tell ’em all I said hi, have a nice day
I’ll be just fine, don’t worry ‘bout me

I’m thinking — “ I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

Song 3: Let it Happen — Tame Impala

It’s always around me, all this noise, but
Not really as loud as the voice saying
“Let it happen, let it happen (It’s gonna feel so good)
Just let it happen, let it happen”
I will not vanish, you will not scare me
Try to get through it, try to push through it

The voice in my head was agreeing — Yes. So much noise all around me. Yes, I will get through it.

Next, my soundtrack included a little Electric Light Orchestra, Waxahatchee, boygenius. Mellow. No big deal. Lots of noise from the MRI machine. The techs gave me some updates about how long each set of pounding would last. I was feeling proud. I was calm.

The next two songs seemed louder. Or maybe the MRI machine was quieter.

Social Distortion — Ball and Chain

You can run all your life
But not go anywhere
Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain

I wasn’t feeling like I had a ball and chain around me…yet. But if they discover something with this scan…

Metric — Dark Saturday

Forever and ever
A torch in search of a flame
To be good, get better
Well I’ve been feeling this way
Forever and ever
A night in search of a day
As anxious as ever
In search of dark, dark, dark Saturday

Ok…so it’s not Saturday but I am feeling anxious now and it’s definitely dark in here.

Stoned Soul Picnic by The Fifth Dimension & Heat Wave by Snail Mail took me back down to mellow.

But then the soundtrack to my MRI ended with a song from Frightened Rabbit, leaving me feeling like a frightened rabbit myself.

Frightened Rabbit — The Woodpile

Far from the electric floor
Removed from the red meat market
I look for a fire door
An escape from the drums and barking
Bereft of all social charms
I’m struck dumb by the hand of fear
I’ve fallen into the corner’s arms

The coroner’s arms!!

…I stepped out. I’d just been on a journey inside my head prompted by a soundtrack curated by Mary Lucia, DJ at the Current.

The soundtrack was great. (Thank you Mary Lucia.) But it wasn’t great for an MRI.

Scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. I certainly found my brain stimulated by my playlist. There were moments of calm and moments of anxiety. Those feelings were prompted by the music coming into my ears.

I left my MRI wondering why my music wasn’t curated to be more…relaxing.

Consider Doug Dietz and the adventure series from GE. Dietz redesigned imaging technology experiences so that they are less scary for kids — in 2012. But it’s 2018 and I wonder why we haven’t done more to mitigate anxiety for adults when stepping into an MRI machine or other potentially scary healthcare setting.

I’d be willing to bet that most people have some fear or anxiety during a brain scan — no matter what.

I did some googling and found this amazing playlist —Music for MRI Scanners created in 2007.

This music was commissioned by the Royal Infirmary, Bristol, for ambient playback in the ancillary areas of a new MRI Scanner, primarily to relax children being scanned.

The three 20 minute pieces are designed to induce feelings of calm and security.

How might we create more calm in healthcare experiences with curated music? In the lobby, it would have been nice to have something relaxing to listen to rather than the sound of a man crying and the home renovation show on the TV.

Spas have tranquil lighting, plush robes and relaxing music playing while you wait for your service. Could a similar environment create a more relaxing point of entry in a healthcare setting? I would have loved a plush robe rather than a paper gown.

I know some medical imaging centers allow you bring your own playlist, which is great in theory, but who REALLY has time to put together a playlist in the midst of a scary medical moment? My MRI experience illuminated an opportunity to do better and to consider the human emotional experience in this setting. Music is a tool. Music moves. Using music more intentionally seems obvious. When the music started in the MRI machine, what if it were a curated playlist like the one above from Tom Green? What would my ride have been like?

Two days later my results were in. My brain looked normal.

My hearing continued to improve with the prednisone and is nearly back to normal.

If you want my help designing better healthcare experiences or want to work together to figure out how music might be of service to people in medical settings, reach out.

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