nobody’s perfect | Medical anxiety: Not all tests are easy to take

Written by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF. Posted in May

Melissa Robertson, a certified RTRMR (radiologic technologist; registered magnetic resonance imaging technologist), performs X-rays and MRI scans at Mercy Health – St. Anne Outpatient Imaging in Sylvania. She, along with her MRI tech trainee, Chrissy, got me through my dreaded, hour-long MRI.


An MRI scan is a non-invasive medical test, and I hate them! My experience with the MRI started while I was living in the Cleveland area in the early 80s. I started seeing a new neurologist there, and he asked me if I had ever had an MRI. Back then, I had never even heard of the test, since the Toledo area was just beginning to use the machines. I drove to the clinic and had my first test there.

I remember the technicians asking me if I was claustrophobic, and I told them I was not. (As a kid, I remember playing hide-and-go-seek with the neighborhood kids and climbing into the trunk of my Dad’s car to hide. Just writing about that now creeps me out!) The test started with a technician placing a foam rubber-type helmet on me and telling me to stay still. She gave me a little push button buzzer that I could press if I needed to come out of the metal “test tube.”

She warned me about the sound of the loud, vibrating magnets, and that did not bother me. What did bother me was that the MRI machine broke down twice while I was in it. I could hear the magnetic vibrations slowing down; the technician nicely told me that they had to start up the machine again. I was ready to get out but told her I would stay for the test to continue. I do not know what happened to the machine, but I was on the table for about two hours. I finally was free to go, and just remember that I did not want to have that test ever again.

Ha ha—the MRI is an excellent test for those living with MS. Me.

When I moved back to Toledo years later, I had another MRI and had a rough time getting through it. I did go through open MRI tests, which are much less confining, but still experienced much anxiety gearing up to take the test. When scheduled for a recent one, I went to see my neurologist and told him of my past history with it years ago. I really think I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from that test many years ago in Cleveland.

He was understanding, and we compromised on an open MRI. He also prescribeda low dose ofAtivan, a sedative that can treat seizure disorders, such as epilepsy. It is also used before surgery and medical procedures to relieve anxiety. It helped me to relax for the test.

Before the test, I tried to keep my anxiety in check, telling myself that many people go through the test each day, that it is non-invasive, that it would give my doctor good data about my MS. I would do well. Then there was a TV sitcom in which a character had a bucket fall on his head and had to go to the emergency room and have an MRI. He was quite nervous about it but eventually got through it. That reminded me about my experience in Cleveland again.

I have learned that when anyone is anxious about any medical test, I understand a little about what they are experiencing. Some people can undergo any medical test: blood work, colonoscopies, mammograms, etc. I try to listen to them, and I never say, “It’s routine, toughen up!” or anything along that line. My experience is that people are all unique and have different perceptions and reponses.

The MRI works on magnetic and radio waves. Melissa explains that MRI basically works on the fat and water molecules in your body. As soon as the patient is placed in a magnetic field, some molecules line up with the magnetic field, the tech applies a radiofrequency post, and the resonance is measured. I think that means they measure the vibrations off the patient and, through the magic of technology, transform it into a digital picture or 3-D pictures. These digital images might be mapped into a 3-D printer for practicing with patients. Some hearing aids are produced by data gathered by MRIs and 3-D imaging. In other words, MRI results can be extremely helpful in many areas of medicine.

MRIs are used for a myriad of medical diagnostics: neurological and musculoskeletal conditions, a host of gastrointestinal and vascular problems, abdominal images—the list is endless. I had my MRI at the Mercy Health – St. Anne Outpatient Imaging Center in Sylvania. They had a newer open MRI scan. Melissa said that their scan can accommodate patients weighing up to 660 pounds. That did not apply to me, though.

Generally, an MRI takes a half hour to 45 minutes, but when a contrast MRI is ordered, a dye injection precedes the last part of the scan to highlight some abnormalities in some conditions. So, for example, my MRI was to scan my brain stem with contrast dye, and my total exam was about an hour. I got through the entire MRI, thank goodness. I asked Melissa if patients have ever panicked and walked out of the test.

“We have had this scanner for about two years, and only about two or three patients have said they could not continue with their open MRI. They slid off the table, walked out, and said they would take the test if their physician prescribed a sedative. They said they would talk to their physician who ordered their test.”

Melissa said she has been on the other side of the magnetic field, having gone through “lots of MRIs” while she was in training and for her own health history.

When patients are being scheduled for an MRI, the person setting up the test asks whether they are claustrophobic. However, this location has an open MRI, where the sides of the scan are open, and patients can see out, as opposed to a closed MRI, where patients are inside an enclosed case. Sometimes, doctors prefer the closed MRI, saying test results are more accurate than an open one. But Melissa adds that the machine she works on is approaching the level of accuracy that closed MRIs produce.

Claustrophobic patients can ask their physician about taking a sedative prior to the test to calm them, or they might ask a friend or family member to accompany them to the scan room. Melissa says they sometimes talk to people in between the sets of magnetic scanning to make a little human contact with the patient. There is also the chance to wear earphones during the test, and patients can listen to music of their choice from Pandora.

Mellissa said that MRI developers are working on stronger magnets, which would result in even more detailed images, as well as working on compatibility with different imaging programs.

Before she became an MRI tech, Melissa was an X-ray tech. She spoke with some hospital personnel and was excited about the MRI technology. It gave such phenomenal soft-tissue images, and she was hooked. She went through training and became certified for MRI testing.

So, “Magnetic Melissa” worked out very well for me. She added the skill, knowledge, and gentle human element to a loud, metallic test. I would go to her for an MRI again—if I need one!❦