A local MRI – Welcome to the “Twilight Zone”


I had been thinking that my worst MRI experiences were behind me.  After all, one time a couple of years ago at the University of Miami, I had been very rudely ordered to move myself without assistance from a wheeled hospital bed onto an MRI table  … my repeated “but I’m paralyzed” plea apparently not registering with the professional MRI technicians!

But yesterday the local MRI team here decided to stretch my experience envelope and took me quickly into a new corner of the MRI “Twilight Zone” … one that that mixed terror with farce.  Here’s what happened.

In the nearly 6 months since my last cervical MRI, my neuropathic pain has gotten steadily worse, and thus in preparation for upcoming surgery it was felt that a fresh MRI would be required.  Basically, our team here wanted to determine whether or not the arachnoid cyst compressing my spinal cord had gotten larger or possibly another cyst might have developed.  The thinking is that my pain results from a combination of the large (2.7 cm x 0.7 cm as of October 2012) cyst compressing my cord as well as so-called cord “tethering” from internal scar tissue.

So I headed down to the MRI department in my power wheelchair, assuming the chair would be handy to elevate me to level with the MRI platform in order for my caregivers to slide me over.  In Miami, with the MRI machine obviously switched off, an SCI patient is generally allowed to drive in with a wheelchair in order to transfer onto the MRI table and then a caregiver removes the wheelchair from the room.

Understandably, in China things are often done quite differently. So I was informed I would not be allowed to drive in my power chair into the MRI room because the chair is made of metal.  Yes, even with the MRI machine NOT switched on!

In these circumstances, I decided to go with the flow and asked the MRI technicians how they proposed to move me at least 50 feet into the MRI room and then get me up onto the 4 ½ foot high MRI table . In a seemingly very relaxed manner, two Chinese technicians looked at each other and said they would carry me. I laughed and replied “how on earth are you two guys going to carry a paralyzed 5’9 gal who’s twice your size?”

Apparently they did not find this amusing and just straight away took my arms, wrapped them around the neck of one of these guys, while the other got his hands under my legs and … well, heave, ho, here we go!

As they lifted, I could tell this would not end well for me.

They managed to haul me over to the MRI bed, and then we ran into quite a big roadblock … or “butt-block” might be more like it.  As I mentioned, the MRI table was about 4 ½ feet tall. I could tell they were losing strength and that they could not lift me high enough to get me onto the MRI table surface.

The three of us started to sink lower to the ground, and I was just trying to imagine how they planned on picking me up off the floor once we all went down together … or how they’d explain to the top neurosurgeon how they managed to drop a me in the MRI room.

Finally, one of them decided to put my feet up on the bed, with my butt and upper body still being held up mid-air and hanging off one side. So, basically I was now perpendicular to the MRI bed. While one of them struggled to hold my upper body, the other literally started pulling my legs. Try to imagine tug-of-war with a quad atop an MRI table!  Seriously, I could not make up this stuff if I tried.

So, while one guy was pulling my legs and the other was trying to push me up onto the MRI bed, we ran into the problem of my butt continuously dropping and hitting the MRI bed, because the guy holding my torso could not lift my butt. At this instant, my adorable caregiver, Xiao Lin, ran into the room to save the day.

The three of them finally got me up on the MRI bed and placed my head into what I can only describe as a type of Chinese (Star Wars) Darth Vader helmet. I know in the United States there’s a type of harness they put over you so you don’t move your head, but this MRI machine literally caged in my entire head like a space alien.

Oh .. but there’s more.  For the two MRI technicians attempted put my hands over my belly to keep them still as they put me in the MRI machine, but my hands kept flopping down. I tried to explain to them that I’m a quadriplegic and my hands will not stay put . They kept asking me to try… yes, they really did … try again!  Finally, they brought in my caregiver to assist and asked her to hold my hands steady over my belly while I was in the MRI machine.  I’m sorry, what?

Yes, indeed, apparently I cannot drive into the room in a wheelchair with the MRI switched off, but I can have another human being in the MRI room with me without any protective gear holding my hands over my belly. Afterward, when I reflected on these events, I felt badly for my caregiver, because I’m pretty sure she didn’t sign up for so much radiation when she took the job.

I look forward to having a chat with the hospital administration about all this, just as I did a couple years back when I was manhandled by the University of Miami MRI team.

Otherwise, I’ve had an interesting couple days getting my head round the many details related to the admittedly complex surgery being proposed for me.

Two brilliant professors, Dr. Xu Xiao-Ming, M.D., PhD. from Indiana University and Dr. Wu Wutian, M.D., PhD. from Hong Kong University, arrived in Kunming on Saturday for in-depth discussion of my surgery with the Kunming surgical team.  Professors Xu and Wu are not only treasured family friends but are also pioneers in development of the Kunming Walking Program.  Fortunately, a global consortium of neurosurgeons, neuroscientists and neurologists are hammering out final details of my surgery, which now looks like will be scheduled May 14th.

In the next day or two I will post another blog with specific details on the surgery that is being proposed and will be executed by a deeply experienced five-man team who worked together for years at the Kunming PLA (People’s Liberation Army) General Hospital.

6 responses »

  1. Ali, your experiences are almost beyond belief, your courage is extraordinary, and your ability to (apparently) remain positive an inspiration.

  2. Good grief! They don’t have a hoyer lift in the MRI room? Wait, that would be made of metal therefore not allowed. Nevermind that they have ALL the patients in a national army walking program for paras. Sheesh, I’m glad you survived!!! Sounds terrifying!

  3. So sobering to hear about what happens in these situations. Thanks for sharing – it makes me rethink what really matters as a healthcare provider!

  4. I’m guessing your mom was about to have a heart attack. I hope this surgery can come and go more quickly now, and you can focus on therapy instead!! thinking of you…

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