Dry November: Day 29

November 29, 2018

On my penultimate dry day, I’m writing in an empty pub on Tottenham Court Road, where the staff knows me, as I used to work nearby. I’m in a pub because, although I’d secured a coveted seat in the excellent TAP Coffee No. 114, the tiny venue lacks a loo, and I’d had to drink two litres of water at the hospital.

Today I had an MRI. I’ve had an ongoing mystery illness, to which I’ve occasionally alluded, but for which I still have no diagnosis. After worsening abdominal pains from July to October, including a few hospitalisations, I have mostly recovered, though I can’t say Western medicine deserves much credit for this development. The best I can say for their invasive but unproductive meddling is that had I truly been about to die, as I sometimes felt that I was, they might have been able to intervene. Though I’m not totally certain even of that. I suppose it’s also good to know I don’t have cancer, Crohn’s, Celiac, or any of the multitude of other conditions they’ve eliminated in their fruitless, painful search. And to be fair to them, they have done quite a lot of work, quite a number of procedures, though to call this “care” would be an exaggeration, given the lack of comms or guidance that there has been.

An MRI, I learned today, takes more time than a CT scan. I arrived at 11:20 and, over the course of an hour, had to drink the aforementioned litres of water in a hallway. “You’re nil by mouth?” a nurse asked. “No…” I said, confused. “When did you last eat?” “Last night.” “Then you’re nil by mouth,” he informed me. I thought he was asking whether I had been forbidden to eat, which I felt I hadn’t, except technically I had, because of this procedure. You’re not allowed any food for four hours before the MRI, though the instructions they sent were contradictory; some said you could drink water, others said you couldn’t drink anything. The nurse really wanted to know whether I’d eaten today, and I hadn’t, so that was fine.

He asked me a lot of questions (which I’d already answered on a form) about metal implants, piercings, shrapnel and bullets, and some about other ailments—including the bizarre-sounding “megacolon”—that related to their plan to inject me with buscopan. This seems to be one of the few drugs the NHS loves to give out, probably because it doesn’t do anything. I’ve had it orally and intramuscularly, when they suspected me of IBS; today I had it intravenously. Apart from blurring my vision it had no apparent effect. It did, however, give them the chance to put a canula into my arm, which UCLH loves to do at every opportunity. Despite being diabetic, and therefore obliged perpetually to prick and puncture myself just to stay alive, I have a paradoxical terror of other people doing so, presumably from a childhood scarred by hospitals. The practitioner was proficient, and the procedure painless, however, so my fear of needles proved needless.

There was a bit of kerfuffle over my insulin pump site. They wanted me to remove it, even though it has no metal. This would have disrupted my day and deprived me of insulin until I could get home to re-insert a new site, as it had not occurred to me to bring one. In the end, in a rare turn of events, I won, and was relieved to find, during the scan, that I was right: there is no metal in the infusion site. Or at least the magnets caused nothing to tear through my body.

The procedure took about half an hour. I did not find it claustrophobic or unpleasant; if anything, by the end, I was in danger of falling asleep. I credit this partly to my knowledge of how to insert earplugs; without them securely in the ear, the noise might have been overwhelming, and I might have looked as dazed and distraught as the elderly woman rubbing her temples outside as I went in. Halfway through a nurse came into the room to inject the buscopan, telling me that it might make my mouth dry. I’d just downed litres of water so I was not too worried about this eventuality.

The experience itself reminded me of nothing so much as 2001, perhaps because of the enclosed space (reminding me of the astronauts’ hibernation chambers) and the excessive noise, as well as the strange pneumatic tubes, and the 60s futuristic feel of the whole affair. After we left the IMAX screening of the film last week, my partner and a few others had complained about the volume of 2001; but in my opinion it was exactly right. Voices were audible, the music was sometimes uncomfortably loud, and the sirens were utterly unbearable, just as Kubrick had intended. A perfect use of the vast dynamic range of a cinema.

The MRI was likewise a productive cacophony. They moved me backwards and forwards as I lay prone, trying not to disturb my canula, with earplugs in and headphones over them. The noises were still, as they were reputed to be, extremely loud, but to me they were not wholly unpleasant. There is a sort of pumping noise that sounds musical, and the noises when they scan, during which they make you hold your breath, vary in pitch, tone, volume, and frequency. As surreal as 2001.

Afterwards they released me and left me to retrieve my belongings from the two lockers they had instructed me to use. I dressed there rather than in the changing room. In typical fashion there was no explanation of what had happened, or what to expect. After I’d dressed, I walked into their little cockpit, adjacent to the scary magnet room. “Just wanted to ask, do you have a rough idea of when…” I paused. I was a bit dizzy, and my vision blurry, presumably from the useless buscopan. The nurse got idea. “Two weeks,” she said dismissively. I doubted it, but the nurses had been kind, so I wandered out of the hospital in a daze.

The pub is now, at 16:25, beginning to fill, as if anticipation of an increasingly dissolute December.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.