Alone in space
By Phillip Lopate
June 10, 2016
Yesterday I had my first MRI. I had scheduled it after a visit to my urologist, Dr. Purohit, whom I had been seeing once a year to check on the status of my prostate. This time he told me that my PSA numbers (one of the means by which your propensity for prostate cancer is checked) were elevated: they had been drifting upwards over the last few visits and were now at 6.3. Dr. Purohit is Indian, in his 40s, I imagine, and very handsome, with kewpie doll lips. Though I am not gay, I still register and appreciate masculine beauty. His manner is sympathetic, but he once alarmed me by saying that my cancer was not a problem yet, it was under control. I didn’t even know I had a cancer. I once read an article, probably in the Science section of The New York Times, which said that over time everyone develops cancer. In any case, the doctor said it would be a good idea to get an MRI, just to be on the safe side. If any lesions or irregularities turned up, then they would do a biopsy.
I went home and told my wife, who reminded me in a calm voice that prostate cancers developed so slowly that often the person would die before the cancer could kill them. I didn’t find this so reassuring, a) because some men do die of prostate cancers, and b) I wasn’t eager to hurry up and die so that I could beat prostate cancer to the punch. She must have realized I thought her attitude a little too blasé, and quickly admitted the situation was “concerning.” That was the word, “concerning,” that we hit upon as a compromise between my anxiety and her sanguine detachment.
It was rainy, soggy, and blustery yesterday; I got out of the subway and started to walk all the way east to the imaging center. Why do they always put these medical facilities all the way east by the river? On the way I stopped at a food vendor and bought a hot dog, or rather an Italian sausage, because I hadn’t had any breakfast and was afraid I would suddenly get too hungry in the middle of the procedure. But I cursed myself for ordering something that needed to be fried, which meant getting soaking wet as I stood in the rain waiting for my food. Even though I had an umbrella, my wide-wale corduroy pants were already drenched, a particularly unpleasant sensation, wet corduroy. I ate the sausage (not bad) as I walked the last few blocks to the center. In the lobby there was a plastic bag dispenser for umbrellas, and I availed myself of one. A curious amenity: what would they think of next? The receptionist gave me a dozen forms to fill out: she was young and pleasant and I saw on her nametag that she had a Greek name. I sat in the waiting room with other patients, who looked disgruntled or out of sorts, and tried to finish the crossword puzzle in the Friday Times, which was proving difficult, especially the upper right hand corner. It was a bad omen when I couldn’t finish the day’s crossword puzzle. Usually I could somehow solve Friday’s and Saturday’s puzzles, which are the hardest, but not yesterday’s. Maybe my brain was going, as well as my prostate.
I noted politely, I hope, at the desk, that my appointment was for 11:30 and it was already noon. They apologized, said they were running late. “Five more minutes,” I was promised. Sure enough, a young Asian man summoned me not long after and led me through a set of doors to a waiting room, where I was given a hospital gown that opened at the back and told to undress, everything except for my underwear. He advised me to use the bathroom first. I was given a key, and locked the door of the changing room so that my wallet would not be stolen. I did use the bathroom, obediently. Now it was time for my MRI. What do those initials stand for? I never thought to ask. Another young man, who introduced himself as Claudio, shook my hand and told me to lie on the table. “I’m going to take some of your blood,” he said, like an affable vampire. “This is going to sting,” he warned, and it did. Then he flushed some saline solution into my vein and followed it up with dye.
“How long will the procedure last?” I asked.
“Thirty-five to 40 minutes. What kind of music do you like?” he asked, putting earphones over my head.
It seemed a tricky question, I like many kinds of music. “Classical,” I answered finally. He was about to roll me into the cylindrical machine that looks like some sort of spacecraft. Through the earphones I was hearing a Norah Jones song. I don’t hate Norah Jones exactly, but I would not want to enter eternity locked in her lite pop embrace. “This isn’t classical!” I cried out.
“Yes, I was about to change it,” he answered, annoyed. “Remember, don’t move. Stay very still.” He placed a little rubber ball in my left hand and told me that if I needed to call for assistance I could squeeze it. Then he was out the door.
I was alone—alone in space. Actually it wasn’t that dark, not like a sensory deprivation experiment. I could easily make out the cone form encircling me, with its ridged divisions, but I chose to shut my eyes. A series of banging noises started, like an ack-ack gun, and the machine began to wobble and vibrate like an automatic dryer. The noises kept changing in pitch and rhythm. I wondered what would happen if I had a panic attack. Maybe that was why they had given me the little ball that could signal the outside world. True, I had never had a panic attack, but there is always a first time … Meanwhile, my earphone music was seguing from some sort of lullaby to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. My throat felt dry. I was becoming acutely aware of pins and needles in both my hands, especially the one holding the little ball. A voice from a loudspeaker announced: “This next phase will last seven minutes.” Lots of racket and shaking. The plate underneath my buttocks became quite hot. I had not the slightest doubt that I could stoically endure the whole 40 minutes, though time was moving slowly, inordinately so. “The next, final phase will last 10 minutes,” the disembodied voice informed me. Oh, good. I could do 10 more minutes. The music had evolved to a fully orchestrated Chopin nocturne. Then it was over. Claudio unhooked me. I hadn’t minded the experience, it would have been fine except for the pins and needles.
“You should drink several glasses of water during the day, to flush out the dye.”
“Otherwise, am I going to glow in the dark?” I jested.
“No, there’s no radiation involved with this,” he said somberly and proudly. Apparently I’d entered a no-joking zone, like the TSA-operated airport screening lines.
I forgot to drink those several glasses of water.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.