At an inconvenient time, I found out I was claustrophobic.
A few years ago, I noticed a small lump on the side of my face, had it checked out, and found out it was a lipoma. It sounds worse than what it really is, a fatty deposit. Most people get them in their legs or arms. I got one on my face. Because my new appendage was small and probably resting near a nerve, the doctor recommended that we leave it alone. His parting and foreshadowing words were if it gets bigger, come back.
Like a rolling lipoma gathering fat, the bump grew from do you have a pimple to did you have wisdom tooth surgery in just two years. I tried very hard to conceal it, growing my hair long and leaning to the right (as the lipoma was on the left side of my face). I had a constant look of what?, for nearly twenty-four months. As these tricks became too burdensome and I enjoy wearing my hair in a ponytail, I went back to the doctor.
“Oh, yeah, it got bigger,” he diagnosed as soon as he saw me.
To make sure this unwelcomed guest was not resting on my facial nerve, I had to get a magnetic resonance imaging test better known as a MRI. If it were resting on that nerve, then taking it out might cause facial paralysis.
While writing out the directions to the MRI center, the doctor casually asked me how I tolerated enclosed spaces. I did not think much about it, and wanting to sound tough, I said I was pretty good. How I later regretted not giving his question more thought.
At the imaging center, I met with Julia and Frank, the MRI technicians who I would later name in my will. Rubbing my hands together, I announced I was ready to go. Then, I got my first hint as to why the doctor inquired about my ability to handle small spaces — the MRI scanner looked like a coffin or crematorium for an overgrown peppermint stick. I lay down on the stretcher that would take me inside and got ready for my next instruction.
“We just have to do one more thing to do.”
Julia snapped a thick mask that had four vertical bars around my head, putting my head in extreme solitary confinement. I found myself involuntarily doing an impression of Hannibal Lecter. Looking over me, Julia put a device in my hand.
“That’s your panic button. Just press it when you want to get out of the tube.”
Why do I need a 911 buzzer for a sophisticated medical diagnostic tool? What was I doing with my head in a mask? Now I knew what it felt like to be the last Russian doll inside a matroyska doll.
“Did you say something?” Julia asked.
Like the calm before the storm of crazy, I re-mustered two words “not happening.”
Julia, my liberator, took off my mask. I popped up.
“Who can survive this? Astronauts?”
“We hear that a lot.”
“What can I do?”
“You could take a valium.”
Could? This should not be a choice. Like mints, there should be a bowl full of valium or a well-stocked bar in the waiting room.
So, here was my option, get the prescription and come back. I live in Brooklyn and the hospital was on the Upper East Side which is the same as going to Denver on some days. Even though my anxiety was pushing DSM-IV TR, I decided to give the MRI another try. I have endured childbirth, orthodox Yom Kippur services on an empty stomach, and Microeconomics Theory class at eight in the morning. I can do this!
Before I flipped out earlier, Julia was about to attach a mirror to my mask. This allows you to see out while you are in the death chamber, alleviating the claustrophobia. So, we tried this technique, but all I could see was a reflection of the bars. I thought I was watching myself starring in the lead role of the “Woman in the Iron Mask”. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive, he would have used this experience as inspiration for a poem. One good thing, I learned the panic button works.
“Maybe I can give it one more try?”
I think Julia felt really bad for me, maybe the fatty growth made me look sympathetic or maybe she lives in Brooklyn and has a disdain for the 4 train. She had one more trick up her sleeve. Saint Julia could hold my ankle during the procedure. Frank would be in the booth, monitoring the MRI, and he would let me know how much time I had left. I didn’t realize that part of a MRI technician’s job description is: hold ankles of claustrophobic patients.
I kept my eyes closed and focused on Julia’s warm hand holding my right ankle. Every now and then I heard banging which sounded like a group of toddlers were outside the tube banging it with silverware. Hard to believe this is an expensive piece of medical equipment. As scheduled, Frank’s voice, staticky and blurry would come in letting me know five minutes had expired and I was doing great! I was back in kindergarten.
Forty minutes later, I was done. I gave Julia and Frank an airport type hug and later wrote recommendations dripping in synonyms of awesome.
Even better, the lipoma was not near the facial nerve and I could have it taken out. I learned, however, another new fact about myself: anesthesia makes me nauseous.