Regular Monitoring for Brain Bleeds

Inside the MRI.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

Everyone I told about my upcoming brain MRI had warnings.

“I heard it’s really claustrophobic.”

“A friend told me it was hard to stay still for so long.”

“The noise is deafening.”

But my first sojourn in the MRI machine left me feeling almost disppointed. It wasn't fun, but it wasn't claustrophobic, either. Lying still wasn’t hard, and the noises—well, they were loud and invasive, but even they weren't as bad as I'd feared.

I have cavernous angiomas, clusters of malformed blood vessels, in my brain. Two of mine had bled, causing neurological symptoms that shredded my life to tatters.

My only chance to reclaim my life was to remove the angiomas surgically. I underwent three brain surgeries, which, while successful, left me with a number of neurological deficits.

Though my life is harder, it is also fuller. A year into my recovery, I returned to my full-time job as a college professor. I have also become a writer and public speaker.

Unfortunately, living a full life comes at a price. I frequently suffer from debilitating fatigue, which exacerbates my residual deficits. In addition, daily stress and pressure increase the chances of a new bleed from my remaining angiomas.

Symptoms come and go. My neurologist monitors my condition regularly, and I undergo brain MRIs every six to twelve months. Whenever an especially alarming symptom appears, I head to the ER, which usually results in yet another MRI.

In the decade since my surgeries, I've become an old hand at undergoing brain MRIs, though I have never become accustomed to the cacaphony. The noises aren't constant or consistent; there's the sound of a car slamming over rumble strips, a diesel engine revving up and down, a jackhammer pounding relentlessly. During the short break between each set of sounds, a tinny, disembodied voice announces the next bout.

Between the obnoxious noises and the worry that the symptom that's brought me here again is a sign that an angioma is bleeding and I'm heading for surgery or worse, it's impossible to relax.

A few weeks ago I suffered an exceptionally excruciating headache. Pain killers didn’t even take the edge off. At the end of the day, I finally surrendered and went to the ER. And, no surprise, found myself in the MRI scanner.

Trying to distract myself from the pain-aggravating clamor, I counted, first by even numbers, then by threes. I focused on my breathing: in, two, three, four, pause, out, two, three, four, pause, in, two, three—

I jerked awake.

After my initial confusion, I had a moment of panic—I had moved, and not just slightly, something you're not supposed to do during the MRI. Would the technicians insist on repeating the whole miserable test?

The test was fine! Relief! quickly followed by amazement. I had actually fallen asleep during the MRI, in the midst of all the clanging and banging! How was that possible?

Awareness suddenly dawned: the counting and the focus on breathing that allowed me to disengage from the noisy chaos and finally relax so much that my weary self actually fell asleep—these were the same techniques I used to meditate. I'd been practicing meditation to help manage stress. I never imagined it could be part of my MRI experience.

Meditation among jackhammers? Absolutely.