I don’t care who you are, you just don’t ever want to hear a doctor use a phrase like "degenerative neuromuscular disease" after you’ve explained the symptoms you’ve been experiencing lately. Even if it’s just an off-hand speculation on his part, it’s just not one you want to hear. I don’t want Jerry Lewis singing to me, and I have to put up with enough jokes as it us without adding in all the Stephen Hawking cracks.
I’d gone to an internist complaining about some weakness in the legs and some short periods of reverie which seemed to be striking under the same circumstances every day. He made a few mild guesses and sent me to a neurologist. At first I was worried that I was about to embark upon another 12-doctor odyssey through the world of modern medical incompetence, but when he chose a neurologist first, I figured it would be okay.
Two weeks later, I saw the neurologist, and by the time I left his office, I’d been scheduled for some blood tests, an EEG (hadn’t had one of those in about 15 years) and an MRI (ditto). The problem, he told me, was likely a kind of seizure unlike the ones I was used to. And if that didn’t turn out to be the case, he’d start looking into the neuromuscular crap–and I’d have to start practicing my rendition of "Look at Us We’re Walking, Look at Us We’re Talking."
But first things first. I’ve always kind of liked MRIs for some reason. And they just keep getting better. As I was sitting in the neurologist’s waiting room, a brain doctor came in and, with great enthusiasm, opened a glossy, four-color brochure for the receptionist to see.
"Look at what we got down there now," he said with a broad smile. "There are tv monitors inside the MRIs!–so you can bring a tape or a dvd and watch something while you’re in there. I mean, it’s only 20, 25 minutes, but if you’re nervous about it, it’s a nice distraction."
Hmmm, I thought. Would I bring Brainiac? Or The Brain Eaters? Or just stick with The Return of the Living Dead and turn up the volume for the "More braaaiiinnnss!" scenes?
Come to think of it, I wouldn’t bring anything at all. First time I had an MRI, I described it to an unbemused nurse afterwards as "an amusement park ride designed by Josef Mengele." But that’s all changed. Now I find the experience too entertaining all by its lonesome to want anything to distract from it. Hell, I can watch movies anytime–how often do I get to have an MRI?
Two mornings after my appointment with the neurologist, I was standing in a hospital lobby, and the woman at the registration desk was typing in my information.
"Are you still employed?" she asked, after getting my address and phone number and insurance information.
"Yeah," I said.
Just then, a huffy blond man stepped in front of me (difficult to do, as I was actually leaning on the desk) and demanded to know how much longer he’d have to wait.
"About half an hour," the woman said. I’d waited 45 minutes.
"Half an hour?"
"Lot of people in front of you, sir." She didn’t look at him.
He turned without another word and stomped back to his chair, where he slumped down with a loud, frustrated sigh. I got the impression she was going to make him wait a lot longer than half an hour, and I didn’t blame her.
She continued typing in silence for a while, before glancing at her screen and asking me, "You still with the Review?"
"the Review. Are you still with The Review?"
I had no idea what she was talking about. "No ma’am–I’m… I’m with New York Press. It’s right on the card there."
She typed in silence awhile longer, before asking, "So when’d you leave the Review?"
I wondered for a moment what kind of misshapen database she was accessing there, and then got the feeling that I was in for a bad time of it.
Ten minutes later, having faced no more prying queries about my time at the Review, I was sitting in the brown, drab MRI waiting room. There was only one other patient there with me–a middle-aged woman wearing a kerchief. The receptionist handed me a line drawing of the human body, and asked me to mark off any places where I had any metal implants.
I put two small marks in the jaw, and left it at that, forgetting about the four surgical staples left inside my body after the vasectomy.
The wall-mounted television was showing an animated "science for kids" documentary series about dinosaur violence. This week’s episode involved saber-toothed tigers, carnivorous birds, and killer sloths. They maimed and slaughtered each other for half an hour.
I realize it was supposed to be an inescapable distraction–distraction is big business in the world of MRIs–but all the show did that morning was underscore the sense of doom hanging over the waiting room, reminding us all again that we were there because there was something wrong with our brains.
An Hispanic man in his early 30s walked in with his mildly retarded sister. They took a seat and stared at the television. Whenever something was about to hurt something else on the screen, she would shriek "Oh God, no! No!" until her brother calmed her down again.
It was quite a relief when my name was finally called.
The chubby, bespectacled, jolly fellow led me to a dressing room and told me to remove all the metal I could from my person.
"You have any operations since your last MRI?" he asked.
"Had a cyst removed from my foot," I confessed. "A biggie. But no metal was left behind. Not that I’m aware of, anyway." I didn’t bother to tell him about the staples, either. Under other circumstances, that omission could have caused me a great deal of trouble–but this time I knew they wouldn’t be going any further south than my neck.
"No other metal in your body?"
"We won’t worry about those," he said. "I left my pliers at home today."
Five minutes later, I was on my back, my head held in place with four small pieces of foam, and I was slid into a long white cocoon. I was glad I hadn’t bothered to pack a copy of The Brain from Planet Arous or Donovan’s Brain, as there was no television monitor in sight. Just as well. The jolly man flicked a switch, and the shrieking, humming, banging festival began. At times it sounded like someone was standing outside the cocoon, tapping on it with a pair of drumsticks. At others it sounded like it was about to take off. At others, like a garbage can rolling down a rocky hillside. And before too long, I began to hallucinate.
I hallucinate far too easily sometimes, I think. Here, it was just a word–"now," repeated over and over again. After a few minutes, "now" transmogrified into "why?" which also repeated for several minutes before sliding back into "now." Both words made perfect sense, I thought, considering the circumstances.
And beneath it all was a deep, sinister cackle. A movie-villain cackle, which I hoped desperately wasn’t coming out of the technician who was standing a few feet away, monitoring the images of my brain.
I nearly dozed off, and, as usual, was very disappointed to hear that it was over.
Now, the past few times I’ve had MRIs, the techs always had some words of comfort for me after sliding me out from the machine. "I didn’t see anything unexpected on the screen," they’d say. Or, "It looks fine to me." Even if they were lying, it was nice to hear.
This time, though, the tech didn’t say anything like that. This time all he said was, "You’d better check with your doctor on Tuesday or Wednesday, after he’s had a chance to look these over. See what he thinks."
That’s about as comforting as a neurologist speculating aloud about degenerative neuromuscular diseases. Jesus.
I left the hospital trying to stave off a soaking dread. Damn that Squiggy! I thought. Morgan had pointed out recently that ever since I read David (Squiggy) Lander’s book, Fall Down Laughing–and then interviewed him about it–I’d had MS on the brain (so to speak). It was an easy trap to fall into–all the criteria were there (right age, proper ancestry, early head trauma, etc.). And once I suddenly started finding it difficult to stand up without some effort, well, I couldn’t help it. The doctor and the MRI tech weren’t much help. These weren’t the things I needed to be hearing. None if it. And I still had to get an EEG done.
EEGs aren’t nearly so much fun as MRIs, I’ll tell you that.
Jim Knipfel’s latest book–and first novel–The Buzzing (Vintage, $12) has just been released. Here’s what Thomas Pynchon had to say about it: "The Balzac of the bin is at it again. With his paranoid Valentine to New York–and to a certain saurian colossus noted for his own ambivalent feelings about large cities–Mr. Knipfel now brings to fiction the welcome gifts which distinguished his previous books–the authenticity, the narrative exuberance, the integrity of his cheerfully undeluded American voice."