From David Maughan Brown in York: Magnetic attraction

November 3rd

One has to take one’s excitements where one can these days, particularly with another very belated lockdown looming.  On a scale of one to ten, yesterday’s excitement – another MRI scan – might, at a push, just about have reached three on the scale.  Nothing particularly exciting about sitting in the car in the Nuffield Hospital car park waiting for the exact moment of the appointment to arrive, having received strict instructions not to arrive early.  Nothing at all exciting about the mask-wearing, hand sanitising, socially-distanced questionnaire filling-in rituals of contemporary hospital visits, although having to put on a paper-thin (very literally) and eminently disposable gown was, at least, vaguely interesting.  Nothing, for that matter, particularly exciting about being inserted into a very narrow tube in an ultra noisy machine and spending over 20 minutes trying to suppress one’s chronic cough in the claustrophobic depths of very strong magnetic field.  But this time the MRI experience was made more interesting – exciting is, again, perhaps putting it too strongly – by my having chaired a u3a Saturday morning talk on medical imaging last month.

It was a highly informative run-through of the full range of medical imaging equipment from X-Rays, via ultrasounds, to MRIs, illustrated, as one might expect, with copious charts and images.  The most striking image of all was not the very first X-Ray image, that of Anna Roentgen’s hand with her wedding-ring – titled, reasonably enough, ‘Hand mit Ringen’ – for which her husband Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen won the 1901 Nobel Prize for Physics, it was of what had happened when someone inadvertently turned the MRI machine on to test it after someone else had even less advertently left a very large electric floor polisher unattended in the MRI room.  ‘Room’ sounds a little demeaning for so technologically sophisticated a device, so ‘MRI theatre’ might be better.  In that instance ‘theatre’ would certainly have covered it.  Suffice it to say that the floor polisher hurled itself through the air seeking the warm embrace of an unwelcoming MRI into which it had no chance whatever of fitting.  The mechanical carnage was considerable.

Intrigued by this image, I subsequently took a look at what Google Images has to  offer by way of photographs of the aftermath of MRI accidents, not knowing that I would shortly be renewing my acquaintance with one of said devices.  The range of hospital equipment that has at one time or another, somewhere around the globe, fallen victim to the irresistible attraction of these machines is astonishing.  Apart from the floor-polisher, our Saturday speaker had told us only about a plumber’s toolbox that had been forgotten in a corner of an MRI theatre which, when the machine had powered up, had very briefly offered up a blizzard of spanners, screwdrivers, chisels and sundry other bits of metal for the MRI to swallow.  Fortunately nobody had been in the way.  Google Images displays far more dramatic photographs featuring the crumpled remains of hospital trolleys (as illustrated), desk chairs, filing cabinets, shopping trolleys (?), stretchers, sundry bits of hi-tech equipment, and in one instance a wheelchair, that had hurled themselves to their doom trying to fit into that narrow tube.  If nothing else, the photographs made it abundantly clear why the questionnaire I had to sign was so interested in whether I had any metallic bits and pieces secreted in different parts of my body.

While the photograph of the hospital trolley’s, and our speaker’s photograph of the wheelchair’s, entanglements with the MRI tactfully give no indication as to whether either the trolley or the wheelchair was occupied when the relevant MRI was switched on, other photographs provide links to the news reports which the photographs had illustrated.  There is scope here only for a brief summary of one report confirming the suspicion that it isn’t only mechanical objects that fall foul of MRIs.* A technician working on an MRI scanner in New Delhi hospital in 2014 is reported to have asked a porter to bring him an oxygen mask.  The porter misunderstood what was needed and dragged a 4ft oxygen cylinder into the scanning room instead, oblivious to the fact that the MRI had been switched on.  The oxygen cylinder promptly responded to the siren call of the MRI by hastening to form a very firm attachment, sweeping all before it. What was before it included both the technician and the porter, who were crushed against the MRI.  Both men were injured, one with a broken elbow, the other with ‘muscular injuries to the lower limbs’, and both had to be treated while still trapped against the MRI because the emergency switch to turn the MRI off had apparently been disabled the last time the MRI had been serviced.  It took four hours for General Electric technicians to get there and turn the MRI off, during which time a futile endeavour had been made to release the men by attaching one end of a rope to the gas cylinder and enlisting 20 men to pull on the other end.  The 20 men had comprehensively lost the tug-o’-war.  

As you can imagine, the level 3 excitement of the day, such as it was – perhaps apprehension would be a better word – involved undertaking a very thorough scan of the scanning room to check that no random tool boxes, floor-polishers, screwdrivers, shopping trolleys, filing cabinets, desk chairs or oxygen cylinders had been left lying around, before I allowed myself to be inserted into the waiting mouth of the MRI.   It is noisy and claustrophobic enough in there at the best of times without having sundry metallic objects arrive unexpectedly to keep one company.


3 thoughts on “From David Maughan Brown in York: Magnetic attraction

  1. Thank you for a wonderful laugh, even though the piece was describing a serious event. At my next encounter with the machine in question, I´ll make sure to check the theatre.
    Regards., Rodney

    Liked by 1 person

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