Minnesota's Denard Span: My Brother In Terror

"I'm going to say it just one more time: I am NOT getting into that box!" (Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE)

Minnesota's Denard Span is too claustrophobic to undergo an MRI. We say, "Join the club, Denard," and offer a few handy survival tips.

This is going to sound like the set-up for some kind of dirty joke, but it's not ...

Have you ever known what it felt like to be a hot dog forced into an undersized bun or a cork in a bottle? Wednesday, the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that Denard Span still doesn't have a diagnosis of the clavicle injury that has kept him off the field. Because he can't get an MRI:

Span revealed that he's claustrophobic and sometimes isn't comfortable in the close quarters of the MRI machine.

"I don't know what else to say," Span said. "It's embarrassing that I couldn't get it done today, but bottom line, I stayed there for an hour trying to get it done. Just couldn't do it, man. I tried my best. When they strapped me in there and told me I couldn't move for 35 minutes, I just couldn't do it."

Span said if he needs to have another MRI he'll find a way to do it. He's not the first player to be claustrophobic- just one of the few to admit it. "I didn't have enough Valium," he said.

Span needn't apologize. Claustrophobia and MRI machines go hand in hand. I know this well, having bailed on several MRI exams myself. Some of us just aren't meant to be the tasty stuffing in a machine sandwich.

For those who haven't had the pleasure of magnetic resonance imaging -- which is the process of having the very protons in your body flipped so that they give off a magnetic field that can be turned into an image of your insides -- it typically involves being wrapped into a vest that contains the receiver coils and also serves to immobilize you, and then being stuffed into a tiny drawer inside a giant machine, which then honks, bangs, and whirs at you at heavy metal-concert sound levels for 30 minutes or an hour or perhaps longer.

I have twice been diagnosed with cancer and have had some other bumps, scrapes, and bruises along the way, so doctors are always curious to know how my innards are doing, lest I get Pearl Harbored by another rogue cell. Your CT and PET scans involve radiation that, taken cumulatively, might themselves stimulate the emergence of more cancer. Indeed, it is thought that the radiation treatment for my first cancer might have caused my second.

Thus, the MRI is the diagnostic tool of choice. Every six months or so, and sometimes more often, I am asked to climb into one of these monstrosities.

The problem is that no matter how much Valium or Xanax I take, I struggle with the tight dimensions of the drawer. If, like me, you are broad in the shoulders and ribs, being swaddled in the aforementioned vest completes the transformation from human to cork; you will fit snugly in the drawer with no ability to move at all, as it not only hugs your shoulders but also is only just high enough not to scrape the tip of your nose; place your hand directly in front of your face, then move it back about an inch and you'll have the idea.

Before being placed within, you are given two items. First, headphones are placed over your ears. These serve a dual function: In addition to protecting your hearing from the noises produced by the machine, music can be piped in and instructions conveyed. You are also given a bulb at the end of a wire. The MRI machine is so loud that, once you're inside, no one can hear you scream. Worse, with the headphones over your ears and music (or more often, Muzak) being played at a volume loud enough to mask the noise of the machine, you couldn't hear yourself scream either. The only thing, in fact, you can hear, is the sound of your own breathing and your heart pounding ever faster. You are told that, if for whatever reason, you need to be pulled out, squeeze the bulb and the tech will come running.

Sometimes the machine is in a brightly lit room with windows. The drawer is usually open at the head end, so at times your eyes will emerge from the back of the machine and you can look up and count the ceiling tiles and have some sense that you are not actually living through Poe's The Premature Burial. Other times, the machine is in a darkened, small enclosure and there is no observable difference between being in and out. This was the setting for the only time I have ever squeezed the panic bulb.

I had been in the machine for some time, fighting off waves of panic as the box chugged and klunked around me. The music had been set for some lite-FM station, probably the same one the military puts on loudspeakers to drive dictators out of their compounds. With each iteration of "You Light Up My Life" and "Can You Read My Mind?" my panic grew stronger. Worse, the music was growing gradually louder, so I could no longer hear anything but the strains of Anne Murray demanding that I believe in her. Matters reached a climax when the Bee Gees arrived to sing "How Deep is Your Love?" except it was


It was like a disco version of the Nuremberg rallies. I screamed and squeezed. I have not been able to listen to the Bee Gees since. To be fair, I couldn't listen to them before then, either. But it's somehow worse now.

When you are pulled out of the drawer under circumstances such as these, sweating and begging for Barry and Maurice to please please please leave you alone, the technician gives you a look that clearly conveys what a pitiable creature you are.

Subsequently, I brought my own listening material. I downloaded a series of stand-up comedy concerts, on the theory that if laughing at new material, I would be too distracted to remember I was in a metal coffin. This and drugs worked to some degree (Eddie Izzard was a favorite), but there were also times that I never even got as far as squeezing the bell; I bailed when they first wrapped me in the vest. Particularly on one occasion, when the subject of the exam was my neck. For this I was placed in a hockey-style mask which was then screwed into place. Forget it. I was gone.

"Are you sure?" the frowning tech asked. Yeah. I was sure.

There are open MRI machines on the market now, but they have poor resolution compared to their enclosed brethren, and so aren't useful for my purposes. I've tried them. You're still wedged in, immobile, and deep inside a machine, but you're sitting up and there is no ceiling pressing down on your face. You can watch TV while being scanned, pausing only for the other hardship of the MRI: the "Hold," when the technician tells you to hold your breath so as to freeze your organs for the scanner, then knocks off for a quick lunch and a smoke before remembering he'd told you to stop breathing half an hour ago. Okay. Breathe. "Euyaaggh!" you gasp, which is just long enough for you to be fooled into thinking you're going to be okay. At that point, the tech says "Hold" again and leaves, never to return.

Summing up, I can offer Denard Span three bits of advice in surviving the MRI:

1. Get as (legally) high as you can. Consult your doctor. It's possible to have a little more Valium or Xanax under these circumstances than one might normally take. Alternatively, some facilities offer you the chance to undergo the procedure while under light anesthesia ("twilight sleep"). I've never done that; anesthesia makes me violently nauseous. If not, I would go for it every time.

2. Bring your own listening material. Whatever relaxes you. I went for the comedians, but if light opera is your thing, Denard, don't be ashamed to haul out your six-CD set of Die Fledermaus or Iolanthe.

3. Just don't do it. You don't really need to know what's wrong with your shoulder. Me, I go for the PET or CT scan every time now, radiation be damned. I've read the complete works of Stan Lee, and fully believe that one of these days I will gain the ability to shoot laser beams from my eyes.

Even if I do eventually glow without the attendant sexual benefits conferred on the firefly, I prefer that fate, any fate, to another round of


(H/T to Hardball Talk)

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