One of the aspects of one of my jobs is to give sedation (either oral or intravenous) to clients who need MRIs but who suffer from claustrophobia (fear of being in enclosed spaces) and need the bravery that the meds can give them. Some folks break into a sweat just looking at the “tube” and imagining being in it. Others are fine until they are slid inside. Some are so freaked out once they get inside that they Houdini themselves out before we can get to them to help them out! Despite reassurances that they can’t help the irrational fight or flight response that has been elicited, they often they voice embarassment at their inability to control the fear that wells up inside of them.
Before their exam, I usually ask them if they know why they have claustrophobia. Oddly, it is the rare woman who knows the reason. Much more often men can pinpoint the genesis of their fear of being in the MRI “tube” to a particular event. (Of note, people will sometimes not know that they have claustrophobia until they try to have an MRI and fail!)
Here are some of the stories I have heard from male patients.
One was nearly suffocated by his brother when he was a child. They were playing with pillows and the brother held one over his face for a little too long.
A few were “tunnel rats” in Viet Nam. One had been trapped in a fox hole by exploded debris in WWII.
One was buried by sand in a cave-in at dig at work. He had the quickness of mind to pull his hardhat over his face thus creating a small air pocket which helped to keep him alive until he was dug out from under the ten feet of debris over him.
Most recently I had a gentlemen who was very hesitant to share his story. With some gentle encouragement, I asked him if he wouldn’t share with me what happened. He was held prisoner of war for 17 days in a Viet Cong prison camp. For seven of those days he was sealed in a 50 gallon drum and the drum was beat on from the outside by his captors. All this had come flooding back to him in a palpable way when he had an MRI done on his neck. You see, MRI tubes are about the circumference of a 50 gallon drum, and the machine makes banging sounds when scans are being taken. Despite this, when he found out that the MRI he was going to be having done this time would require him to enter the tube feet first and that his head would be near the opening of the machine, he said “oh, I can do this without any help from medicine”, and he did. Later his wife told me that although they’d been married shortly after his return from the war, he only recently shared the story of his seven days in the drum.
There is one elderly woman’s story that has stuck with me as well. She was a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany to England and was buried for many days in the pitch dark under the house in which she was living when it was bombed and collapsed. She survived but was never again able to be enclosed in a small space of any type.
Imagine trying to put any of these horrifying things behind you when they spring out at you whenever the walls are too close.
These are stories I will never forget. And even though I’m not in the ER anymore taking part in life saving activities, these are the patients that bring me satisfaction.