The machine that goes ping

I spent a few hours at the hospital last week in preparation for my upcoming radiation therapy. The first task was to make a mask to hold my head firmly in the right place for irradiation. This involved being positioned correctly and having a warm/almost hot sheet of plastic placed over my face and having it formed tightly then fixed to the table. The process was uncomfortable but ok. The mask was cooled down with some damp towels then I was ready for a CT scan.

The PET scanner att Uppsala university hospital

After this process I was transferred to the MR department for a magnetic resonance scan. The mask came with me. The assistant showed me to a small room and requested me to remove all my clothes and put on a hospital shirt. I think that I must have looked a bit surprised as she then said that I could keep my underpants, which was a relief (see earlier post). I was taken to the MR room and had to lie on the examination table where I was reunited with my mask and promptly fastened to the table with my head in exactly the same position as for the CT-scan. The MR did not go ping, but it did make a lot of noise. While inside the MR I had time to think about my own experiences of MR earlier in my career:

The technique used for the examination is nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). If you are not well acquainted with the technique you may want to see the short video presented at before reading more.

NMR in Sweden is “Nordic Motståndsrörelse”, an unpleasant fascist organisation that we will ignore.
For the rest of this post NMR or MR refer to the medical or scientific techniques.

My first encounter with NMR was while attending grammar school. My teacher was an expert in the field having attained a PhD using the technique. My class got to visit his lab at Liverpool university. It was all very high tech (think 1977) with computers and lots of flashing lights. We even got to play a computer game.

Some years later I arrived in Uppsala as a post graduate student and started doing work on DNA and RNA synthesis. After completing my first experiment a fellow postgrad, Marek, said something which I understood as “you need an enema”. I explained that my bowel function was perfectly fine but thanked him for his concern.  After some discussion we arrived at the conclusion that I did indeed need an NMR in order to confirm the results of my experiment. After this small incident NMR became an integral and greatly appreciated tool in my research career.

A couple of years later I got the opportunity to attend a course on advanced NMR spectroscopy, given by one of the leading experts in the field, in Södertälje, a town about 150 km south of Uppsala. The course was over two days and required staying overnight at the local hotel. I, together with a fellow postgrad, Anders, were given permission to attend the course, but not given the economic resources required. We solved this by commuting for two days on Anders’ Triumph (if I remember correctly) motorbike. This would have been fine except that it absolutely poured down with rain both days, so that while all of the course participants were well dressed, Anders and I were like drowned rats.

A few more years passed and I was responsible for establishing an NMR lab in the basement of Uppsala Biomedical Centre. My main concern was to create a lab that was accessible for many different users while keeping to a very strict budget, a returning theme in the academic world. One of the researchers expected to be a frequent user was Dr L., who is sadly no longer with us. Dr L. had lost his right arm in an accident while he was very young and had adapted to life with only one arm in an admirable way. We used to joke a lot and had literature seminars in the sauna quite frequently. I named him the one-armed bandit, which he appreciated, but many others thought offensive. When the lab was ready to be inaugurated I was a bit worried because the NMR instrument used a very strong magnet to which any magnetic objects would get stuck. This could include various tools, pens, hairclips etc and cause distress to the owner as they were hard to remove. What was worse was that it was not good for the instrument. I, therefore installed an extra hanger by the door. Dr L. noticed this and immediately asked what this was for. I explained that it was for him to hang his prosthetic arm on before entering the room. Dr L. really appreciated my concern for his wellbeing, but many other people thought that I was completely tactless. The next day I noticed a second hanger next to the door. After making some enquiries, Dr L. explained that he had installed the second hanger for our female colleagues to hang their bras as the wire supports were probably magnetic.

It is quite amazing how thoughts can wander and associate during what is normally a stressful experience. I was soon released from my mask and from the medical radiology department. As a reward, I was able to indulge in a cinnamon bun and cup of coffee (you can’t get more Swedish than that!)

Published by Topherwelch

Just an ordinary guy trying to live an ordinary life. I do ordinary things like run, cycle and ski. I swim if I have to. I enjoy all sorts of music and like to play some too. I enjoy good food - maybe too much - and a glass or two.

One thought on “The machine that goes ping

  1. It’s good to know you didn’t actually need an enema. NMR is pretty amazing. I have mesenteric desmoid tumor that they monitor using CT scans. Others with superficial desmoid tumors are monitored using NMR. It’s interesting to be able to follow what the equipment is doing. It’s a pretty far cry from PMR back in the 70’s.

    Thanks for sharing such an entertaining story. I hope the mask doesn’t make you feel too much like “The Man in The Iron Mask”; of course we all know there’s no metal involved. As far as your prosthetic arm hanger, and subsequent bra hanger, I think those were practical and considerate, and not tactless at all. It makes me wonder if male gynecologists and female urologists have to take courses to learn how to speak tactfully to members of the opposite sex. I’m always more interested in practicality than tact.

    Hang in there. Some days will be worse than others, and some will be better. Always look for little things that are entertaining. Which you seem to be doing.


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