Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania Adjusts my Heart Chakra

Meditation has been at the top of my list of New Year’s Resolutions for the last five years.  You’d think for all the hours I log in at Starbucks flipping through Yoga Journal and Shambhala Sun I could spare 10 effing minutes to officially sit and do nothing.  Oh, God--wouldn't you think that for all the hours and days that slip away while I do ziltch, I could formally dedicate 10 minutes to the task and get some credit for it?

Avoiding meditation is such an engrossing pastime that I actually had to be hospitalized and tricked into doing it.

Because of some arrhythmias, a couple of days ago I had to drive out to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to have a cardiac MRI.   This test is nothing, just a little pre-test for the real ordeal of having a cardiac electrical panel, which requires catheterization, and possibly the implantation of a cardiac defibrillator.

MRIs can be weirdly relaxing:  you’re treated like you’re entering a spa, with fuzzy socks and a cozy blanket and headphones with your choice of music.  (I always choose Clapton because it complements the banging  of the MRI.)  You slide into a dim tunnel and glance at a strategically placed rearview mirror, feeling the room magically open up again within the enclosed space.  You shut your eyes and you may even doze for 20 minutes somewhere between “Layla” and “Waiting for Another Lover.”

Cardiac MRIs are a little different.  For one thing, they take a full hour.  You still get the blanket and fuzzy socks, but this time the headphones are for transmitting instructions. 

Electrodes are stuck onto your chest and your trunk is covered with a heavy bib.  As the tunnel begins to slide over me I feel secure; it's almost like being swaddled.  But there's no rearview mirror and there's no missing the fact that the wall of this tunnel is almost touching the tip of my nose.  As I fondle a bulb the technician put into my right hand to squeeze in case of an emergency, my knuckles rap against the wall of my little coffin.

No sooner have I closed my eyes than my pilot, the technician, begins her instructions.

“Deep breath in…Deep breath out--all the way out…Now hold.”   

The banging, which seems to come from everywhere and nowhere in particular, continues for about 15 seconds while I struggle with my breath.  An image appears, unbidden, of Niagara Falls, of being stuffed into a tin garbage can while Kodo drummers bash me from all sides  during my free-fall. 

“And breathe.”

I’m sure I breathed about 5 seconds before she told me to, but I did it very quietly and hoped no one would notice--just a little whiff here and there--although I may have actually gasped right before she finally told me to breathe.

Still, I reason, it's in my best interest to be compliant.  If I can't hold still and not breathe, a useful image of my heart function might not be captured and I could be in this tunnel all day. That, and if I don't do something right now I'll have a panic attack.

“Deep breath in…Deep breath out--all the way out…Now hold.”  

It's the fucking Kodo drummers again every time I close my eyes.  I let my gaze rest at some vague gray area just beyond the tip of my nose and picture a sunny meadow with a high blue sky and a couple of cheery clouds puffing along, but I feel silly and defiant.  It's a sham--I'm still in the fucking tunnel, I'm just playing cheap mind games.  My mind wanders to images of torture and what might be the best approach for endurance. Why the hell didn't I ever read John McCain's memoirs?  

In the gap between John McCain and the banging of the Kodo drummers I recall that the room still exists.  I'm not able to see it, but I'm sure it's still there.  And slowly, like a balloon rising above the hospital complex, I'm surrounded by a cool, blue sky. It was there half an hour ago, surely it's still there now.  And up I go, blue traveling softly into black where a 3-D galaxy of stars reveals itself.  Behind the noise of the machine, surely there's silence.  I'm merely at the center of a gradually radiating spaciousness.  

Right, but what about the breathing?  Now that I'm no longer anxious, I can follow orders.  When I hold the breath, I freeze and count, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three..." until my pilot instructs me to breathe.  The dramatic banging becomes insignificant background noise as I count.  Around the time I start feeling disembodied and free, as if I could follow these simple instructions forever, without thinking, I'm directed back to my body.

"You're going to feel it as we push the dye through your IV now."  

A stinging sensation travels swiftly up my left arm, blooms on my lips with a foul taste, and loops around my heart, settling down between my legs before abruptly dissipating.  It's like a guided tour of blood vessels, arteries, and nerve endings, but instead of using a visual guide, we're using heat, instead of seeing, we're feeling.

Startled to be back in my body again, I still manage to follow directions, inhaling, exhaling, holding.  That pause of no-breath is curious; counting is still moving through time with awareness, but pausing is eternal.

When the tunnel slides away, the technician takes my hand.  An hour has gone by without me.  I sit up and the room is bright. People in green scrubs walk by behind a pane of glass, chatting loudly, while others fiddle with a control panel.  I expect to be relieved, of course, but I'm surprisingly alert, refreshed, and calm.  That sense of synchronicity follows me for a while.

At my request, the technician shows me some images on her screen.  Frozen  gray shapes with blackish outlines erupt into sudden movement and then freeze again.  This heart--my heart--has been working flamboyantly behind the scenes all the time.  Hidden, beyond my control, rather hideous, but there it is.  Sure, it may be flawed, but what a wonder it is!  Beating and pausing, conducting electricity and doing a pretty good job of sustaining life, while I count and fret.


  1. This is the very thing I have been waiting for ... holding my breath for!
    I just did not know where your account of your MRI experience would appear ... here it is and I've found it!

    My £50 ? is ... are you still procrastinating rather than meditating?
    But don't be fooled into thinking that meditating is doing nothing ... to me it seems like one of the most self disciplined past times or way to pass the time. Just trying to MAKE myself sit in time IN another bubble is one of the most challenging ideas that so far I have not been able to pull off.
    I am a failed meditator ... I have tried in groups but why oh why am I the only one to squint my eyes open to look around the room (hoping they look closed to the leader) maybe everyone is squinting ... or why am I the first person to wiggle and move ... I simply can't sit still for any length of time ...

    Back to the heart of the matter: do you now wait for results?
    What now?

  2. My 50 bucks is on counting my MRI as meditation experience. It was very hard work indeed, maintaining focus, watching my breath, acknowledging the banging machine and lightly letting it go...I bet some of the ones in your med. group who keep their eyes closed are thinking of sex.

    Just waiting for my next appt. to be made for me. I stay on the periphery filing my nails while all the arrangements are made for me by My Specialist's Office. Hubba-hubba.

    Sis! You're my loyal reader! xxxxxxxxxxxx and responder xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  3. I keep trying to post, and it keeps coming up blank. IS there some cosmic message? I just wanted you to know Charlotte, that I thought this was an excellent bit of writing, that left me thinking of it the next day, and discussing it with my husband. You seem to have perfectly capturing the type of mental gymnastics I put myself through when I go to the dentist. I can't imagine doing this while in a tunnel for an hour! I do hope your results are good, and healthy. I too am a meditation wanna-be, and never get to it, though I had success 20 years ago with those guided meditation tapes. Keep writing Charlotte! I love to read what you have to say, (though don't always get the time) - Julez

  4. I'm so happy I make sense to you, that you can identify, and you like reading it! It's the most wonderful feeling--like I've invited you into my soul and you accepted the invitation! xxx