Last Thursday, I drove two hours in heavy traffic to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston to participate in a three-hour clinical study. As I wrote back in November, not long after I had a heart catheterization stress test, one of the cardiologists asked if I’d be willing to participate in a study to find a non-invasive alternative. I agreed, because the test was very unpleasant. If I could help to spare someone else that ordeal, I was willing.
So, after ignoring my GPS, which led me to the wrong side of the hospital, I finally found the parking garage and headed inside. (If you’ve ever been to the Longwood Avenue complex of medical centers in Boston, you’ll appreciate that this was no easy feat.) A pleasant research associate greeted me and reviewed the study protocol, which I had read in advance, so I knew, approximately, what I was in for: a six-minute walking test to establish my baseline, followed by an ECG, an IV insertion, a blood draw, then being hooked up again to an ECG for a 20 minute MRI, followed by up to 10 minutes peddling a recumbent bicycle, followed by a contrast dye infusion and another 30 minutes in the MRI. Not a cakewalk, but still better than the invasive procedure.
Now, I’m no fan of MRIs, which are loud and claustrophobic, and I was trying not to get anxious, anticipating THE BIKE. Last time I did this, I lasted three minutes before I felt really awful, because my pulmonary pressures skyrocketed. I was hoping that my new medication, more exercise in recent months, and better diaphragmatic breathing would all help.
So I really appreciated it when one of the researchers kindly asked if I’d like some music while in the MRI. I requested classical. “What kind of classical?” she asked. Really? You get a choice? I went for Chopin piano etudes, a favorite, and some of the most soothing music I could think of on the spot.
The walking test was easy. They set up two cones in a hallway of the research patients’ floor, and I kept a steady pace, back and forth, for the full six minutes with no issues. Ever the A student, I was pleased to know I was among the fastest walkers in the study, so far.
Then came the MRI. Lots of equipment to attach and adjustments to make as I lay on the bed that slides into the maw of that noisy monster. And, of course, it took two sticks to get a working IV in my arm, which is always the case. The final step was a set of earplugs to lessen the bangs and beeps, plus the headphones, and adjusting the volume so I could still hear Chopin. I hung onto every note of the beautiful melody as they slid me into the MRI and the study began.
The piano etudes were interrupted every few minutes by a recorded voice that instructed me when to breathe in, breathe out, then hold until I could breathe normally again. Beeeeep-bang-bang-bang-rumble-bang-bang-beep-beeeeep-bang. Ahh, Chopin.
I was glad when they rolled me out of the MRI, until the research tech told me that we weren’t done, yet, because the research software had crashed. Help was on the way. Fortunately, rebooting the computer solved the problem—and we were able to pick up where we left off. “Three million for the research software, but we’re still on a Microsoft platform,” he quipped.
Finally the first phase of MRI scans was completed and they rolled me out again, this time for THE BIKE. No headphones for this phase. I was on my own. I peddled up to the tempo they needed to boost my heart rate and made it through the first two minutes of resistance without a problem. “You’re like a metronome!” said the research tech. “Most people slow down and speed up.” “We aim to please,” I said, focusing on my breathing.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how difficult is this?” asked another member of the team. I had trouble answering the question as she raised the resistance to the next level. “A 4?” I answered. Honestly, it was hard to assess while I was trying to manage my breathing. After about a minute at that resistance level, I began to feel some mild chest pressure, which I reported. I was able to finish another minute of peddling, and then they ended that part of the process. A good thing, because I could sense that I was going to start tanking soon.
Headphones back on, first dose of contrast dye infused, Chopin playing in my ears, I began to relax again—until the banging started up. At one point, there was some brrp-brrp-brrping that almost drowned out the music for what seemed like an eternity. I began to feel a bit claustrophobic, but at least could feel my legs outside the machine and even, sort-of, see them. The piano notes that I could catch were my buoy.
Finally, after a second infusion of dye and more banging and clanging, I was done. I felt a little shaky when I sat up, with help, but was soon able to walk back to the changing room and get dressed. They got the data they needed, and I survived without that awful shortness-of-breath feeling. I did my bit for medical science, and, I hope, for someone else down the line who can avoid having a mask with a breathing tub clamped to their face and a heart catheter threaded down their neck while peddling THE BIKE.
On my way out of the hospital, I rewarded myself with a glazed doughnut for the drive home. And just as I got back on the Mass Pike, what should be playing on my Sirius XM station? Chopin, of course.