Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Spider Brain

Last Wednesday I had an appointment to talk migraines, specifically migraine meds. My doc sent me home with a new daily prescription, but what I didn't mention was that she also ordered an MRI for Friday afternoon.

I'm not sure why I didn't mention it. Probably didn't want to speculate much about what might be inside the ol' brain pan, and wasn't really sure how I felt about the test yet. Well, scared--that was one way I felt about it--but in terms of levels of scared, I was going to hit a new one before the weekend was out. I'm not particularly claustrophobic, but I am just phobic, and I knew the import of the test would be weighing on me enough that I wasn't going to make it through a half hour in the old MRI tube without some help. She prescribed a short-acting sedative I've taken before (for flying) and I was all set. As set as I was gonna be.

I took Friday afternoon off. I could barely concentrate all morning, but I left things in order for my sub, came home, ate a sensible lunch in front of the TV, and took my sleepy pill at just the right time. E drove me to the doctor and sat with me in the radiology waiting room. I listened to half of one song on my soundtrack playlist before a squat woman in light blue scrubs called me back to the MRI room. She didn't seem particularly interested in eye contact, which was unsettling, but it was one of the least unsettling things about the experience so I let it go.

I had carefully selected my clothes to be metal-free and comfortable, and I was dressed in soft layers, but it was very cold inside the room with the machine. Most of this was probably perception, from my fear-shivering, rather than temperature, but I think they try to move the air a lot in the room to keep the sensation that you're not stuck. I dropped my first orange earbud as I tried to roll it and jam it in my ear; it got lost somewhere in the folds of my sweater and t shirt. The tech handed me another. I thought about how she must see people afraid, often, yet she didn't seem affected or particularly nurturing. She had a certain lunch lady quality to her.

The apparatus to hold my head in place was disconcerting--a football guard of a mask that was then stuffed with additional vinyl-coated blocks to steady my face. Not that I would have moved, even if I could. The tech placed a cord into my cold hands and told me to buzz her if I needed anything. I shut my eyes, not wanting to see the room disappear as I rolled inside the small hole. I felt the table move beneath my upper arms. I felt like I couldn't relax them: a sensation that would grow old after the next fifteen minutes or so. We started the test.

I tried to go to my happy place--any happy place--but the sound was too much a machine and too disruptive. The anti-nature. I finally gave in and listened--really listened to the sounds. And then the actual MRI wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I started to liken the vibratory grunts and tones to others I'd heard at various points in my life. The rumble of the train. The dental drill during a root canal. A guitar amp. A dialup modem, stuck in the repetitive song of trying to connect. Every awful sound in my auditory vocabulary came back. But suddenly they stopped and the room was still. And I was so grateful for the silence that I didn't realize I was done. I lay there in the tube for a few minutes, then the intercom came on, a voice from Mission Control.

"Heather. I am going to need you to hold on for a few minutes while the doctor looks at the slides. Almost done, okay?"

Almost done? I thought? Cool. The waiting after that wasn't so bad, though my cold fingers were locked around the cord of the intercom I was afraid I'd accidentally press in fear. I was happy to know I was almost out and this was almost over. I could hang on a few more minutes.

With a sound like roller skates, I was yanked from the tube. "He'd like us to do one more test," the tech said. "A contrast image. I need to do an IV, and then we're going to have to do this again."

My it's-not-fair meter was reading red. No. You said I was done. My eyes were welling and I had a lumpy throat. This was not good. I used up all of my bravery to get through the test and now there was another? Nobody said anything about a second test. I kept trying to look at her, even though I couldn't turn my head. My eyes strained to try to read her face, but she wasn't making an attempt to connect with me anyway.

"Why? My doctor didn't say I'd need to have two tests. What does that mean? Does it mean something? What did you see?" I asked anyway. I know they can't tell you anything. I know it's why ultrasound technicians turn the screen away from you when they take the measurements of the fetus when you're pregnant, and I knew she wouldn't tell me what they saw when they looked inside my head right now, but I asked anyway. I was so scared.

"We saw... information in the first test," she said, carefully. "This second test helps us to see the... information better."

I understood her subtext. I stopped trying to look at her. I gave up.

The only thing worse than this would be coming back to do it again. I looked up at the beige ceiling, the insipid color someone chose for Kaiser because it evokes a sterile calm. She stuck my arm with the IV needle and I barely felt it.

I cried passive, warm tears. I let them run down my face and into my ears.

As she pulled the IV out, she must have noticed the wet spot on the paper sheet by my head.

"You okay?"


"How long have you been having headaches?"

"I don't know."

We sat in silence a few breaths, and she put me back into the tube. This time I watched the world close up. I kept my eyes open and I cried my noiseless tears into the grunts of the machine.

Finally, she yanked me down again.

As I left the room I asked her when I'd hear something. When I'd know.

"Today or tomorrow," she said. This was Friday.

I burst through the door to the waiting room and when I saw E, I burst into tears.


Friday passed. Nothing.

Saturday. Nothing.

Sunday. Monday. Nothing. Holiday weekend. No word.

All weekend I was worried sick. I knew the tech had seen something, as had the mysterious doctor who'd ordered the second test (a "he"--my doctor is a she). I didn't know what they'd seen, and my imagination was having a field day. There's no reason you'd want to get a better look at nothing.

The second test was for something.

By Monday, at least, I resigned myself to the fact that worry had no influence on the outcome of the result. But I was still scared.

It wasn't until 7:50 this morning, Tuesday, ten minutes before I was about to start first period, that I heard back from my doctor. An email letting me know that there were no tumors (thank God), no aneurysms (thank God), but my MRI showed that I have a 3 cm (just bigger than 1 inch) cyst in the lining of the back left side of my brain.

I have a cyst in the lining of my brain. Just the kind of news you want to get when you're about to greet 180 teenagers for the day.

I Googled and WebMDed for about ten minutes, and then I decided that wasn't a productive use of my time or energy. All I was going to do was feed my anxiety. My doctor thought that the cyst was benign, but she didn't know what (if any) role it was playing in my headaches, and what (if anything) needed to be done about it. I was waiting to hear from neurology, but based on this past weekend, I wasn't holding my breath for a speedy response.

Luckily, today has been a lot better in terms of communication. I've talked three times with my doctor, and she got back to me this evening with the best news I've had in a long, long time. She was able to get in touch with the neurologist who looked over my MRI results herself.

My cyst is called an arachnoid cyst. It's benign. It's "not causing any surrounding inflammation or compressing any other structures." It is not causing my headaches. They don't need to do anything to it or monitor it. Both doctors agree that there is nothing that they can see on my MRI that says there's anything in my brain triggering my migraines.

As my doctor said in the first two lines of her email: "Good news. It's all fine."

Thank God.


  1. Yay for good news! The whole process for figuring out migraines is exhausting and scary, I completely relate. I have had all of those tests done myself and I know how scary it can all be, especially the waiting. I am going in a couple of weeks to the neurologist myself to see if there is anything else we can do, so I am just hoping I get good news like you did :)

  2. I've had numerous CT scans and I know the anxiety of waiting and the mad googling we do when we get a little bit of info. I've laid there with tears too and know (sort of) what you were going through. I'm glad everything is alright.