While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:
Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987
Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.
I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.
Here’s a better image of the painting.
And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.
I’ve been lax with blogging lately, as I’ve been busy with video work and a couple of large-scale, long-term writing projects. But certain incidents in life make me stop and recognize the fragility of our existence, which, in turn, leads to deep rumination. And my ensuing thoughts, once processed, seem suited for this blogging space.
Something happened to me recently that disrupted my daily routine and forced me to pay attention to a person in peril.
While walking home from work Thursday night, heading down South Crouse Avenue between Harrison and Madison streets, I came across an African-American woman in her thirties sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of me, with her iPhone lying next her to body and a plastic Dunkin’ Donuts cup and ice cubes scattered nearby.
When I first noticed her figure in the distance, I thought it was a dummy or some type of debris, like a cardboard box. But her details sharpened as I approached her. She was dressed in a Dunkin’ Donuts uniform with a name tag that read “Natasha,” and she was positioned on her back, looking up at the darkening sky dotted with crows swooping overhead. Rush hour traffic sped along Harrison Street toward downtown and the onramp to I-81.
While it’s not usual to encounter people asking for money in the area surrounding Syracuse University, something about the woman told me she was not a panhandler or someone faking an illness to get attention. I surmised she had just finished her shift at Dunkin’ Donuts and was walking down the hill to catch a bus or continue on foot the rest of the way home. I bent over her body as I surveyed the scene. The woman’s glazed eyes stared back at me, and she appeared disoriented.
I said, “Mam are you OK? Did you fall? Are you hurt?” She was unable to respond with a complete sentence. “What?” she asked.
“Mam, why are you on the sidewalk?” She continued to hold a frightened expression on her face, but she did not say anything else. I said, “I’m gonna call someone for you.” I started to dial 911 as a man with a mustache and wearing a tan coat and an orange baseball cap walked across South Crouse Avenue toward us. “Are you calling an ambulance?” he asked as I pressed my cellphone to my ear so I could hear the operator above the traffic noise.
A female 911 operator took my call. “Nine-one-one, what’s your location?” she asked.
“South Crouse between Harrison and Madison.”
“OK, what’s going on?”
I relayed the details of my encounter with the woman on the sidewalk.
And the woman asked me a flurry of questions. “Does she appear injured? Is she breathing? Is she conscious? Is she intoxicated? Can you ask her her name and whether she has a medical condition?”
I did my best to get the answers the operator sought. The other man also tried to talk to Natasha. “Mam, what happened? Why are you on the sidewalk?” he asked.
Natasha could not vocalize any responses, and she just looked at us with her dark, glassy eyes. I don’t think she was aware of the situation or knew what had happened to her.
The man said he had to leave to “go to a founders dinner.” He crossed the street and I lost sight of his figure. The 911 operator said the ambulance was on the way, and a short time later, with sirens blaring, it pulled to the curb along Madison Street. Two young EMTs, one male and one female, hopped out of the ambulance and wheeled a gurney up South Crouse Avenue toward the woman.
“What happened?” the man asked. I told him I had found the woman on the sidewalk. “OK,” he said, “we got it.”
And with that, I left. I said a Hail Mary for Natasha, praying the paramedics would get her to the hospital quickly and doctors would determine what was wrong with her.
A passing thought also tickled my brain. I thought it would be nice to work in some capacity where I could help people on a daily basis, as opposed to simply pursuing my own career goals of a higher salary and a more prestigious position.
I also felt proud of myself for interceding on Natasha’s behalf. I say this not because I consider myself a humanitarian or a Good Samaritan, but because the incident made me realize how vulnerable humans are and how easy it would have been for me to turn away from the figure on the sidewalk and walk by the woman, deciding not to get involved.
I believe we are only as capable as our bodies allow us to be. And as someone who suffers from hypopituitarism, hypokalemia (low potassium), diabetes insipidus and hyponatremia (low sodium), I decided to stop and render aid to Natasha because other people have helped me in the past when my potassium dropped or my sodium level plummeted to a dangerous mark, below 120 (normal range 133-145). I’ve passed out before and also became weak, dazed and disoriented. And people could have perceived that I was drunk or high on drugs. Instead they helped me and I got the medical treatment I needed.
The following morning I walked to work up South Crouse Avenue toward the SU campus. Natasha’s Dunkin’ Donuts cup was still lying on the sidewalk, and I hoped by now she had been given some intravenous fluids at Upstate or at another area hospital and was either resting comfortably in a hospital bed or had been discharged. I also hoped I would see her on her feet behind the counter the next time I stopped to get coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.
I’ve had several over the years as part of multiple follow-ups for a craniopharyngioma diagnosed in 1984.
This latest one was for undiagnosed pain in the lower back/sacroiliac joint region. Fortunately, the MRI revealed no abnormalities, although the pain has not diminished.
MRIs never bother me because I have grown so accustomed to receiving them.
I try to get the earliest appointment possible, around 7 a.m., so that way I am half asleep when the X-ray technician straps me in, covers me with a white cotton blanket and leaves the room to take the pictures. Soon the machine begins moving and the noise starts. And I close my eyes, shutting out the fluorescent light and drifting off to sleep inside the white tube. I also like to imagine I am a NASA astronaut blasting off in a shuttle, heading to the International Space Station to deliver much-needed supplies.
Before the MRI begins at 550 Harrison, you are handed a set of Upstate University Hospital scrubs, led to a small locker area and instructed to change into the medical attire. So before I come out of the changing room, I look at myself in the mirror and pretend I am Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) from ER getting ready to start an overnight shift.
Yes, I suffer from an advanced case of Walter Mitty complex.
The techs at the Harrison Center allow patients to pick music to listen to during the MRI. Before you step into the exam room, you are handed a laminated list of artists and you can choose who you want to listen to.
The genres on the list include country, children’s music, world music, male artists, female artists, easy listening, classical, etc.
I always select U2 because you can never go wrong with the Dublin quartet.
My latest MRI playlist consisted of the following songs: Angel of Harlem, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Walk On (Live), TheUnforgettable Fire, With or Without You and Peace on Earth.
Here are some other choices on the list that caught my eye:
Male Vocalists: Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti
Classical: Bach and Beethoven
Female Artists: Pink and Alicia Keys
Male Artists: Rod Stewart and Elton John
Rock: Boston and Aerosmith (the heavy guitar sound could partially compete with the noise of the MRI machine)
Country: Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline
During my recent MRI I was instructed to lie down on the flatbed of the Hitachi open MRI unit.
It was the first time I had experienced the open MRI version and I must confess I missed the narrow tube. I like the snug feeling of the space-shuttle-like machine.
The tech, a thin middle-aged woman with dark brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, covered me with a blanket, tucking my arms in, and then left the room. A short time later the familiar wup-wup-wup sound started up, as did the music by U2; Bono and the boys did their best to compete with the grating sound of the machine, but they could not drown out the loud mechanical sound.
The woman’s voice came over the intercom and she said, “OK, this round will be six minutes long. Just lie still.” I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
I was tired and would have preferred to remain locked in the MRI position for the rest of the day, listening to music and catching some ZZZs while the world carried on without me.
And I realize the time spent confined in the MRI tube (or on the table for the open MRI) leads to serious reflection. You start thinking about your life and you pinpoint what is truly important. No matter what body part you have scanned, you are always afraid of the outcome, and you become weighted down with a foreboding sense. You anticipate the worst-case scenario, the discovery of a flaw in your body that will prove fatal.
You think about how you will handle the news if the MRI shows a tumor or cancer. The “what ifs” penetrate your mind. What if it’s an inoperable brain tumor? What if it’s cancer and it has already spread from the lung to the liver? What if I only have six months to live? Of course these are morbid thoughts, but when you’re confined to the machine with your eyes closed and the wup-wup-wup is roaring in your head, you drift into a higher level of thought, one that reaches a profound plane, separated from the trivial concerns of everyday life. And your thoughts become tilted toward your health, your family and your faith.
And in the peaceful white room you realize most of what you worry about in life is insignificant. Your thinking crystalizes. And you tell yourself what matters most is being healthy, living a decent, productive life and loving your family and friends. You tell yourself you will stop worrying about the small stuff. But after a few days, the old inconsequential concerns bubble to the surface. It can’t be helped. It’s human nature.
But I know in my case, the next MRI appointment will give me time for meditation and offer another opportunity to reset my thinking.
The next time, though, I will take a risk and listen to something other than U2. Wup-wup-wup.