Kirby: A claustrophobic's guide to an MRI

This is an archived article that was published on in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Everyone is afraid of something. I don't mean just a little scared. I mean deeply frightened, like a phobia. We'll do anything to avoid this thing.

But they say our fears can be mastered if we want to bad enough. "They" are morons. I once tried to master a moderate fear of heights by jumping out of airplanes.

It turned out that I was right to be afraid. I have the pins and surgical scars to prove just how hard the ground in Alabama is.

But I didn't know what my real phobia was until 1990, when I ended up in an Oregon emergency room with two eyeballs of vastly different sizes.

After determining that neither of my disreputable friends in the waiting room were responsible for my condition, the emergency room doctor ordered a CT scan.

If you've never had one before, a CT scan is simple. They lay you down and stick your head inside a giant toilet seat. There's some mild noise and you're done.

Back in Utah my doctor ordered magnetic resonance imaging, or an MRI. Because the technology was still relatively new, the wait was considerable.

A month later, I put on a gown and laid down in front of another large machine with an ominous opening. I thought it would be another CT scan.

But instead of just sliding my head into the ring like in Oregon, they crammed all of me inside the machine. It was like being stuffed into a culvert.

My shoulders folded toward each other while my nose squeaked along the side until I came to a mirror where I stopped and stared at my panic-fogged reflection.

As my agitation volubly increased, someone realized that the doctor had forgotten to prescribe any anxiety-reducing medication for the claustrophobia. Then they made the mistake of trying to negotiate my concern.

There wasn't time to sedate me now. It would be at least a month before I could get another appointment for an MRI, whereas the suffocating horror of this one would only last a few more minutes.

Him: "Are you sure you can't just hold on, Mr. Kirby?"

Me: "If I have to get out of this %$#@! on my own, I'll be hanging onto your #%*&! neck."

By the time they slid me out, the door to the control room was locked and security had been called.

I swore that no one would ever get me into an MRI again. No amount of money or pain would do the trick. I kept this vow for 23 years.

Then my right shoulder began to hurt. Arthritis? Rotator cuff? Alien? I put up with the pain for an agonizing year before I finally faced up to my claustrophobia.

Even then it was a grudge match between agony and pain. Couldn't I just put up with the pain for a little while longer?

Yeah, but my wife couldn't. Fed up with the whining, she drove me over to Jordan Valley Hospital for an MRI last week. In a panicked voice, I explained my claustrophobia to the radiation techs.

Them: "Are you afraid of needles, Mr. Kirby?"

Me: "No."

Swab. Poke. Snore. Blink. That's all there is to an MRI these days. There's no amount of fear that can't be mastered with the right amount unconsciousness.

Robert Kirby can be reached at or