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Date: 03/01/18

Scanned (Again)

I mentioned here (first paragraph of second section) that I had another appointment with my dear friend the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner today.

There was a time yesterday evening when I hoped that I could get out of it. The latest named storm to sweep across our archipelago was causing a degree of havoc with the trains (the one which I was monitoring with most interest last night, which started out about three minutes late from Kerdiff Central was two-and-a-half hours late by the time it got up here) and, since my journey to Manchester was dependent upon the trains running more-or-less to time and upon their meshing together for a change at Chester, I was anticipating the prospect of being able to pull out of the trip due to the disruption.

For this reason, and for the more obvious and understandable ones of anxiety and wind (and I'm talking both outdoors and in- here; if I weren't single already, I swiftly would be), I slept very badly last night. When the alarm went off at 05:40, I checked the train situation on my handy-dandy new smartphone (of which more, perhaps, another time) before realising with a sigh that I would have to undertake the journey after all. So I dragged myself out of my pit and got ready.

I left the house at 07:15 for the 12A bus which would take me past the station. The wind was quite strong but not particularly cold, and the rain was holding off for the time being.

I said that the 12A went past the station. This is now literally the case. There were once two bus stops ("a mummy bus stop and a daddy bus stop, and they..." "STOP THAT AT ONCE! This is not relevant...and slightly spooky, to be honest"), one in a little lay-by on the bridge above the main platform, and another a little bit further down by the entrance to the station's car park. Then, for a brief period of a year or so, there was a bus stop actually inside the car park, but the use of it ceased when it was found that buses trying to turn right out of the place to continue their route were losing minutes on end because no bastard on the main road would stop to let them out.

So, in these days of perfectly integrated public transport, there is now not a single bus stop near the railway station. If you need to get to the station, you either have to get off at the stop at the end of the football ground further away from the station, or stay on to the terminus at the bus station. Either way involves a walk of over a hundred yards, which is what would had befallen me had not the bus driver (one of those who came here from the Greater EUSSR-Franco-German Federal Superstate to do those jobs which patriotic, hard-working upright True Brits can't be arsed getting out of bed to do) taken pity on me in his subversive, foreign way and - in an access of compassion - dropped me off where the second bus stop used to be.

I went into the ticket office to find that there was no-one behind the guichet, which was a bit frustrating because it was now about 07:50, and my train was due in just after 08:00. After a few moments, the guicheteuse returned with her mug of tea from the café along the platform, I bought my ticket (£19.30 for a day return is not, I feel, unreasonable) and headed off over the footbridge to Platform 2. There, I found that my 08:02 train was now expected to arrive at 08:25, the after-effects of the night's gales and rain clearly still making their mark.

So I sat in the waiting room for a bit, where I saw an office colleague apparently writing a novella on her phone. Then I went back outside, only to come back in a few minutes later because the wind fair whistles down the line at the best of times and this wasn't the best of times.

Finally, at 08:24 (and full marks for the driver shaving the extra minute off between Shewsbury and Wrexham, not the fastest stretch of track in the land) our conveyance arrived, and I chatted away with my colleague until we both disembarked at Chester, she going on to Liverpool to meet up with part of her team there, me to cross the footbridge to Platform 7A for the train to Manchester.

And here's why I was quite relaxed that my train up had been so late; had it been on time, I would have had to stand around on Chester station for about half an hour. Instead, it was a matter of a mere seven or eight minutes before my next appointment with Arriva Trains Wales as the train arrived from Llandudno. I plonked myself down on a forward-facing seat across the aisle from a young couple who had been giggling and joshing on the platform; they were, I thought, in love, although by the time they got off I had modified my assessment and instead concluded that she was more than slightly bats, and that he was her support worker. Anyway, we set off across Cheshire.

Now, the trains from Chester to Manchester go by a rather odd route. Although there is a more direct line between the two (via Northwich and Knutsford), the ones I've always caught go - predictably enough - through Helsby and Frodsham, but then turn north to Runcorn East before crossing the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey to Warrington Bank Quay, which is somewhat away from the town centre and in the middle of an industrial estate. From there, it heads further north (indeed, north-west) to Earlestown before swinging back eastwards to Newton-le-Willows and on to Manchester through the fens and mosses of south Lancashire, and without stopping at Patricroft, Eccles or even Deansgate before pulling up again at Oxford Road station.

This was where I got off rather than at Piccadilly, because it was not only going to be a shorter walk from there, but it was going to be easier to navigate. All I had to do was turn right at the end of the station approach and there I was on Oxford Road itself. It was then simply a matter of keeping going straight ahead. Which I duly did. The rain was holding off, but the wind was still quite strong and seemed to change direction from time to time, so that it was sometimes at your back, sometimes in your face.

I'd had the foresight to check Google Earth beforehand, so I knew where I was looking for and how far it was - Nelson Street, about a mile from the station. I went past the end of Grafton Street, which is where I had gone for my first MRI eighteen months ago (described here in vivid, self-pitying detail), and fetched up outside the red-brick building which used to house the Eye Hospital, but which was now something called Citylabs, which is described in the puffery for it as, "a joint venture between MSP and Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust [...] which aims to create biomedical centres of excellence".

To illustrate how all thrusting and modern it is, the letter I had from the Hospital told me to report to 'Entrance 1.0'. I had assumed that this very basic development level implied the old wooden-with-glass-panes double doors which fronted onto Oxford Road, but I tried them and they were locked. Presumably these had merely been early proof-of-concept doors before the techies behind them had developed a more dynamic user interface. As someone used to grappling with software designers' modes of thinking, I eventually found 'Entrance 1.0' (though surely they should have stepped the number up a decimal?) where I expected it would be - round the back of the building. I went to the two young women behind the Reception desk, who pointed me to a door opposite. I went through it into a lift and ascended to the first floor. It was by now just after 10:30, my allotted time.

I introduced myself to the very pleasant receptionist there...who couldn't find me on her list. She went off to double-check and returned with the reassuring news that I was indeed included in the morning's entertainment. I was given a questionnaire to fill in, very like the one that the Hospital had sent me for completion along with the appointment letter. I did it again anyway, and was then taken through by a delightful oriental nurse. Sat in the changing room, she then went through all the questions I'd just answered and cheerily informed me that the scan would take about an hour.

"An hour?!", I shrieked. Forty-five minutes or so had caused me to very nearly freak out the last time, and I told her this. She gave me a look of concern, then went to fetch the young Asian doctor who would be conducting the scan, who confirmed the timescale. I was left to get changed in a fugue of resignation. I had taken my py-jams with me but only needed the trousers, as a gown had been provided for my upper half. I packed away my clothes and other accoutrements best I could, and stowed my coat (which contained any valuables I had with me; except - I realised too late - my precious mp3 player, which was in my bag which remained unguarded in the changing room) in a small locker close to hand.

Finally, I was taken through to meet The Scanner. This, I saw (in as much as I saw anything, because I had taken my glasses off), was wider top-to-bottom than the one I had had to endure on the previous occasion, so that the top of the aperture was not going to be a matter of a few inches from my nose (an experience which still gives me the occasional shudder upon recall). I lay on the trolley thingy, the nurse placed the sensors for the EKG and then put a rather heavy thing a bit like a plastron over my chest.

But then, a new development. An arrangement somewhat like a a pair of glasses was placed immediately above my face. These were mirrored, and they reflected a sequence of animated images from the back of the scanner. One of them looked like that Teletubbies tribute known as the Windows XP default wallpaper, another looked like the Arizona mesas. Small figures moved across both of these, but the effect was rather lost on me because of my severe short-sightedness.

Because MRI scanners are - to use a technical term - fucking noisy, headphones are a must for any victim of them. Unlike last time, however, I wasn't offered a choice of radio or silence; it was 'Smooth Radio' or nothing. By this point, I was powerless to resist, so prepared to lie back and suffer the best that English commercial radio could offer. The doctor activated the bed which slotted me into the belly of the beast and he and the nurse left the room.

After a couple of minutes the doctor returned, having failed to pick up a usable signal from the electrodes on my chest. This entailed some of the few chest hairs I have being shaved off before the hardware was piled upon me again, and I was returned to the tumble-drier.

At this point, the ordeal began in earnest. Cutting through the 80s soundtrack provided by Smooth, the doctor spoke to me over the 'phones with the sequence of instructions I'd become all too used to the last time. "Breathe in...now out...stop!" (the 'stop' command sometimes being augmented with, "Hold your breath", as if I was going to do anything else when I had stopped breathing By Order). The machine would then emit a series of bangs, clunks, squeals and noises which sounded like the gunfire effects from an old 8-bit shoot-'em-up.

After a while, I would feel the platform move on a few inches, where the same sequence would be followed again. I managed to get through this with a greater degree of equanimity than last time, despite the fact that my troublesome left shoulder started to give me serious gyp after a few minutes. Moving to any useful degree was not an option, as it would probably have meant their having to start the whole thing again, and I preferred the pain to that prospect.

On it went, and then I heard the doctor say, "I'm going to bring you out now; we're done". Oh, frabjous! He trundled me out of the scanner and disconnected me from everything. I just had to ask how long I had been in.

"About forty-five minutes", was his reply.

After a bit of a wobble and a stretch, and with the advice that the results of the scan would be forwarded to my consultant, I made my way back to the changing room to reassemble myself in private, trying to remember where I had put what. After about ten minutes, I emerged and tried to make my way out. Except I couldn't remember the way, and had to stick my head round the door of Mission Control to ask the doctor. I then found my way back to the waiting room and sat there for a while texting my family to tell them that I had survived the latest ordeal. It was just after 12:15 by this time, and I realised that I would need to get a bit of a step on if I wanted to catch the 12:55 train from Oxford Road. So, off I set. The initial problem being that I went down in the lift to the ground floor to be met with a board which blocked my exit. I was baffled for a minute, before realising that this lift had doors both back and front, and I'd tried to make my escape through the wrong one.

The wind down Oxford Road seemed to be both a bit more gusty and a bit more against me than on the outward journey; a couple of large chunks stopped me in my tracks, and I had to pause a couple of times more. There were also brief passages of rain to add to the misery. There was a point where I thought I was going to be out of time, with the prospect of an hour's wait before me, but I finally reached Oxford Road station with about seven or eight minutes to spare. The train arrived and I got on, although I could only find a double-seat to myself which faced where I was wenting from rather than coming against. The seats in front of me were occupied by a couple of Asian-looking teenage girls (although their accents were not of the expected sort; I think at least one of them may have been Saad Efrikan) who scarcely paused for breath as they chattered and squealed their way on. Luckily, they got off at the first stop (Newton-le-Willows), which probably saved them from being bashed over the heads with my copy of Alan Bennett's Keeping On Keeping On.

Back in Chester on time, which meant a wait of over twenty minutes before my connection. Now, Chester railway station has had a lot done to it down the years in certain areas, but other areas - such as Platform 2, where my final ship of the day would come in - still look after all this time like a complete dump. More than that, a draughty dump. The train for Maesteg (!) duly arrived, and I stepped off it again in my own Old Parish about a quarter of an hour later, went to do a few 'messages' (as they say in Scotland) and went for the bus home.

This turned up five minutes late, however, then had to load a bunch of the superannuated - old codgers, an oik or two, and the obligatory chavvymammy with her two brats - before setting off in a rather slow and jerky fashion (the Alexander Dennis Eco200Ds which Arriva - yes, them again - run hereabouts are absolute bastards in the transmission department, and our driver was having particular difficulty with this one). I reached home at about 15:45, breathed a sigh of relief, had an early tea and then crashed out on the sofa.

I would still quite like to know why - when there is a perfectly serviceable MRI scanner in our local hospital - I have to be sent on a 120-mile round trip to be put through one. If the reasons are clinical ones rather than mere bureaucratic convenience, then fair enough.

Still and all, I have survived. I wouldn't want to go through it again, though.