New Test for Memory: Show ‘Em Old Movies

Having been subjected to several in the past few years, I have become wary of various hospital procedures, all of which, I am assured, are necessary for my continued good health. Or rather, to forestall my immediate demise.

About two years ago, in Huntington Memorial Hospital, I endured, though badly, a test called Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI.

I really didn’t know what its purpose was or how it worked. I was stretched out on a hospital bed, as I remember, and subjected to a series of dreadful noises.

I was in rather unstable condition at the time, having recently suffered a heart attack and a stroke that crippled my right leg, and I did not endure the MRI very well.


After I’d heard enough of the cataclysmic noises, I finally rebelled. “Take me out of here!” I yelled at the technician. The doctor called my wife, who was waiting elsewhere in the hospital, and asked her to see if she could calm me down. “We’re almost finished,” he assured her.

She came to my side and urged me to cooperate, which I did. When the test was completed, the doctor said it showed that I had had a stroke, which I already knew.

Recently my neurologist was testing my reflexes (which weren’t too bad) and asked me if I had noticed any memory loss.

Well, who hasn’t?

Only a day or two earlier, while waiting for my wife to come home from work, I was watching an old movie starring Burt Reynolds, Christopher Reeve and Kathleen Turner. Although I knew them all quite well, I couldn’t remember any of their names. When my wife came home, she asked me who was in the movie. I couldn’t tell her. I said, “Oh, you know.” She watched it a few minutes and then said, “That’s Kathleen Turner. And that’s Christopher Reeve and that, of course, is Burt Reynolds.” Of course.

The doctor told me I might have had a couple of minor strokes, and he said he wanted me to take an MRI. “Not again!” I protested. Of course I had to do it. I confessed to the doctor about my previous bad experience with an MRI, but he assured me there was nothing to it.

My wife drove me to the MRI lab near the hospital. The technologist was very reassuring. He had me lie on a padded bed and I was automatically enclosed, except that I could see through a small window.

My wife’s face appeared in the window, smiling reassuringly. The test began. First it was the sustained sound of a jackhammer. It lasted three minutes, my wife informed me.

My wife told me over some sort of intercom that the next test would be only two minutes. Evidently she was in touch with the technologist, who was using her to keep me tractable.

The next sound I heard was that of an automobile starter. It was trying hard, but it wasn’t starting the car. This is a maddening sound. You keep praying for the car to start.

The next sound (3 1/2 minutes) was some kind of machinery. My wife told me it sounded like an old washing machine. It was endurable.

It was followed by a series of loud noises reminiscent of factories. Thank God there were no explosions.

Finally it was over. I had borne up quite well.

I asked the technician, “How can you tell anything about my brain from all that?”

He took us into a room where a panel of images was on the wall. Evidently they were pictures of my brain reacting to all those noises. My doctor would study those pictures, he said, and diagnose my problems.

I left the laboratory still skeptical that any trustworthy diagnosis could come from such a procedure. Nevertheless, I was proud I had endured the test without cracking up.

We stopped at a Shaker for breakfast after the test. My wife told me to order the waffle combo for her, and left for the ladies room. When the waitress came I couldn’t remember what my wife had ordered.

During breakfast I kept trying to remember what MRI stood for. “Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” she told me.

It sounded like gobbledygook to me.

I didn’t mention it to my wife, but on the way home I realized I had forgotten the names of the three stars in whatever the name of that movie was. The only name I could remember was Christopher Isherwood. Instead of banging your ears with loud noises, it seemed to me that they could learn a lot more about your brain by playing old movies and asking you to identify the players.

Actually, from those images on the wall I didn’t see anything wrong with my brain, except that it was smaller than I had imagined.

* Jack Smith’s column is published Mondays.