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Phoenix Children’s Hospital helps kids endure MRIs without anesthesia

(KTAR News Photo/Taylor Kinnerup)

PHOENIX — Tight spaces, bright lights and loud noises — getting an MRI can be overwhelming for anyone, but especially for kids.

The experience can be so overwhelming that a majority of children are given anesthesia to help keep them calm and still during the test.

Phoenix Children’s Hospital has three MRI scanners that perform a combined 12 to 16 scans per day on patients ranging from newborns to teens.

However, PCH is working to take anesthesia out of the equation with its new MRI prep class.

“We kind of started with a trial run of this class in September of 2019, then took a break around the holiday,” said Lauren Strom, PCH child life specialist. “Now we’re starting it up again this month with two classes a month, two Tuesdays a month, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.”

The program, which has been 100% effective in its current form, begins with a phone call with parents to make sure their child is the right fit for the program.

“The age range that we’re looking at right now is ages 6 to 12,” Strom said. “We’re looking at scans around 30 minutes, so a lot of the brain scans. Also, some of the questions we ask them to assess is if your child has any sensitivity to loud sounds or if your child can sit still for long periods of time.”

From there, families pick a class to join. In groups of four or five, the young patients spend 30 minutes learning all about MRIs and what to expect.

Strom has toys and tools fitting for almost any age, from a custom-made wooden toy version of an MRI to virtual reality goggles that simulate the experience in 90 seconds.

“The kids kind of feed off each other and encourage each other as far as being able to support each other in doing their exam while awake,” she said.

In just half an hour, the kids are fully prepared and sent a few feet down the hall to an MRI tech like Adam Estrada.

“I take pride in my role at Phoenix Children’s Hospital to try to get the kids through the exam,” Estrada said.

The PCH MRI machines have all the bells and whistles: music, a DVD player and even puppy or sea animal decorations. Estrada does whatever he can to put kids at ease while inside the scanner.

As a father of three, he knows how helpful it can be for families to skip the anesthesia.

“Anesthesia is very, very expensive,” he said. “I use that as a tool sometimes to coach these kids like, ‘Hey you’re going to save your mom and dad a lot of money if you’re able to get this examine done. Maybe you can get your favorite dinner or dessert because you saved your parents a lot of money.'”

This saves families not only money, but time. Kids who can participate in the classes are able to get their MRIs months in advance of their scheduled appointments.

Not to mention, it saves them the prep time needed for anesthesia.

“They have to go six hours without eating or drinking anything,” Estrada explained. “You know, if their appointment is at 3 in the afternoon, they’re going a majority of the day without eating or drinking anything. So if you’re able to save them that time prep, we’re able to say ‘Hey, we can get you through this buddy.'”

Even more than the time and money, both Estrada and Strom said they see kids’ mentality and demeanor change through the process.

“When you can empower a little one and give them this sense of empowerment that ‘I can do this,” the sky is the limit,” Estrada said with a smile.

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