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Inside Yukon's new MRI machine

As John Gushie preps his patient on a large table, she's lying down, staring up at the northern lights. The Whitehorse General Hospital hasn’t actually installed a skylight in its newest facility, and this is in the middle of the afternoon.

As John Gushie preps his patient on a large table, she’s lying down, staring up at the northern lights.

The Whitehorse General Hospital hasn’t actually installed a skylight in its newest facility, and this is in the middle of the afternoon. Yet there they are - or a video image of them, anyhow - dancing across the ceiling in a hypnotic display.

With the press of a button, the table rises with a gentle hum.

Everything is carefully adjusted: the straps, the patient’s positioning and the IV line in her arm. The table slides horizontally until the patient is inside the space-age, donut-shaped machine up to her waist.

Gushie, 31, walks around the $6.8-million machine a final time to make sure everything is ready. It’s something he’s done about 100 times since he became the only MRI technologist North of 60 about three weeks ago.

Soon radio waves about 20,000 times stronger than the magnetic field of the Earth are sent through the patient’s body. For this to happen, large amounts of electricity are pumped through a wire, which is then super-cooled by helium to a temperature of about -269 degrees.

When the scans are completed, they’re sent electronically to a hospital in Calgary, where a team of 20 doctors analyzes them.

Then, a report is prepared and sent back to the Whitehorse General Hospital.

Gushie points to the thick, black semi-circle surrounding the machine.

It’s a reminder of a few things: that all electronics brought beyond that point will interfere with the machine’s ability to take pictures; that the machine has a very powerful magnetic field; and that credit cards will become demagnetized.

Items such as watches, pens, phones, wallets, rings, and other jewelry have to be left in lockers. As a precautionary measure people are also asked whether they have pacemakers or shrapnel inside their bodies.

A promotional video shown in the waiting room shows just how powerful the magnetic field is: it can keep a necklace in midair while you pull on it.

Stepping out of the room, Gushie closes the large door, not unlike one from a bank vault. With the turn of the handle, it vacuum-seals the room.

Inside the technologist’s headquarters, he makes himself comfortable in front of a computer screen.

He clicks on various boxes, filling in different numeric values, zooming in and out of the patient’s arm.

Unlike an X-ray machine, the MRI scanner uses radio signals to produce images.

The thick, tinted window Gushie looks through blocks other signals from interfering.

“It’s the same thing that prevents your microwave from microwaving you as you stand next to it,” he said.

To get the best medical exam, Gushie says, it’s important to localize the scan in the smallest area possible.

Ideally, he’d leave a patient there overnight “for the best MRI picture ever taken.”

For this particular exam, he expects to take around 300 pictures, or detailed slices, of the patient’s right arm.

Some pictures take up to three minutes to take: if the patient moves an inch, it comes out blurry, not unlike a photographer taking a long exposure picture.

A typical MRI exam involves about 90 pictures, or a half hour, he said, but he’s seen them go over 5,000 pictures once.

“It’s like a piece of paper, and we’re just going through one slice at a time,” he said.

“Each picture so far is about 25 slices, we’re going from the front to the back now. By the end of it we’ll have a nice tight picture of her arm.”

Gushie is looking for particular discolorations that might indicate a disease: if he sees anything, he can fine-tune the scan even more.

The benefit of using an MRI machine over an X-ray machine, or a CT scanner, comes down to detail.

For the exam where 5,000 pictures were taken, Gushie said he was taking approximately 10 pictures in each millimetre.

The soundproof room completely masks the noises from the machine, which sounds like a jackhammer.

Gushie presses a button on his intercom and the room fills with a beeping inferno.

Despite the noise, the patient has fallen asleep. She’s wearing ear plugs and headphones that are pumping in music.

Gushie says he normally talks to patients throughout the exam, updating them on the time left and generally trying to make them feel as relaxed as possible.

A few are claustrophobic. Some ask for the radio station to be changed, while others just like to chat.

“We try not to play your favourite music because you’d be likely to move in there,” he said, laughing.

Gushie will conduct about 1,800 patient exams in the next year, according to hospital estimates.

About five to 10 per cent of patients still need to travel Outside if they require more specialized, higher-risk procedures.

But that’s still significantly lower than the 600 or so out-of-territory scans the Yukon government used to cover.

The Yukon Hospital Corporation launched a fundraising campaign in 2010 and met its target of $2 million within two years.

Patients are admitted based on four priority levels: urgent, semi-urgent, non-urgent and follow up scans.

Originally from the small town of Zurich, Ont., Gushie said he’s happy to be in the Yukon.

He had kept his eye on the MRI technologist position ever since the early fundraising efforts, he said.

He had to hitchhike into Whitehorse from Teslin after his car broke down on New Year’s Eve, but judging from his demeanour, it hasn’t affected him at all.

“I just can’t wait to take advantage of everything this place has to offer.”

Contact Myles Dolphin at