Making MRIs less scary for kids

April 5, 2021  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,
An MRI machine made to look like a treehouse.
An MRI machine made to look like a treehouse.

Emma Thompson has had more than 30 MRIs in her seven and a half years — enough time to learn that she absolutely does not like them, and that, like many people, she needs anesthesia before she is scanned and imaged.

Emma was just 13 months old when she was diagnosed with an anaplastic ependymoma, a rare brain cancer. Surgery, chemo and frequent monitoring followed — including an MRI every three to four months. Each time, she was sedated before entering the tunnel-shaped machine. Each time, that is, until her latest scan.

Emma recently received a video in which child life specialists walked through the steps of having an MRI, part of a new program called MR-I Can Do It.

She learned that she could watch a movie while having the MRI, what sounds she would hear during the scan, that it’s OK to request a bumblebee-shaped ice pack named Buzzy to ease the pain of the IV, and what kind of helmet she would need to wear. With all of that knowledge, Emma went to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in November and opted to try the MRI without sedation. She was able to watch “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and to see her mom through a mirror.

A photo of a young girl with blonde hair standing outdoors.
Emma Thompson

One other thing that helped: The MRI had a new three-dimensional cover that made it look like an under-the-sea scene.

“What a difference, walking into a room that looks like you’re in ‘The Little Mermaid,’” said Kelli Thompson, Emma’s mom. “You could tell it just gave her peace of mind.”

The covers are a new addition to all three MRIs at Mott.

What makes this experience even more special for Emma’s family is that she is one of the “superheroes” honored by Hartland Consolidated Schools in the district’s extraordinary fundraising efforts for children’s charities. Mott is one of their main beneficiaries, and the MRI wraps are a direct result of funds given by “Go Gold for Kids with Cancer” and “Hartland Strong for Mott,” two initiatives spearheaded by a former cancer mom. 

Building empathy

An MRI machine with fish and underwater plants around it.
A second MRI machine is an underwater scene.

At the heart of those fundraising efforts is Kathy Farhat-Tomaszewski.

The Hartland, Michigan, resident and mother of four has been fundraising for pediatric health charities for two decades. Her third daughter, Madison, was diagnosed 21 years ago with stage IV hepatoblastoma, a rare childhood liver cancer, and was successfully treated at both Sparrow Hospital and Mott, where her life-saving liver resection was performed. In 2018, Madison was honored by Hartland Schools as their first “superhero” in the district’s fundraising efforts.

“Personally, I found the best coping mechanism for dealing with the complexities of my daughter’s illness was to extend myself through advocacy and volunteerism,” said Farhat-Tomaszewski.

She leads district-wide group fundraising efforts that engage students from Hartland Schools. Her grassroots approach leverages community partners, schools, and businesses, and encourages kids to give back to their communities.

“Naturally, we strive to meet our annual fundraising goal. But more importantly, we are sowing the seeds of philanthropy for students. Our wish is for kids to remember, ‘Back when I was in fifth grade, I helped fundraise for Mott to fund MRI covers for pediatric patients,’” she said. “This builds empathy, and it grows the next generation of donors.”

A treehouse, submarine and sand castle

Within the past several years, Farhat-Tomaszewski’s partnership with Hartland Schools has raised nearly $200,000 for pediatric cancer initiatives.

At Mott, the donations have made a tremendous impact, most recently with the installation of the MRI covers, said Glenn Houck, a director of clinical operations for the Department of Radiology at Michigan Medicine.

“We’ve been wanting to add the covers for years, and ‘Go Gold for Kids with Cancer’ and ‘Hartland Strong for Mott’ really kickstarted this whole thing and made it possible,” he said.

One room also has a mural and funds from the Mott Golf Classic will pay for murals in the remaining two rooms.

“We’ve done a lot of work to make it not feel scary, with a kind and dedicated team of technologists and staff who are there to help our patients and their families, with artwork, videos and now the exciting new covers around our MRIs,” said Dana Habers, chief department administrator for radiology. The MRI covers for the three rooms include a treehouse, a submarine and a sand castle.

Back when Farhat-Tomaszewski’s daughter, Madison, prepped for an MRI, anesthesia was the standard protocol.

“The three, child-friendly MRI covers are a noticeable improvement for young patients and families,” she said.

The efforts are paying off: Fewer children are needing anesthesia before getting an MRI, Habers said.

Emma Thompson doesn’t want anesthesia when she gets her next MRI, her mom said. The changes to the MRI preparation and room décor are all the more special for the Thompsons, of Brighton, since they have been closely involved with the fundraising that made the covers possible.

Anything that makes Emma’s journey easier is a welcome change, Kelli Thompson said. Her daughter relapsed in 2018, needed another surgery and radiation.

Emma has taught the family a lot, her mom said: toughness, resilience and “that you live your life as hard as you can between your every-three-month scans.”

Learn more about MRIs at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and the MR-I Can Do It program:

This story first appeared in Medicine at Michigan.