MRI machine ‘out of this world’: Iowa City company wraps scanner in vinyl to make it more kid-friendly

By Francie Williamson, Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

As part of her research for the Nopoulos lab at University of Iowa, Ellen van der Plas, PhD, needs to conduct MRIs to examine the brain development of children who are battling cancer.

But getting the kids into the MRI machine isn’t always easy.

“A lot of small children in particular are very scared of the scanner,” van der Plas says.

Ellen van der Plas, PhD

After consulting with child life specialists, van der Plas learned of a book called “Tom’s MRI Space Adventure,” by Leslie Kumer, where a doctor tells a small boy to pretend that he’s going into a spaceship while going into the MRI Machine. She then wondered if she could make the researchers’ MRI machine resemble something kids might be more willing to enter… like a spaceship.

“We wanted to make the MRI scanner look cool and less medical,” van der Plas says.

At first, she put some star stickers on the machine, but it didn’t look very realistic. So van der Plas called up Auto Toyz, an Iowa City business that specializes in vinyl wraps on things such as buses and police vehicles.

Tim Power, owner of Auto Toyz, says this was the first time in his 16 years in business that he’s gotten a request to wrap an MRI machine, and the job presented its own unique challenges.

“They couldn’t turn it off,” Power says. “The machine itself is a giant magnet and the process we use to put the vinyl on, we use a knife that has a metallic property to it. Luckily, the knives are stainless steel, which are less magnetic, so we never had an issue with the knife sticking, but you could tell it was drawn to the machine.”

They also had to make sure the vinyl was not toxic, would not interfere with the scanning, and would be able to be cleaned with hospital-grade materials.

It took two days for two of Power’s employees to install the wrap on the MRI machine as well as a mock scanner that children go into to get prepped for the real thing, and some wall decals of stars and astronauts. The Nopoulos lab funded the entire project, which came out to about $5,000.

“I think it turned out great,” Power says, adding he would be willing to wrap another MRI machine if asked. “The nice thing is once you’ve done one, you have a game plan for the next one.”


Making the machine less scary

Van der Plas credits the hospital’s child life specialists with teaching her a lot about how to scan young children in the MRI machine.

In addition to the mock scanner, van der Plas used funds through the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center to purchase a $150 custom-made LEGO set that looks like the MRI machine setup. She got the idea after seeing a similar set that the child life specialists use.

“The kids play with that, and they stick a LEGO person in the scanner,” van der Plas says. “But we had a really hard time scheduling the child life specialists so I was like, I need to buy this myself.”

“They have a tablet and you can listen to the sound the MRI makes, and they give the kids stuffies to hold in the machine.”

Van Der Plas says she is grateful for the support she received from Department of Psychiatry Chair Peggy Nopoulos, MD, and her fellow staff in the Nopoulos lab, in taking steps to hopefully make it easier for kids to be in the MRI machine.

“Are we going to see a 50 percent jump in cooperation? I don’t know. It’s kind of a leap of faith, but at least it looks really cool.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2020