Dolores Rovai can get a little claustrophobic, so she usually goes to San Francisco for an MRI scan.
That's where the Healdsburg resident can find state-of-the-art MRI devices with "tunnels" that are wider, shorter and, ultimately, much easier on the psyche.
Last week, however, Rovai drove only a few miles to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital's new MRI center, which now features a $3 million wide-bore scanner that for the moment is the hottest such device in the area. Rovai was getting her left knee scanned to find out what was causing intense pain there.
"I've had other MRIs, I'm familiar with them. But that one there is just great," said Rovai. "I imagine for heavy people it's not going to be a problem. There's a lot of room in there. I almost fell asleep in there."
Memorial's new MRI room, in operation since August, cost $3 million, with half going to purchase the device itself and the other half toward gutting and fully reconstructing the hospital's MRI center.
Memorial's new addition is the latest escalation in the increasingly competitive world of medical imaging.
On Monday, Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation announced that it plans to open later this month a new $10 million advanced imaging center in Santa Rosa that will feature a 128-slice CT scanner and the same wide-bore MRI device that Memorial Hospital now has, GE Healthcare's Optima MR450w.
The imaging center, which will be located at Sutter's North Bay Health Plaza on Airway Drive, will also feature digital mammography and X-rays and eventually house all of the imaging services currently at Sutter Women's Health Center on Steele Lane.
Sutter's MRI room will be equipped with a "caring suite," an audio/visual environment that is designed to make the MRI experience less unpleasant. MRI tests, which can take 30 to 45 minutes, are extremely loud and often unnerving for many patients.
Dr. Mark Popovich, a radiologist and the medical director of Sutter's Advanced Imaging Center, said patients will be able to customize their own experience in the caring suite by choosing what images and matching color scheme will be shown on a large high-resolution screen on the ceiling and lighted panels on the walls.
"Many patients perceive the experience as unpleasant. Why not do the best you can to make it as pleasing as possible?" said Popovich.
Both MRI scanners at Memorial Hospital and the North Bay Health Plaza are equipped with detachable patient tables that allow for set-up outside the exam room. They can take patients of up to 500 pounds and because their tunnels aren't as long as older MRIs, many patients can be tested with either their upper or lower bodies outside the machine.
"It's the beast," said Memorial Hospital's CT and MRI supervisor Siobhan Nebesky, speaking endearingly of the new device, which will be showcased this week to area doctors at an open house.
"We want the local physicians to know what we have," she said. "We can accommodate bigger patients and unusual exams that take people to San Francisco. It will mean that we keep business in Sonoma County."
The new Sutter Medical Center, which is scheduled to open in October 2014, will also be equipped with a wide-bore MRI scanner, said Sutter Health spokeswoman Lisa Amador.
But for now, Memorial Hospital occupies the top of the hill in Sonoma County's MRI arms race.