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Emma Shi


The nurse tells me that I have little veins. I don’t say anything, just give her a short cracked laugh. My hospital gown crinkles with the movement and I watch as the nurse presses her fingers against the skin of my left arm, searching for those little blood vessels.

When the pain of the needle comes, my head is already turned away. I close my eyes against the white and imagine that I am somewhere else, somebody else. I am on my little cloud in the sky, and I am drawing back and away from myself, then the room, then the hospital. And as the nurse lets out a breath, I feel the needle drawing back as well. I start to think that this is it, that the IV is in and that it’s over. But then I open my eyes to see my own blood spreading and soaking into my skin.

She missed the vein. There are apologies and a rush and I am already there, on that cloud again and trying to tell myself, it’s okay, it’s okay, even as my eyes are staring at blood. Even as the nurse cleans up the crimson on my skin and I sit there blinking, feeling like I’m half-hologram. Finally, the nurse decides to put the IV in my wrist instead. This time, there is no blood. There is just me shaking slightly under the pale light.

The nurse leads me to the CT machine, a cavernous and curving white structure. When I lie down within it, I can feel that all-encompassing architecture, cold and silent underneath me. And when they start pumping the contrast dye into my bloodstream, I feel a flush. But it’s not a soft, beautiful blush. Instead, it leaves my hands colder than the rest of my body. And I am lying down in the machine and someone is asking me questions but I am staring at my wrist and that IV embedded inside me. I can’t stop looking at it and how it sticks out like shrapnel. And I want it out, out.

When the scan is over, my mother is waiting for me in the small foyer. She asks me something but the words seem to float past. I feel like the liquid that they put into me is ghosting all the best parts of me away, and soon there will be a new me who I will have to learn to know again. And as I sit there I think, I realise, that I didn’t really mean it when I said I wanted to be someone else. When I finally look up, my mother is moving to put her hand on mine, her eyes cloudy and crimson. This time, when I hear her voice, it’s on the edge of cracking. I start crying.


The CT scan itself does not hurt; it is normal for the needle to cause some discomfort. They should have added, please note that little veins are not helpful. My small veins may have wanted to reject that IV, but the nurse still managed to find a way.

Through this IV, a contrast made out of iodine is injected into my bloodstream during the scan. Although I could’ve avoided the problem of my small veins by just drinking down contrast in the morning of the scan, this injected contrast further helps to create a clear image of my body. As I watch that IV protruding out of my skin like a plane crash, extremely narrow beams of X-rays are shot through my body. So as I watch the visible, the invisible moves through me.

Measurements are taken of the energy of these X-ray beams both when they enter and exit my body. The difference between these two measurements is then used to create a map of the world inside me. By sending thousands of beams through me at slightly different angles, this map can become three-dimensional, with valleys and hills of tissue that dip and climb like landscape. The contrast helps build up this map by temporarily changing the way X-rays interact with my body, emphasising areas that are harder to see, like blood vessels and different types of tissue densities.

CT stands for computed topography and I can imagine it just like that. Although these rays are invisible to my eyes, they can envision the terrain within my body, lighting up the abnormal as they find forms that are not standard. Valleys that are too deep, hills that are too closely packed together. It seems that the condition of being invisible like these X-ray beams also involves the privilege of being able to see what I can’t see. 

I have not had anything to eat or drink for hours and the contrast that helps this scan is the reason why: so when they fill my empty stomach with dye, nothing else will block the view. I imagine the contrast as a thick, dark substance but it’s actually clear and has a similar consistency to water. And as the iodine contrast circulates through my body, it leaves a hot flush. It flows with my blood and into all my other little veins, into my heart, and then pushes itself into my arteries. There, it becomes a part of me as it moves through my bloodstream. It flows through my body’s capillaries, into my veins, and finally back to my whole, beating heart. I have no good explanation for the tears.

Emma Shi studied Classics at Victoria University of Wellington. She was the winner of the National Schools’ Poetry Award 2013 and the Poetry New Zealand Prize 2017. She posts her writing at

References for ‘Contrast’:
Gale, Robert and Lax, Eric. Radiation. United States: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
Imaginis. ‘Information About Intravenous and Oral Contrast used in CT’ (August 2010). Available at
Kevles, Bettyann. Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. United States: Rutgers University Press, 1997. ‘Contrast Materials’ (March 2016). Available at