Medical center deactivates MRI

Staff photos by Gage Cureton Spectators watch as super-cooled gaseous helium is expelled out of a vent from a deactivated (quenched) MRI at New Ulm Medical Center Wednesday. The super-cooled helium is produced as an MRI’s magnetic coils are superheated, effectively eliminating the MRI’s magnetic field.

NEW ULM — New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) deactivated its MRI Wednesday as part of a months-long project to replace the old machine and renovate the clinic’s radiology department.

To deactivate the MRI, the machine’s powerful superconducting magnet was “quenched,” or rid of its magnetic field by boiling off the magnet’s liquid helium coolant.

The quenching process is an event that occurs only in superconducting magnets, and requires emergency venting systems (a quench pipe through the roof) to vent the super-cooled gaseous helium produced by the deactivation procedure.

The MRI’s magnet, a potential hazard to patients and operators due to its strong magnetic field, needed to be deactivated, to safely relocate it out of the building.

Upon initiating the quenching process by activating a switch in the MRI control room, the gaseous helium shot out of an emergency vent on the side of the clinic’s building as hospital personnel and radiology staff watched.

Dan Weathers, center, a senior project manager for Siemens Healthineers, shows public safety responders what a MRI quenching activation switch looks like Wednesday and explains when it should be used. New Ulm public safety responders in attendance were Police Commander Dean Barstad, right, Brown County Sheriff Jason Seidl, center left, and Fire Chief Paul Macho, left.

Doubling down on the MRI’s deactivation and the subsequent spectacle, NUMC invited New Ulm safety responders to educate them on the quenching process and to prepare them for an emergency situation should it occur in the hospital’s radiology department.

“So if a fire or an emergency situation happened, we want them to come in and have a memorable experience of how strong the magnet is,” NUMC Director of Operations Carisa Buegler said. “There’s extra safety precautions you have to take before you go into an MRI.”

MRI operators and radiology staff demonstrated the magnet’s force by having safety responders strip all metal objects from their person and enter the MRI room with only their uniforms.

Safety responders held a single paper clip in their hands, and as they approached the machine, they could feel the paper clip jerk towards the machine.

“So for their safety, and the safety of others, we want them to understand what an MRI is and why extra precautions need to be taken around it,” Buegler said. “So if they ever have to respond to a fire or an emergency situation they’re ready.”

Dan Weathers, a senior project manager for Siemens Healthineers, explains how an MRI works to New Ulm Fire Department Fire Chief Paul Macho Wednesday after the MRI was quenched.

Police Commander Dean Barstad said he found the quenching procedure informative and enjoyable. Because safety responders carry a lot of metallic equipment that could pose a danger once they enter the MRI room, safety responders need to consider what they could be up against, Barstad said.

“It started leading me to think of some of the things we might have to take into account if we have some kind of an emergency response here at the unit,” he said. “Certainly it’s interesting to process and everything that needs to be considered.”

While the strong magnetic field of an MRI is dangerous, accidents rarely occur and are usually due to human negligence.

Dr. Nathan Groebner, a NUMC radiology doctor, said MRIs are great tools in medicine. They are used evaluate patients’ symptoms.

“MRIs are very good at looking at the soft-tissues of the body,” he said. “So if you injure your shoulder or you injure your knee, an MRI is often what we would use to look at the ligaments and cartilage in there.”

As super-cooled helium wafts out of the deactivated MRI, Renee Kettner, left, MRI radiologic technologist, discusses the final steps of the MRI’s removal process with Siemens Healthineers engineer Khaled Alyedin, right.

The MRI that was deactivated Wednesday, a Siemens Magnetom Symphony manufactured in the mid-2000s, was an older model with only a small space for patients to fit into.

Groebner said the new MRI that becomes operational this summer will have more space for patients and will be less claustrophobic.

“Over the years the manufacturers have been able to make the bore bigger — the area where the patient goes in — to help with some of those issues,” he said. “This [new] one will help with the issues with that.”

As part of a $2.3 million project, the new $1.6 million MRI is on order from Germany. It is expected to begin operations in New Ulm in June.

Renee Kettner, a NUMC MRI radiologic technologist, said it’s sad to see the old MRI go, but she’s excited for the new machine and the streamlined process it will provide for patients.

“It’s going to be a huge change for them,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot easier for most people.”

Gage Cureton can be emailed at