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Scan-tastic! Zara complete scans without anesthesia

patient zara with child life specialist and mri practice scanner

Child Life Specialist Libby Gaitskill uses a doll and a mock MRI scanner to show Zara Ali what happens during an MRI scan. 


Six-year-old Zara Ali is a gymnast. A swimmer. An artist. A basketball player. She has even learned to ride a bike without training wheels. But Zara is especially proud of one recent accomplishment: She completed an MRI scan without general anesthesia.  

When Zara was 3, her mom and dad noticed she was not growing as quickly as she should have. Tests showed a rare brain tumor called craniopharyngioma.

Zara traveled to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she had surgery and 30 proton beam radiation treatments. For proton beam therapy, patients must lie still so the beam targets the tumor, sparing healthy tissue. Zara needed general anesthesia to help her stay in her treatment position during those sessions. 

Recent research has shown that frequent sedation and anesthesia may impact brain development in young children. So, Zara’s parents and care team suggested she try doing her follow-up MRIs without anesthesia. 

Zara was up for the challenge.

image of staff monitoring mri scan with scanner in background

Zara’s mom sits near the scanner to provide extra reassurance while St. Jude staff monitor the scan.

Child life specialist Libby Gaitskill used a doll to explain the MRI process. The little girl looked at a mock MRI scanner and listened to a recording of the loud sounds made by an MRI. Then she climbed inside the mock scanner to practice. 

“The mock MRI helped Zara understand what would be involved,” says her mom, Umber Khan, MD. “We had tried to explain it to Zara, but being in the mock scanner helped a ton. When it was time for the real MRI, she just jumped in. She was very comfortable with it.”

Gaitskill says patients of all ages use the mock MRI to prepare for scans.

“Whenever we feel prepared to do something, it helps us cope better,” Gaitskill says. 

Zara watched a movie during the MRI scan. She and her care team celebrated afterward with high fives.

Her mom says the experience may set the stage for future successes.

“Now that she’s done it once,” Khan says, “I think she’ll be able to do it every time.”

girl getting gift from mom
patient high-fiving with nurses after scan

Zara and her care team celebrate her MRI scan without anesthesia. 


Visit Together by St. Jude to find information and support for families facing childhood cancer and other illnesses. 


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