September 15, 2013 - Human Testing
Two things: 1. Turns out I'm a hypocrite, and 2. I don't have to be abducted by aliens to have invasive tests performed on me--I can sell my body to science for that.
I've known for a good part of my life that I'm not monetarily driven. Once, during my days as a broke-poor athlete, I turned down the chance to write a three page paper for $50, not for the honorable reason that cheating is wrong, but rather that the subject matter was boring and fifty dollars wasn't good enough incentive for the mental tedium. I could really have used that money. Another time, one of my siblings asked, “Would you drink a bottle of Tabasco Sauce for one thousand dollars?” My question was, “How big is the bottle?”
Of course this was hypothetical since neither of us had one thousand dollars to blow on a gimmick. As a matter of fact neither of us had a thousand dollars for anything. But I wouldn’t have done it anyway. In a third instance I was offered twenty thousand dollars to marry a foreigner so that he could get his green card. “Three years,” he said, pleading with me, “twenty thousand dollars.” I had dreams of marrying for love so I told him no.
Now a decade later, I thought I wasn’t any different. Apparently, however, desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures. I like my nonconventional life, but I also like to eat. And money, that cursed thing, is what keeps me away from claiming the starving in the proverbial starving artist label.
Avoiding what might be inevitable (e.g. getting a real job), I answer an ad looking for female test subjects to participate in an altitude sickness study through the University of Oregon only days after I arrive to the state. I’ve lived at high altitude, I know what thin oxygen feels like, and for all that test studies can be this sounds safe and easy. Also, it’s a five session study that pays out $190 and that seems fair enough. If anything, it’s more money than I make sitting on the back patio watching the hummingbirds fuss at each other over the rights to drink from the salvia. I go in for the orientation. Then a week later I go back to the lab to have my heart and lungs tested to see if I fit the study requirements.
The good news is that, as the tech tells me, “You have a good heart!” and my lungs are in great shape, too. “You can’t get them any better,” the tech says impressed with the results from the breathing tests, “but if you wanted to make them worse you could start smoking.” The good news is that I get paid $30 to be told this. The good news is I qualify to participate in the study. The bad news is that since I’ve recently been at a high altitude I have to wait three weeks to acclimate to the test study specs and while that time is expiring the study is completed without me.
The good news is that there are other studies.
The bad news is they use drugs to create reactions in the body in order to predict whatever these studies are trying to predict. Over the past five years in my quest for health I’ve gone to both great lengths and extreme measures to avoid drugs. The lists of harmful side effects and the long-term potential for damage to treat symptoms without dealing with underlying cause seemed like no fair trade for health achieved through good nutrition, time, and a healthy lifestyle. It still doesn’t. But at times, like now, good health seems like the Holy Grail that’s never in the place where it was promised to be. I just can’t find it. I start to contemplate the short term benefits of conventional drugs and wonder how I can get hold of them without doctor visits and needless exams. But this also requires money. So I revisit all the methods (ten-day cleanses, green smoothies, exercise, deep breathing, anti-inflammatory diets, heat and cold therapy, turmeric) I’ve learned over the years to calm down my overactive immune system with little to no results.
Meanwhile, summer spins away and with it, dollar by dollar, goes my ever-dwindling wad of cash. The summer which had once seemed endless and full of possibility is about over and I’m not sure what I have to show for it. I don’t hear from the U of O study people. I don’t hear from any of the agents I’ve queried about my two current writing projects. I don’t get any response for a creative writing course I offer to the local community. Each day I wake up with the same burning pain and the growing stress of a future I can’t seem to predict much less plan for. Some filthy lucre would come in awfully useful right about now.
I go so far as to apply for three jobs.
There’s zero response there either. I begin to feel unqualified, too old, undesirable, invisible.
So when I get the call saying there’s a slot just opened up and can I come two days from now to be a lab rat I agree without reservation.
“You can think about it and call me back,” John tells me.
“No, I’ll be there,” I reply. Then almost as an afterthought I ask, “How much does this study pay?”
“One hundred sixty dollars,” he says.
Drugs or no drugs two weeks’ worth of eating money for one day at the lab is good incentive. You’re a hypocrite, I tell myself. All the anti-drug protests I’ve made over the years are rendered null by this grasping for cash. I might not sell my soul for money, but I’ll sell my body. I can’t deny what’s true. I’ll worry about the effects after the fact.
The day of I get up at 5:30 AM and I'm at the lab before 6:30. “Thanks for getting here so early,” John says, giving me a scrub top to wear. While we wait for the cardiologist to arrive John puts IV needles in both my arms and gives me the rundown for the day. I ask him what the study is trying to predict and he tells me and I promptly forget. It has to do with heart shunts and elevated heart rates. I think it's for the greater good.
The cardiologist arrives and tests the blood flow into both my hands with a pressure and release evaluation using nothing more than the force of his fingers. Satisfied that a tap into one artery won't cut off blood flow to my hand he gives me a numbing injection and then inserts a wire into the thumbside artery of my left wrist. Over this he slides a catheter which will be used to draw blood, flush a saline solution and also to pass air bubbles safely through my veins into my heart which they'll evaluate on screen and catalog on paper. He sticks around long enough to make sure there are no ill effects and then goes on his way.
And then, John has me snort some lidocaine so that he can pass a tube through my nostril and down my throat to monitor temperature or something. “It'll feel like you have something to swallow,” he tells me as I'm following instructions and sipping water to get the tube down. He feeds the tube and I swallow sip after uncomfortable sip. “It should be about in the right place.” Suddenly, I choke, cough. “Sorry,” I wheeze, my voice raspy around the tube. I can't seem to breathe correctly. I try not to choke again. I try to keep from coughing. This tube is horribly unpleasant. The long day ahead of me begins to feel onerous. John brings over a machine and hooks it to the end of the tube watching some levels rise and fall.
“What did you do, John,” the third student whose name might also be John asks, “stick it in her airway?”
“It shouldn’t move with your breath,” John tells me. “We’re going to take this out, okay?”
I’m all for that.
After I’ve had a chance to recover, to drink some water, and breathe without impediment John asks, “Are you willing to try it again?”
This time it goes in the right spot, an uncomfortable rubbing spot, a day-long frog in the throat.
Next, Julia, the same girl who'd given me the original orientation for the altitude study, slaps electrode pads all over me. Then she and John get me hooked up to an IV. “You've probably never been more connected than you are now,” she says.
When Randy the sonogram technician arrives I get situated in the chair and John and Julia began to attach all the wires, connect all the tubes, evaluate the starting numbers and levels. And then they fit me for a mouthpiece through which I'll be breathing oxygen or room temp air depending on which part of the study we’re on. They plug up my nose. I never have been so connected before.
The hours roll by and I work to keep my breathing steady no matter what my heart is doing. I try not to think about the restless ache in my legs. I swallow around the tube in my throat. And as I lay on my left side for hours and hours with a sonogram wand and its cold gel pressed to the skin over my heart I wonder if this is the most uncomfortable way I've ever earned money. It's certainly the most invasive.
John coaches and encourages me through the full day of testing. At one point Julia says to the other John, “She’s really good,” when I’m breathing in time to a metronome. Eight and a half hours later when we’re finally all done and I’m walking after John to start and get the tubes and needles taken out Randy says, “What a trooper!”
Having the throat tube out is a blessed relief. Then go the IV needles.
When the catheter comes out John sits in front of me holding pressure to my wrist for a full fifteen minutes. And then I have to sit another fifteen with ice on it. And when that time is up Julia wraps me from forearm to wrist and tells me not to get the scabbing arterial hole wet for forty-eight hours. “It might seem a bit overkill,” John had said, “but better safe than sorry.”
They cut me a check before I leave. And as I walk out with my money in hand I feel like there should be a moral to the day--something I could say against nonconsensual human testing-- some indictment against the horrors inflicted on the Jews during World War II (I've just finished a book recounting some of the atrocities) and against the ill treatment of people of all races and religions whose humanity has been overlooked and used--something I could speak to against the horrors of animal testing, but I don't know how, I don’t know what words to say since I was just in it for the money.