The painkiller was wearing off. This time, I felt the needle go in. I felt it break my skin, enter the subdermis, and probe the tangle of veins and arteries in my wrist.
It fucking hurt.
The doctor moved steadily, quickly. Every time he went in, his eyes narrowed, lips pressed tight together, face knitted into a picture of concentration. He was hunting for an artery in my wrist. When he found one, his hand and entire body went still—like a tiger zeroing in on its prey. A half smile of satisfaction broke across his face as he moved in for the kill. The needle entered my artery; a firebomb exploded in my wrist and shot to the crook of my arm. Like a small oil well being tapped for the first time, a bit of blood spurted from
the needle. He had hit pay dirt. In one quick
movement, Dr. Schmidt slid the tiny wire
catheter through the needle, into my wrist, and into
When the wire entered my artery, it felt as if it was barbed and had been dipped in iodine. The sensation rocketed in a line up my arm to my shoulder. Nausea shot from my stomach to my head and down my spine. The nurse noticed that I was on the edge of throwing up and rushed a bedpan next to my head, but I couldn’t let myself puke—the doctor almost had the catheter in. I closed my eyes tight, to make the pain, the doctor, the nurse, and the entire hospital go away. My head rolled back and forth on the pillow as I tried to shake the pain out of my head. The doctor kept easing the catheter in; he stayed steady. I closed my eyes tighter. I didn’t need to watch because I could feel each millimeter of progress in exquisite detail. The nurse was talking to me, trying to keep me calm.
The two catheters going into my arteries would serve as conduits for a radioactive sugar I’d be receiving. One would be used to inject the hot sugar, the other would be used to take blood samples. After they were in place, I’d get a drug, an experimental antidepressant, through an IV. Then a positron emission tomography (PET) scan would be taken of my brain. The radioactive sugar would act as a marker, letting the doctor see how the drug was effecting my brain. When the study was first explained to me, Dr. Schmidt half-joked that the worst part of the study would be having to lie absolutely still while under the PET scanner for three hours. That was before my arteries started playing hide-and-seek with the doctor.
When I first called about the study, Dr. Schmidt’s assistant, Brad, gave me an over-the-phone screening. He fired a Gattling gun full of questions at me about my health history and my family’s health history. Did I drink? Did I smoke? Was I claustrophobic? Color blind? Have I ever been to a psychiatrist? Have I ever had any sleeping problems, or been depressed for over a week? When was the last time I took any drugs of any kind, even just a vitamin? Have I ever been in the hospital? Have I ever lost consciousness? Any head trauma? I answered the best I could, mostly a string of no’s. I cleared the first series of hurdles; my foot was in the door. I arranged a time to go to the hospital for a physical, blood tests, an EEG, and an EKG. Once that was behind me it was time to do my bit for medical science.
They never asked about my tolerance for pain—which is remarkably high—but it would have been a good question. For a half-hour, the only thing Dr. Schmidt tested was my endurance as he struggled to get the catheter in. He worked on my right wrist, migrated to my left in search of more hospitable territory, and eventually returned to my right. The doctor, the nurse, and I all stared at my wrist, hoping for the same thing: that this time would be the time Dr. Schmidt would get the catheter into my artery. Things were looking good, just a couple more inches, he almost had it….Then it got stuck. It wasn’t going in. Dr. Schmidt took it out.
Even when things are going as they should, hospitals are embarrassing places where things that normally remain hidden—vices, fear of death, your butt—are made visible. Doctors and nurses stare at places your mother hasn’t seen in years. Permissions hang in the air between provider and patient. And the people who work in hospitals have no compunction about making you feel horrible in order to make you feel better. It was enough to make you sick, but I wasn’t. I walked into Dr. Schmidt’s clutches as a healthy, normal, 21-year-old white male. I came to see Dr. Schmidt because I needed money, not treatment. Though it’s not always anticipated, pain, and sometimes worse, is part of the guinea-pig bargain.
As it turned out, the test I signed up for was no walk in the park. I was hoping that frustration or sheer embarrassment would make Dr. Schmidt give up, but he persisted. After taking out the catheter and pressing on my wrist to stop the bleeding, he looked at the nurse—not me—and said, “We’ll just try one more time.”
The needle itself wasn’t so big, but the instrument attached to it was intimidating. “Like a tattooing pen,” Dr. Schmidt explained, “most of this is for me to hold onto.” A long clear tube came out of the end of the device, which he held like a pencil. At the beginning I couldn’t feel anything. My wrists had been numbed with generous amounts of a local anesthetic. A lot of action had gone on in my wrists since they were first numbed. Now my right wrist was in an acutely sensitive state.
Dr. Schmidt was no quitter. An hour after he started he was patiently fishing in my left wrist and froze when he hit the artery. The nurse jumped to action and cut the top of the long clear tube. Dr. Schmidt began slowly pushing in the thin, wiry catheter toward my artery. The doctor moved slow and steady. Then he stopped. It wasn’t going in. Defeated again. Dr. Schmidt breathed heavily, closed his eyes, and pulled out the catheter. The needle stayed. He tried a few more times, I can’t remember how many, without success.
“If he was a depressed patient,” Dr. Schmidt said to the nurse, “I’d persist. But there’s no need to make him go through this.”
Dr. Schmidt looked at me and said, “Some days are diamonds. And others…” He paused. “…we both have to work for our money.”
Guinea-pigging sounds like hell, and it is, if things don’t go right. But for the most part it was a dream job. Being a pig pays better than any job I’ve ever had, and if time is money, then I’m a millionaire. Pigging is mostly about sitting around doing nothing. The bargain was simple and compelling: In exchange for a couple of days of pigging, I’d have enough to pay my rent, buy food, and support my nasty record-collecting habit.
This wasn’t the first time I had hung around sharp implements in exchange for cash. Selling plasma is guinea-pigging’s baby brother. As soon as I was old enough, I became a regular at Sera-Tec Biologicals, a local plasma joint back in Indiana, where I come from. As patient No. 26279, I was selling my plasma twice a week, earning $30 for the two trips. The phlebotomists knew me on a first-name basis, and I knew some of the other regulars, the down-and-out homeless people and the students. Each Tuesday and Thursday I would go in, get a quick physical, lie on a bed, get stuck with a needle, and let the machine suck out my plasma.
My love of tattoos got in the way of that little arrangement. I couldn’t sell plasma for a full year after getting a tattoo because of HIV and hepatitis concerns. I gave up the racket but found that serving as a canvas for tattoo artists didn’t disqualify me for guinea-pig work. Pigging, I reasoned, was a natural step from selling plasma. It was the same sort of thing, only now the stakes were higher. There was more pain, more risk, and it took more time, but like a high-stakes horse race, the more you put on the line, the bigger the payoff.
I got my shot at the big bucks when I moved to Washington to be an intern at City Paper, living on a hundred-buck-a-week stipend. I picked a story idea off the editor’s desk about guinea-pigging—a story people around the place always talked about doing but never actually did. It was a two-fer: By donating my body to science I’d knock out a story and fill the money gap. After a few phone calls, I found what I was looking for at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest medical research facility in the world. I was in hog heaven. There are other places around town, like the Walter Reed Medical Center, but I wasn’t going to put myself in the hands of the Army, especially not for the experimental malaria vaccines they were testing. Besides, the National Institutes of Health had a nice ring to it. It sounded so, uh, healthy.
The clearinghouse for guinea-pigging at NIH is called the Normal Volunteer Center. At NIH, no one uses the term “guinea pig.” We were “normal volunteers.” The term is a paradox, much like “donating” plasma—everybody knows you aren’t “donating” anything. You give them blood and they give you money. I laughed more than a few times about NIH’s “normal” nomenclature; subjecting yourself to medical experimentation lies outside many people’s definition of normal behavior, and although I was self-selected, I certainly wasn’t a volunteer. Of course, “volunteer” has a nicer ring than “nitwit” or “mercenary.”
At the Normal Volunteer Center there are all sorts of guinea pigs looking for gigs. They exchange information about studies, which ones pay well, and which ones are to be avoided at all costs, but while some information is shared between guinea pigs, there’s still competition. A limited number of positions are available for the studies. Most of the guinea pigs I talked to at NIH only give up study information after they’ve checked it out themselves, usually after they’ve completed the study or have decided not to go for it.
The medical studies available are posted at the center on a bulletin board, in large books, and on a computer. I sat down with pen and paper and plowed through the book, looking for studies that paid well but didn’t require spinal taps or bone-marrow collection. Wading through the studies was a tough introduction to pharmacology. I deciphered what I could, took down phone numbers, and began calling. My hope of becoming a richly endowed test subject was quickly squashed. More often than not I was greeted by voice mail and my inquiries were never returned. On the occasions I did talk to a human, I was usually put on a list of potential patients.
I had initially decided against undergoing any radiation but changed my mind when I called Dr. Schmidt and he talked about a study involving PET scans. His was the first human voice I talked to after leaving countless messages on voice mail, and he told me he could use me as soon as I was available. I jumped at the chance.
We know how that turned out. Shortly after Dr. Schmidt took the needle out of my wrist and stopped the hunt for my elusive arteries, I was bandaged up and his assistant Brad came in. I found myself apologizing. “I’m sorry…” I don’t know why I apologized; doing so felt appropriate.
“It’s not your fault,” Brad said. He stepped up to my bed; his eyes darted around me. “How’re you doing?” he asked. I said I was feeling better, especially after Brad told me I’d be getting paid more than half of what I would have gotten had the study been completed.
“I know you probably aren’t up to it right now, but if you’d be interested in participating in the other version of this study, just let us know.” He was fidgety.
“OK,” I said, “I’ll do it.” It certainly couldn’t go any worse than what I had just been through.
The official name of the new study I’d be doing was “Acute Effects of Ethoxyidazoxan on Cerebral Metabolism.” It was a drug study. Some people get freaked out by drug studies. I’m either too trusting or too naive to think twice about them. This was the same drug that was supposed to be tested on me when I was in the PET scan study. Same drug, different test. Hopefully, different result.
For this study, I’d have two one-night stays at NIH over two weeks’ time. One day I’d be given the real drug. The other day I’d be receiving a placebo. Only the doctor would know which day I was getting which. Over the course of the day I’d have to fill out questionnaires on how I was feeling. Also, before, during, and after the period the drug was administered, I’d have to perform a series of “tasks,” a battery of computer and oral tests that would help measure the drug’s effects on my brain.
When I arrived at the hospital for the first day of the study, the person working the admissions desk was the same guy who’d been working the past two times I’d been there. He used to be a guinea pig himself. It was comforting to know that people who worked at the hospital trusted it enough to participate in studies there.
After what I went through the last time, I should’ve been more nervous than I was. My wrists were still healing. But as I lay in the starched, stiff hospital bed, my mind was surprisingly empty. My only job was to fall asleep and be ready for testing tomorrow. I slipped into a solid sleep.
The lights in the room flickered. A nurse named Lucy came in and woke me, and took my vital signs. I wanted to go back to sleep, but I was anxious to do the test. I wanted to see what it was all about, to get it over with. She put an IV in each arm. These went in more easily than in the last test; they were going into my large, visible veins, not my tiny underground arteries. One went in the crook of my left arm, where Lucy would be taking blood samples, and one in my right forearm, where the drug would be administered. I was hooked to an EEG; electrodes were taped to my chest. She took my blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. We were set. Lucy turned on the IV. Three hours later, at 10 a.m., she began to give me the drug. Or the placebo. Or the drug. Who knew?
In the tube, a clear liquid went from the bag, through a machine, down more tubing and finally into my arm and into the vein. I couldn’t tell whether I was getting the placebo or the real juice. The liquid looked harmless enough, but then so does cyanide.
Before, during, and after the administration of the drug, I had to complete those “tasks.” There were two computer tests and a series of three oral tests. The computer tests were an evil stepchild of Pong or some other primitive video game. If a specific object appeared on the screen, I had to hit a key. If it didn’t, I hit a different key. The oral tests were every bit as mind-numbing.
By 11:30, the drug—or the placebo—had been administered and I had taken all three rounds of the tests. The business was over, but I was still under observation and there was nothing to do but wait. The doctor wanted to make sure there were no bad side effects, that I didn’t leave the hospital and keel over. Nothing at all. My head began to unravel. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t sleep. I had to just lie in bed until it was time to eat.
After what seemed like hours, the nurse brought in a school lunch-style tray. In the center was a large plate covered with a heavy plastic lid, like a covered serving platter. My mouth was watering. Before discovering what was under the lid, I explored the rest of my tray. A cookie. Corn. Hot decaffeinated tea. A slice of bread. No butter. I lifted the cover on the plate, and a puff of steam jumped out at me. The smell of food filled the dead air of the room. The menu called the dish “herbed fettuccine.” I ate it slowly and deliberately, no more than three noodles at a time. Small bites, not spilling a bit of food. I sipped my tea, making it last to the end of the meal. When it was finished, I dotted the corners of my mouth with the napkin and laid back in my bed. My, that was exciting.
I’ve never had too much trouble keeping my own company. I can spend days without seeing another human being—as long as I have some of my music or some decent reading material. In the absence of those distractions, I got a taste of why mental patients end up mental. I began to have long conversations with myself about the true nature of the drug they were giving me; my mind scrolled back to those horror stories about the government slipping acid into the pharmaceutical regimen of unknowing test subjects. Lying there, I ended up in a sort of psychotic comic book in which I would eventually display some horrible side effects: I would become a Fire Starter, or grow extra appendages, or start to think that Hootie and the Blowfish were actually very dynamic musical artists.
Three hours after finishing my lunch, Dr. Schmidt determined that I was OK, fit to leave. I was outta there, only to have to return in less than a week for Part 2. I couldn’t wait.
Almost every time I went to NIH it rained. And if it wasn’t actually raining, it was threatening to do so. Enormous clouds, pregnant with water, covered the sky. They hung low and sat on my head, filling all my joints with gray, making my head, shoulders, knees, and feet hurt. When I headed back on a Tuesday evening to spend the night at NIH for the second part of the Ethoxy test, it was raining steadily. I fell asleep soon after
On cue at 7 a.m., the lights came on and the nurse marched in. Her name was Loraine. She was chirpy, happy, and talkative. Loraine got to work quickly, taking out a needle and sticking me in the crook of my left arm. I felt nothing. She moved to my other side and stuck me in my right forearm. She warned me that this would hurt more, but it didn’t. Loraine hooked me to the EKG. She turned on the machine, the straight line broken by the sharp peak and dive on the monitor mapping my heartbeat.
The EKG lines reminded me of the rhythm of the hospital. Long flat lines of boredom broken by a sharp peak of action, and then an equally sharp plunge back to the flat line. We were in a flat line—time to wait. In two-and-a-half hours, Loraine would begin administering the drug and I would get to take the same tests. Until then I had nothing to do but wait.
The test resumed just like the last one. I lay in bed; then, when the drug was administered, I took the horrid circle-bar computer test, and the even more mind-wrenching word-color tests.
An hour after I took the last test, Dr. Schmidt came into my room. “So, which day do you think you received the actual drug?”
This was something I had spent a lot of time thinking about. Aside from my occasional paranoid delusions, there wasn’t much else to think about. I’d been trying to figure it out, judging by how I felt, how I did on the tests given to me….I even tried to peek at the clear bag that held the liquid. I was sure that last week I had gotten the placebo. Today I felt a little more full of go, as if I had a sharp pharmaceutical edge. Last time I had been tired; I had felt sluggish, as though someone had put sugar in my gas tank, as though I had been lying in bed all day.
The doctor smiled. “You got the placebo today.” He continued, “That is precisely why we have you perform the computer tasks, and don’t just rely on your observations. We give you just enough to make a marked difference in your performance on the tasks. Often subjects can’t feel the difference. The drug affects the brain.” And with that, he told me I was free to leave. I was finished with this study, ready to dive into another.
Everytime I was on the Metro to the NIH campus, I couldn’t escape the feeling that everyone knew that I was renting my body out. When my back was turned, when I got off, I’d imagine the whispers: “It’s disgusting, isn’t it? To let people stick things in you for money? What’s the difference between that and being a whore?” I made it up, of course. Guinea-pigging was my dirty little secret. At first it was fun, as carrying secrets can be, but it became isolating after a while. I began to dodge questions about how I was spending my days. It took too much time to explain, and I was tired of assuaging people’s worries and dispelling myths.
And then one afternoon while I was killing time before going to NIH, I came across a ‘zine in a bookstore subtitled “A Journal for Human Pharmaceutical Research Subjects.” My jaw dropped and my hands began to shake in excitement as I flipped the pages of the ‘zine, which was called, perfectly enough, Guinea Pig Zero.
I found the second issue of Guinea Pig Zero, which had report cards on different research centers around the country, along with an article on conscientious objectors during World War II being used as human guinea pigs, and a wealth of advice, anecdotes, and reviews of other jobzines. Not everything in the magazine was so comforting. On the right of the very first page I opened to there was a memorial to a young woman who had participated in a “routine” bronchoscopy in a medical test. The notice about her death was not very reassuring. Maybe next time I signed up for a test I’d read the consent form a little closer.
Guinea Pig Zero was a trip nonetheless. When you’re a pig, it’s hard to find others like you. Spending time in the waiting room, you don’t know if the guy next to you is a medical mercenary or looking for a cure. No one wears badges that say, “I’m in it for the money.”
The editor of Guinea Pig Zero makes his living as a human guinea pig—it’s his only job. He goes by the name of his ‘zine, GPZ. He says creating a ‘zine where pigs can share stories is important because “we have a little society of our own, with a folklore, our own strange humor, special cares, and most importantly, a commonality of interest.”
Living the life of a professional guinea pig might have its sharp edges, but it can be cushy. GPZ paid for a trip to India with guinea-pig earnings. But even if you’re prospering, it’s hard to shake the undeniable stigma attached to being a pig. GPZ explains, “I…was having lunch with my girlfriend and her mother once, and my sweetie shot me a hard look at one point when I was about to talk about the study I’d just completed. She explained later that is was better to leave it unsaid, because the old lady would take it to mean that I was a kind of derelict selling plasma for $5 a pint. In order to preserve the peace, she’d rather not deal with it.”
GPZ continues, “Here I was, more clean-cut and drug-free than the next 50 people she’s likely to meet, doing an entirely legal, 99-percent safe activity to make money. Nobody even gets to see me naked. Furthermore, I’m operating independently, and I retain my mind for creative energy while the rental of my body brings home the bacon. For all that, I’m supposed to feel like I’m pushing dope in front of a grade school, or pimping women’s bodies on a street corner somewhere.”
I know what he means. All the faux concern from people—all big eyes and wincing—seemed undergirded by a tremendous amount of judgment. There was nothing greasy about what I was doing, after all; it was no more problematic than many things people do for a living. Hell, Homer Simpson works in a leaky nuclear power plant….What could be so bad about sitting still for a little low-level radioactivity?
When I went back to the hospital, I was in search of the tall money—a lengthy study with a big payoff at the end. One particular study promised $1,000 for nine nights. I played phone tag with the doctor in charge of it for weeks. When I finally got ahold of Dr. Negrao, who was conducting the study, he explained to me that blood was taken every 20 minutes for seven days. Unfortunately, Dr. Negrao informed me, this was a matched study, where actual patients are matched with normal volunteers. There were no matches my age. The youngest patient they had was 42 years old. I was crushed.
But he explained that they had a similar study I could do in which I would be in the hospital only three days. The first two would be spent getting acclimated to the hospital environment. The third day, they would take a sample of blood every seven minutes for 24 hours. It paid $400. It was mine.
On cue, the clouds rolled across the sky as I headed to NIH for the study. I found a tiny spot on the crowded rush-hour Metro, packing myself in among the workday suits coming home from their important jobs. I was going against the flow, on my way to punch in amid all the people who were punched out. I got to the hospital to a waiting dinner and a snack. I was back on 4West, the same floor and wing I’d been in for all my other studies. The nurses kidded me about just moving in.
The head doctor on the study, Doctor Lucinio, stopped in to talk to me, but he seemed annoyed by the need to. He had the mien of an Easter Island statue, his face carved in stone, unmoving and expressionless. He spoke in short sentences that stopped on a dime, saying just enough to get my signature at the bottom of the consent forms. His dry manner and European accent made me nervous.
A half-hour later, Dr. Negrao came to see me. Dr. Negrao was a small guy with dark black hair, highly fashionable little Ben Franklin-type glasses, and a thick European accent. He was a bit more personable that Dr. Lucinio, but that isn’t saying much.
Dr. Negrao did explain the study in more detail. I would be put on a very strict schedule: In bed at 11 p.m., up at 7 a.m. Before I went to bed, and right when I woke, I’d have to fill out a questionnaire on what I had done that day and how I had slept. I had to eat at 8:30, 12:30, 5:30, and then have a snack at 9. My diet would be controlled for calories so I wouldn’t lose or gain any weight. And no caffeine.
The first full day, I would go about this schedule to get my body used to the regime. They didn’t want any outside stress to affect the results of their study. The second day, the day of the test, they would begin drawing blood at 8 a.m. and continue until 8 a.m. the following day. I’d be hooked to an IV with a heparin lock, a device that prevents the blood from clotting and lets the nurses get a blood sample without having to stick me with a needle every time. There would be 207 samples of blood taken over the 24 hours. I could move around, Dr. Negrao said, but a nurse would be with me at all times throughout the test.
Dr. Negrao also told me I’d have to collect all my urine for the next two days. Every time I went to the bathroom, I’d have to deposit my pee in a brown jug kept on ice in the bathroom. In case I got used to that end of my responsibilities, I was going to have to sleep with what is called a NightCap, a device that measures REM and sleep patterns. Sensors were taped to my right eyelid, and two more were put on my forehead.
Part of getting acclimated to the hospital meant I had to practice sleeping with an IV and the NightCap. When 11 p.m. finally rolled around, the nurse came in and taped an IV to my arm without sticking me and strapped me to an armboard, just so I’d get used to not bending my arm while I slept.
Sleep was elusive, but my dreams were vivid. One of the few times I fell deeply asleep, the nurse came in and woke me up. It was 7 a.m., time to get up.
I was not the only pig in the pen, as it turned out. There was another patient on 4West, named Bob. He had a well-trimmed, graying beard, a crew cut, and large, plain-looking glasses. He talked in a dry, flat tone. Bob was here for a three-month-long sleep study. From 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., he was to be asleep. If he couldn’t sleep, he had to just lie in bed. He had to be in complete darkness 14 hours a day. Bob had been in a study two-and-a-half years before that had been similar to the one I was doing now. He had blood drawn every 30 minutes for 30 hours. When he later read the report from the study, he found that they had decided that they had taken too much blood. I quietly hoped they had fine-tuned the process since then.
There were others on the floor, most for a three-day version of the same sleep study Bob was doing. They would wake up, go to work, and come back to 4West by 3:30 to get ready for bed.
The first day was creeping along. I felt like an ant marching to a picnic, taking tiny steps to my destination. Mealtimes again became the oasis in a desert of boredom. I ate as slowly as I could, making the meal stretch to an hour or longer. Each cold, crunchy green bean I savored, eating them individually, two bites per. I sipped my tea, chewed every bite 10 times, and carefully nibbled on my cookie, holding it with both hands like a toddler.
As soon as the sun set it became hard to keep my eyes open. Even the headache I was nursing from not having any coffee wasn’t enough to keep me awake. I kept dozing off in my chair while watching You Only Live Twice. James Bond could save the world from global war, but he couldn’t save me from boredom. Moneypenny would have been disappointed in him.
Before I actually got into bed, a nurse I’d never met named Marsha came into my room and announced with unsettling enthusiasm that she was here to put the IV in my arm. Marsha kept asking if I was ready. I was. In it finally went, through the leg of the black cat tattoo on the inside of my left arm. Getting needles stuck in me doesn’t faze me in the least,
but this one hurt. It didn’t feel right. I
thought maybe since I had been anticipating the stick all day, my arm was too ready for it. I thought back to something I had read in Guinea Pig Zero:
“A serious guinea pig is someone who follows through on the unit’s expectations, and who doesn’t complain about minor discomforts. We can forgive certain small mistakes, such as when the staff is short-handed and many samples must be drawn within a brief window period, and a nurse will start pushing on the gauze just a split second before the needle comes out of the vein. This make the point drag along the inner wall and makes us think of those sorry old desks we used to sit at in junior high school, with everyone’s names and tacky adolescent sexuality carved into their surfaces.”
Usually I’m able to dismiss minor discomforts, but this just didn’t feel right. I let Marsha know. She became patronizing to me, the way a mechanic might talk to someone who didn’t understand cars, looking over the area and saying that everything looked just fine. I could picture the flexible needle of the IV pushing against the wall of my vein, maybe even trenching a bit of the tender inner wall. I tried to put it out of my mind and go to sleep.
Sleep came easier than the night before, but not much. In the morning, I filled out my questionnaire, went to the bathroom…or rather the brown jug, and then was immediately hooked to the IV machine.
Now that we were down to business, I was in a plush prison, with Super Mom nurses for guards. A medical variation of the Stockholm syndrome set in. I began to identify with and appreciate my captors. We had something in common: boredom. They were trapped, too. The nurse and I grasped for other commonalities between us. Jackie and I did the crossword puzzle, turning to Lucy when we were absolutely stumped. She was always able to fill in the blanks. Loraine and I talked about tattoos. Purita was always trying to feed me. Since I am a vegetarian, she never thought I could get enough to eat. We got to know about little corners of each other’s lives, just enough to feel personable around each other. Just enough to make it feel a little less like a prison.
A tiny peak in action came every seven minutes, when it was time for a blood draw. The nurse drew up a plunger, bringing the heparin solution and first bit of blood out of my arm. A syringe was then attached to the device, and 2cc of fresh blood was drawn. The nurse disconnected the syringe, and the blood-heparin mix was injected back into my vein.
I became fascinated by seeing my blood rush into the pre-pump, mixing with the heparin-saline solution. I watched with keen interest as my blood, black-red, thick and solid, like a molten metal, swirled into the syringe. It was impressive that I had such a deep crimson roiling beneath my skin, a rich resource waiting to be tapped.
I had a nurse by me at all times; they each took an hour shift or two, rotating turns to suck my blood. My day was divided into 207 seven-minute chunks. Seven minutes can be a long stretch of time just sitting watching the second hand on the clock, but if I had to go to the bathroom, seven minutes seemed to evaporate before I could stand up and get to the bathroom door. Timing was everything.
Boredom is the worst part of all the studies. I can take the pain—it goes away soon enough. But the boredom lingers; there’s no shaking it. There isn’t a little pill or cold compress to make the boredom go away. I dimmed the lights, shut the curtain, and put on a bunch of movies, raided from the 4West video collection to escape its clutches. I was content to live in the glow of whatever movie I was watching.
Vicki, a particularly cheerful nurse who got on my nerves when I first met her, chided me for living in a cave. Her ultrachipper nonstop smile didn’t bother me anymore. Anything different was worth savoring. Vicki talked me into going into the main room of the floor to play a game of Life with her. Neither of us had played for a long time, so we made up our own rules. The nurses were shocked to see me laughing. Vicki won the game. She had a high-paying job as a lawyer; I barely got by with a university degree. I had to get an extra job driving a school bus and was haunted by my wife’s ghost. It’s impossible to win at Life with those chains around your neck. Maybe if there were a card for guinea-pigging I would have gotten further.
Throughout the day my budding headache got worse, eventually coming into full bloom. When I moved my head, a saw ripped across my forehead from the inside out. When I was still, a ball-peen hammer tap-tap-tap-tapped away on my head. My body was going into caffeine withdrawal. I waited it out.
By the time darkness fell, I was ready to go to sleep. There was a small hole in the wall to the left of the bed. The IV line went through the hole into the neighboring room, so a nurse didn’t have to sit in the dark to take blood from me while I slept. Even though I had the IV in, had the NightCap on, and blood was being taken from me, I slept the best of the three nights, quietly snoring while the nurses did the old in-out on my blood supply.
At precisely 7 a.m., a nurse came in to wake me. It was the last day. In an hour I would get unhooked from the IV and would be free to go. I got to eat breakfast immediately and managed to shovel down a few of the pancakes, which tasted like sawdust and flour. A sympathetic nurse let me have her cup of coffee. It tasted like watered clay, but I was grateful. I was ready to go, but again I had to wait, this time for test results to come back to make sure I was doing OK, that I was healthy enough to leave. My time came and I said farewell to my captors, or fellow inmates, or whatever they were. I made my way through the labyrinth of the hospital and stepped outside, into the sunshine. I was free. If the weather was an omen, this was a good one. I felt good.
On the Metro on my way home, I opened a copy of Guinea Pig Zero.
“You’ve descended into hell and emerged as a hero. No, really! You made the world a better place….What’s that you say? You did it for the money? That’s not so heroic, but since this is the pharmaceutical industry, it’s not exactly shocking either.”CP
For a copy of Guinea Pig Zero, send $2 to: Guinea Pig Zero, P.O. Box 42531, Philadelphia, PA 19101.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Kurt Godwin.