My introduction to clinical trials happened during summer vacations when I was in elementary school. My mother, traditional enough to reject giving her kids an allowance (but entirely comfortable with her children undergoing random medical tests) indirectly sold her son and daughter to research.
But with the 70 or so dollars that promised new LEGO sets and nights fueled by store-brand pineapple soda, we gladly submitted. The process was fun. We would arrive and the doctors would ask us questions. Sometimes about our mood or our memory. At this time in my life, I considered myself an intellectual and I loved blowing the researchers mind with my ability to recall sequences of numbers. Doctors were impressed with my memory. And, they paid for our lunch.
For me, clinical trials were an advanced form of having a lemonade stand. I respect little hustlers. I tried my hand at hustling too, before the cops shut down my selling of bottled water off the highway. But why hustle when money can be had answering a few questions
Once I gave blood for 25 dollars. One hour, one prick, one good deed for science. If I could make this into a palindrome, I would and I’d teach it to children. I’d stimulate the economy and save a life.
When signing up for any clinical trial, a doctor will provide a document outlining the purpose of the study, the methodology the researchers will use, and most importantly, the potential risks of participating. She or he will ask you to read it, initial each page, sign the back, all the while repeatedly asking if you have any questions.
In general, I recommend not reading this document. Now, your rational mind might rightly be rejecting this advice. Foreign substances, some entering humans for the first time in recorded history, are about to be injected into your bloodstream. Still, every hospital has an Institutional Review Board, whose job is to evaluate medical tests using human subjects. Who am I, a nothing, to open pages and pages and question the approval of Ph.Ds and trained medical professionals at Columbia University Medical Center or other worthy institutions? The idea of participating in a clinical trial has been hijacked by myths of third arms growing out of radioactive pancreases.
Plus, if I live cynical of the authority above me, how could I ever find confidence in other institutions of power, like the House of Representatives or the Metropolitan Transit Authority? Sometimes the more you know, the more you over-think things. Most people wouldn’t open a business or a start-up if they knew the risks. Similarly, most of us wouldn’t ask another out for a date if we knew the risks. Not knowing things can be an asset, a tool for discovery and understanding new things. Of course, this attitude has fueled my continued love for McChicken sandwiches, reality television, and the belief in love at first sight. And guess what? ‘Tis a wonderful life indeed.
One of the places I got to know very well during my time in clinical trials was the inside of an MRI machine. If you are claustrophobic, this might not be the place for you.
The worst thing you can do in an MRI machine is to brainstorm the ways you’d escape in case of an emergency. Imagining a one ton magnet collapsing on you? Not prudent. Envisioning the doctor operating the scan collapsing? Not prudent. Worrying about a filling in your back molar getting ripped out by magnetic forces? Counterproductive.
The key is to strategize ways to stay relaxed. I’d try to pass the time by replaying some of my favorite albums entirely from memory. My go-to choice was The Spirit Room by Michelle Branch. The key was not rushing the album. Naturally, I didn’t want to sing “You Get Me.” I wanted to jump straight to “All You Wanted” or the hidden gem of the album “Sweet Misery.” But the time won’t go faster if you keep waiting.
In life, patience is rewarded, even in the MRI machine. Sing the whole album the whole way and “Goodbye to You” is your reward, as the sliding bed goes out with a doctor telling you how awesomely still you were.
For me, clinical trials were the Affordable Care Act. Actually, more like the No Cost Care Act.
For no money and no insurance, I got regular checkups, checkups I’d never get for myself otherwise. Because of them I was diagnosed with high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and a false positive for a heart condition called pericarditis. This last diagnosis, the scariest of the bunch, was determined to be a false positive that African American youths sometimes have on an EKG machine. (Whew.)
I haven’t looked into how to fix any of these. But I appreciate the knowledge.
After my freshman year of college, I had signed up to intern at my favorite soft rock radio station, 95.5 WPLJ. Like most internships, this was unpaid. Before I had formed an opinion on the ridiculousness of paying for work experience, I was stoked.
Before it began I was smart enough to budget. The math was simple. Zero dollars times anything would in all likelihood equal zero. But I looked to the place I knew salvation was constantly in supply: Craigslist. I scanned ads and saw my answer. I don’t remember the specifics of the ad, expect the important part. One week. $2,175. Cool.
It turned out to be an adult summer camp. Twenty or so guys roamed about in teal scrubs, battling over the last of the cream cheese in the morning. We watched the World Cup. I watched a season of Will and Grace as I slept on my Tempurpedic bed. Whether or not participants in the double blind study got the placebo or not, we all were in good spirits, interacting with the nurses. Plus, the check awaited Saturday morning.
And that summer I did not worry about money and the internship was a lot of fun. A commitment to scrappiness.
I’m the guy that donated blood between classes because I wanted a snack of cheese and crackers and juice. I’m the guy who suffered through a semester’s worth of spam emails from random clubs because I wanted free food at their introduction meeting. I joined a program called Global Kids my sophomore year of high school because I had a crush on a girl there. This is scrappiness, which I define as ingenuity without shame.
Scrappiness isn’t cutting corners. It isn’t beating the system or avoiding responsibility. Scrappiness is understanding a need and finding inventive ways to fulfill them. I aspire to be scrappy. Clinical trials are for scrappy people. But my time for science is over. It ended rather uneventfully. The prospect of a thousand dollars for three days spoke for itself. But the nice doctor was looking for three good veins on my right arm. He could find 1.5. Ouch. I took that as a sign.
And so now I am resigning myself to a life of honest work with honest wages. No more EKG machines. No more praying for the placebo. No more wires over my face. Unless, of course, the MTA raises the price of a monthly Metrocard again. In which case, I’ll try out the glamour of sperm donations.
The world needs more Michelle Branch fans anyway.