– The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.
The three months were officially up. It was time for me to get back into the clinic. The night in Sheffield had sent me off onto a bit of a bender. Wallowing in my self-pity, I carried on drinking heavily while hitting the pubs of Nottingham with Jake. Money was getting low again and I looked at the current list of medical studies on the website. It was like looking at a delicious restaurant menu. The studies paid anything from £800 to £5000. There were some trials for medicines treating asthma, some for Crohn’s disease, and some for that notorious old bad guy – cancer. There were even some trials that involved you being exposed to radiation. I was hungry for money but I considered where I would actually draw the line when it came to doing studies. Most studies involved you testing drugs which had already gone through one phase of testing before. Would I take part in a study where I would be the first person taking the drug? I thought not, but I also knew if I was offered a ‘first-in-human’ study with a hefty payment, I’d quickly change my tune. Ultimately I was just another person willing to put some digits on a screen before my own health. And relatively speaking, I didn’t think the trials were too dangerous, but it was true that very rarely one might go wrong. I’d only told a few people I was doing medical trials but those I told were quick to mention one infamous study which went wrong in 2006 in London. Some guinea-pigs were testing an antibiotic that would be used to treat Leukaemia and Arthritis. A short while after being dosed, the volunteers were left writhing in agony and projectile vomiting. Soon their immune systems crashed and they suffered multiple organ failure. It got continually worse as they were left fighting for their lives and one guy had to have some of his some of his fingers amputated. Some of them even had inflated heads – helping give the incident the notorious name: ‘the elephant man study’. All things considered, it was a colossal fuck-up, but it had been over ten years since that incident, and lessons had apparently been learned. The doctors assured us that there were new procedures and regulations in place to stop such a calamity happening again. It was reassuring, I guess. It did make me wonder though how much compensation each volunteer got. Would I lose a few fingers for half a million pounds? Maybe a kidney or a lung for a million? If you started down that road, then where would it end? You’d be slowly slicing yourself down to nothingness in an attempt to fill that bank account with as much money as you could. I guess it was nothing out of the ordinary for some people out there.
I had the usual screening and meeting with the doctor before being admitted onto the study. I passed with flying colours again, although he did stop to question the cuts on my body from when I got attacked in Sheffield. “Bike-riding accident,” I told him. “I was lucky to get off so easily; next time I’ll wear a helmet.” The doctor gave me an incredulous look. It was clear he knew I was full of shit, but he didn’t care – to him I was just another lab rat living off medical trials rather than getting a job like a normal person. No doubt he pitied me in a way. That would explain the slight delight in his voice when he informed me of the next bit of information.
“For this trial you will need to provide faecal samples.” I stopped and paused.
“Faecal samples?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Because this drug is a treatment for Crohn’s disease, it will be necessary to monitor your bowel behaviour. So stool samples will be necessary.” (They used words like ‘stool’ and ‘faecal’ to make it sound a little more scientific; really they were just telling you that they were going to be analysing your shit.) It wasn’t the most pleasant thought, but hey, at least it wasn’t me having to inspect it. And it could have been worse. A few weeks back I had checked the drug trial menu to see a study taking place in which ‘the drug would be administered rectally”. Having to provide a sample of your shit was one thing, but having some poor nurse shove drugs up your ass first thing in the morning was something else. Perhaps it was there where I would have drawn the line for which study I would take part in.
Back in the clinic, I got settled into my second home. This time I was on the biggest ward, along with thirteen other volunteers. It hardly seemed like three months had passed and in a way it felt good to be back on the inside. Perhaps I was getting institutionalised already on my second study, but the idea that for the next eighteen days I wouldn’t have to worry about a single thing was comforting. I could resume my feline ways, laying around, being fed, sleeping, and even – in this case – having my shit taken away by my owners. Hell, it even felt a bit like going into rehab after the heavy drinking I had done the previous two weeks to the study.
This time the collection of fellow guinea-pigs looked a little more fitting to situation. There were some strange looking characters including a washed-up hippy in his fifties with dreaded hair who proceeded to walk around half naked wearing only a towel – much to the disgust of the female volunteers. There was also a girl who immediately asked for screens to be put around her bed and proceed to ignore everyone while playing her ukulele. There was one guy who sat on his bed playing Pokémon with the sound on full blast, and another who kept talking to himself while hitting his laptop in frustration (I presumed he was also a gamer). It wasn’t the most peaceful environment and things got noisier on the first night when one of the volunteers started snoring loudly – so loudly you wondered if he was being strangled to death. It was an annoyance, but not as annoying as the man who cursed loudly everything he started snoring. “Fucking snoring cunt!” he would shout. “You stupid fucking pig! Shut the fuck up!” It turned out it was the washed-up hippy. I had quickly deduced he was going to be the main problem man on the trial. He even would snap at the nurses walking past his bed if they were too loud, suggesting they wore some stealthier footwear. The ordascity was astounding. Here was a man getting paid £200 a day to lie around and shit into a pot, and he felt it was okay to snap at the nurses working twelve hour shifts for little more than the minimum wage. They must have hated him, especially when I later found out he had been reported on previous studies. It did make me wonder what a guinea-pig had to do to get kicked off a study. They had a list of rules you had to follow, and if you broke one then you could be issued with a £50 fine. But there were also some rules which would result in being dismissed from the study and taken off the panel. I wondered how far the washed-up hippy was going to push his luck. No doubt he was another bum living off these trials. Maybe soon he would be joining the homeless people in the gutter. I wouldn’t have had sympathy for him. Us lab rats had to count ourselves lucky we had been given this chance to make easy money and, for me, I followed the rules obediently, knowing full well that it was this facility which was saving me from the horrors of full-time employment in the outside world.
Anyway, after the first night I awoke to see the nurses standing there in their red ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ tabards. It was time to get to work. I swallowed down those experimental pills and wondered what side effects I was going to have this time. After that came the usual procedures: ECG, blood samples, blood pressure, temperature checks. A few hours later the moment arrived where I needed to go to the toilet. I had seen some other volunteers sheepishly come out of the bathroom with their pots and place them on the tray in the ward. None of them appeared too comfortable doing it; ultimately it was hard to not look awkward while walking through a room full of people carrying your own shit. Well, at least I wasn’t the first to do it. I grabbed my pot and headed over to the bathroom. I also grabbed a chart from beside my bed; there was a picture chart of all the different types of ‘faecal samples’ and you had to write down on the pot which one your sample resembled. Was it runny, or was it sturdy? Was it long, or was it lumpy? Apparently this was of utmost importance to the people conducting the study.
Inside the bathroom I sat there and prepared to do my business. I crouched on the toilet and held the pot under myself. It was then, squeezing out last night’s dinner, that I had a bit of a moment. I looked in the mirror at what I was doing and realised my life path had led me to this. A few years back I was a young man with a promising future in the communications industry. Wide-eyed I left university with my degree, ready to get a proper job and begin a career. Like every good graduate, I was preparing for a middle-class life of stability, security, and suburban sanity. My CV was updated with all my skills and my parents were eager to see me make it as a high earner in a respected profession. Well the years had fallen by and here I was – squeezing out a turd into a pot in order to get money to survive. It was an absurd situation and I had to think of all my coursemates from University, and my friends from my hometown. No doubt at this moment they were in good jobs or further education. They would all be handing in important assignments or projects they’d been working on. Me? I was quite literally handing in a piece of shit.