~ Medical Trial Madness ~
The first time I heard about it was while travelling around Australia. I had just been working an overnight job in Adelaide in which me and my friend had spent a few hours pulling down some plastic sheets that covered the clothing racks of a department store during a smoke test. Following this highly skilled work, we were sat in a McDonald’s joint at dawn watching the streets begin to stir with life over a morning coffee and breakfast bagel. As we discussed the different ways to make money while backpacking in Australia, a fellow worker on the table beside us interrupted with some friendly advice.
“Why don’t you guys do one of those human guinea-pig things?” he said, chomping away on a sausage and egg McMuffin.
“One of those human guinea-pig things?” asked my friend.
“Yeah, you know, one of those medical trial experiments? You just go into a clinic, take some new medicine, and then you stay in there while you have your health monitored. When it’s finished, you come out with a few thousand dollars in the bank. Easy as bro.”
Immediately we both stopped eating and turned to face him like he was some sort of holy prophet. The sound of ‘a few thousand dollars’ to broke backpackers was like the sound of heroin to a smack addict. Being as desperate for money as we were, we naturally disregarded anything to do with the safety of testing unknown drugs.
“And how do you sign up for one?” I asked, salivating at the prospect.
“Just go onto their website and register bro. Their clinic is in town. I’ve got a surfer friend whose been doing them for years now. He just knocks out three or four trials then goes and surfs and gets drunk in Bali for six months or something. Pretty cruisy ‘ey?”
“Unreal,” said my friend. “And anyone can do it?”
“Pretty much bro. As long as you can pass a drug test and don’t mind getting stabbed with a needle a few times a day.”
Me and my friend turned to each other with a look of curiosity. After a few seconds of silent contemplation, it was decided. Right there and then in that McDonald’s joint, I realised that a glorious new career beckoned upon the horizon of my future. So far in Australia, I had been a factory line operative, a party-hire event worker, a fruit picker and a bartender – but now I was to venture into the pharmaceutical industry where I would nobly donate my body and time in the pursuit of trying to rid the world of the many illnesses that plagued humanity. Oh, and also to afford another month or so of travelling around Australia while getting drunk on cheap wine.
It was just a couple of weeks later when I walked triumphantly out of my first medical trial. I had just tested some new medicine to treat Asthma while staying in the clinic for five nights. I walked back out onto the sidewalks of society joyfully breathing in the fresh summer air, skipping down the street, feeling the sun’s rays bouncing off my skin. I was like a man in possession of a great secret; I had just spent the best part of a week lying around, being cared for, being fed, playing ping pong and pool while getting paid over a thousand dollars for all of it. Instead of forking out on pricey hostels, I had found a way to get all-inclusive free accommodation plus a large sum of money. I stood there on that street and looked up at skies above knowing that I had found my true calling at last. Some were born to be doctors, some teachers, others – presidents. Me? I was born to be a human guinea-pig. It was a pivotal day in my life and to celebrate my new profession, I went online to book myself a trip to go and cage dive with some great white sharks with the money I had just made in the clinic.
Over the next few years, I continued venturing in and out of the human guinea-pig industry. Returning home to the U.K, I found I could only take part in a drug trial every three months, so I had to be calculative about when and which assignment I wanted to take part in. I was still travelling on and off somewhere out in the world, so all the trials acted as a convenient way to top up the bank account in between adventures. My equilibrium of life became some sort of comical cartoon where one moment I’d be hiking in the Himalayas and the next I’d be confined in a clinic having some nurse monitor my urine whilst being pumped full of drugs.
I thought maybe it would just be my way of life for a short while, but I soon realised that this lifestyle was somewhat sustainable. Due to the entropy of the universe, there was always a wealth of work to be had. My many assignments in the guinea-pig industry included testing drugs to treat diseases and illnesses such as pulmonary arterial hypertension, neutropenia, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s and that old notorious bad guy: cancer. Each one varied from three to eighteen days in clinic and helped contribute to whatever adventure I was planning next.
As the needles pierced my skin and the blood was drained from my body, my financial health and travel prospects flourished. I made money to go hike in the Himalayas; I made money to go party in Central America; I made money to go walk across Spain while drinking red wine every day of the summer. It was a simple transaction and, truthfully, the whole damn thing seemed too good to be true. The money was great and even the trials themselves were a pleasant experience. Inside those clinics I found fellow wanderers like myself living out on the fringes of society. Inside those clinics I found a way I could sit around playing on an Xbox all day while not feeling guilty about wasting the day away. You didn’t have to spend a single penny while you were in there, so essentially everything you earned was total profit and savings. Hell, it was even tax-free as the money was classed as an ‘inconvenience allowance’ and not a payment. Yes, for once in my chaotic life everything fit neatly into place, but naturally such an unconventional line of work brought about the naysayers.
“You don’t know what they are giving you.”
“You’re only thinking about the money.”
“Don’t you care about health?”
“Sort your life out and get a proper job you hobo…”
Maybe those naysayers were right, but I couldn’t help but dedicate myself to the profession anyway. No doubt I was blinded by the money, but it seemed that being a human guinea-pig was my true calling. I had tried and failed hopelessly at almost every other profession the human species had offered to me. I had no common sense or dexterity to do any of the trades; I was too open and honest to deal with the bullshit and bureaucracy of the business world; and I had even become disenfranchised with my degree profession of journalism. It seemed that nothing in this society suited me except lying in a bed and being fed some drugs while having my blood sucked dry by a pharmaceutical company that saw me as a mere subject number in a scientific study. It was a funny situation, I guess. My friends all had job titles that included: ‘marketing manager’, ‘graphic designer’, ‘business consultant’, and ‘systems engineer’. I suppose ‘human guinea-pig’ didn’t seem to fit in quite as well with those on the surface of things, but the more I took part in those drug trials, the more I realised that such a line of work drew many parallels with those other conventional professions.
I remember lying in bed on one of the studies and getting talking to a middle-aged man on the bed next to mine. We both began speaking about our lives and why we were doing the trial, and how many we had done, and what we were planning to do after the trial. Naturally with him being a middle-aged human who had successfully reproduced, I presumed he was a functioning member of society with a career and confident knowledge of what he was actually doing in life. However, after talking for ten minutes, it turned out that miraculously I somehow had a better grip on life than he did. He was spontaneously doing the two-week medical trial after just quitting his job as a store manager for IKEA. He explained to me how the long hours and time away from home had gradually ruined his marriage and social life and left him empty on the inside. He went on to say how he finally decided to quit after his friend had killed himself after also working as a boss for IKEA for twenty years. The death left a profound impact on him. It turned out he was doing the trial to give himself some time alone to think about his next move in life so he didn’t end up as another suicide case driven to the ledge by the cold, mechanical world of business.
Right there and then I realised that the job of a human guinea-pig was no different than many jobs and professions out there. In the process of trying to obtain money, I went and stayed in a set place for a certain amount of time where I gradually had my blood sucked dry by some company that saw me primarily as a number on a screen. Maybe it was a bit more nonchalant and ‘to-the-point’, but it didn’t seem to be so different from the IKEA job that man had told me about. At least with medical trials, it was a lot clearer how it worked: “Look you need money, and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time, and we will reimburse you with a financial payment into your bank account.”
If anything, I had to applaud them for their honesty. Many faceless companies out there tried to confuse you with sneaky slogans like ‘career progression’, ‘success’ and ‘bettering yourself’. Many companies out there tried to make you feel good, when really you were just spending the best years of your life confined in some small space doing some menial task as your health was damaged by the stress and the inevitable lack of exercise that came with being too tired to do anything after work. Maybe medical trials were no different in regard to how they used you, but I respected the fact that at least they were a lot more transparent about proceedings.
As I carried on my career in the guinea-pig industry, I realised that the IKEA guy wasn’t a one-off. Often I came across people who had dropped out of the rat race and started doing trials in an attempt to afford extra time off during the year, or a way to supplement an adventurous lifestyle like the one I was attempting to live. Mostly they were on the other side of forty. I figured that this was because it was usually at that age many people awoke to the fact that they had squandered their youth working at a job they had no interest in for a company that had no interest in them. Finally realising this unfortunate set of circumstances, they set about simplifying their life and finding a way to afford to actually spend time doing what they cared about – whether that was travel, art, sports or even something as simple as gardening. It was a sudden sidestep to say the least, but mostly it was a good score: the trials themselves were a nice retreat from society and allowed a person to sit inside all day and maybe learn a new language, play the ukulele or – in my case – work on some existential memoirs they had been wanting to jot down for a while. Of course, there was the obvious possibility that something could go wrong and you’d get elephantiasis or something, but overall it was a risk I was happy taking.
And take I did. The years went on and on and so did those trials and adventures. Sometimes it was taking a pill to stop nicotine addiction, sometimes it was an injection to treat irritable bowel syndrome. Eventually I managed to get into the routine of doing three trials a year. With this money supplementing my chaotic lifestyle of bohemian travel, I usually only had to work an actual job for no more a few months a year. The situation was strange, but a good kind of strange – although I did think maybe I had gone a little too far when I was sat in a toilet holding a container under myself as I went about my business. I had ended up on a trial which required us to give a feacal sample at least once every day. I specifically remember the awkwardness of walking through the clinic ward while holding my container to go and place it on a tray alongside all the other guinea-pig’s cluttered pots of feaces. I thought of how my friends would be handing in coursework, or important projects of some sort they had completed at work. Me? I was quite literally handing in a piece of shit.
Eventually, after trial number twelve or thirteen, friends and relatives started raising eyebrows that I was still continuing my career in the guinea-pig industry at a relentless pace.
“This is getting ridiculous – you can’t do it forever.”
“You need to think about getting something solid behind you.”
“You need a proper trade or qualification.”
It was the standard script that parents, teachers and professional human-beings could recite at any given moment on any given day. Even my sister, usually generally on my side with most things, had her eyebrows raised along with the others.
“Have you not thought about what job you actually want to do?” she said, sitting across from me on the sofa. “You’re twenty-six now after all. You need some security. You can’t rely on testing medicines all the time.” I was disappointed by my sister’s reaction, but I understood her position. By now my sister was twenty-eight, studying a physiotherapy degree and preparing to finally fit herself into the paradigm of society after a decade of floating around. The psychology elements of her degree made her feel like she could understand the chaos of my mind, and she sat back into the groove of the sofa and studied me like she was a therapist and I was her patient. I got into the swing of it and went ahead explaining that by doing a medical trial, working three months and then doing another one, I could afford to travel over half the year for the rest of my life while working on my writing projects. There was no nod of agreement; just a look of bewilderment, of concern – of outright fear. It was a look I would have to learn to become immune from if I didn’t want to be caged by the judgemental nature of the human-race which was always ready to cast those glares and scowls upon you in the millions.
I thought inside the clinic was safe from such judgement, but I began to see a lot of people in there were also insecure about whether this line of work was an acceptable way of surviving in this world. The middle-aged people were usually comfortable with them as they did them in combination with some other line of work. But the fellow guinea-pigs my age were often chatting away about other plans or studies or ventures to show that medical trials weren’t their final destination in life. In particular, I met one guy called Daniel, a couple years older than me in his late twenties, who had been out travelling the world the last few years and had now returned home to face the screeching music of ‘the real world’ – an experience I knew all too well.
I saw him scribbling fastidiously in his notebook. “What are you writing?” I asked.
“Ahh, just trying to get some plans down.” I looked down at the page where bullet-points and ideas were littered everywhere across the page. There was a long list of possible job roles and courses, all as varied as a kid’s pick n mix candy selection.
“Wow, you’ve got a lot of plans,” I said.
“Yeah, well, you know how it is. After travelling for so long you’ve got to get yourself in shape and figure out what you want to do with your life. You can’t rely on doing these trials all the time really, can you?” Immediately I started to recall the conversation we had a few days before in the ward. He had told me all about his travels and how much money he was making as a club rep in Sydney, and how he had planned to go back out there, then later go to Canada, and how he hoped to do all these wild and exciting and adventurous things.
“But what about all the other things you planned to do?” I asked. “I thought you were thinking of doing another couple of medical trials and then heading back out to Oz?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he said. “But I’ve been thinking about it. I’m twenty-seven now, and I’ve got no relevant experience in my field of study since I graduated. Looking at jobs while in here has made me realise that I’m a bit out of the loop, you know? All my friends here have stable careers. Having to rely on medical trials to get by isn’t what I want to be doing in my thirties. Maybe the travels can wait a bit for now.”
Naturally, I was surprised by this reaction. I wanted to question him on his sudden U-turn of thought but decided against it. It already seemed like he had enough going on inside his mind. Hearing it off someone like me how he changed his mind so drastically probably wasn’t going to help. But it was true: he had waltzed into the study excitedly talking about all his travels and his plans to continue his adventures after Christmas, but now, in less than a week, the pressure of society’s expectations and the fact he was getting money from medical trials had started to wear down his idealism of travelling the world. It made me slightly sad and I avoided talking to him any more about those plans he was constantly scribbling down in his notebook of anxiety. It was clear to me he could easily get some quick money together doing this then head back out to Australia in the new year to continue the life he had proclaimed to love so much. But the situation of coming home and having no ‘real job’ and testing drugs for money had left him spooked. His stance had changed, and he had retreated back to the world of social normality. His fleeting guinea-pig career was over just as it was getting started.
After that encounter, I kept thinking more about my emerging occupation as a human guinea-pig. I thought of Daniel, my sister and all the concerned others. Maybe it was true that an individual couldn’t rely on testing drugs forever, but all in all, I was happy with the line of work I had chosen for the time being. Maybe it would cause me health problems in the future, and even knock a few years off my life, but overall I was content with the fact that it at least it afforded me months of freedom where I could venture out into the world and live a life of exploration and adventure. I was content that I was at least living the life that allowed me to explore my interests and passions to the full. We were all slowly decaying and dying anyway, so why not do something that at least allowed you to have fun in the small time we had available here? Why not try something a little different? As a great philosopher once said: “better to have a short life full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.”
Well, here’s to you Alan Watts – writing this while temporarily enclosed in a medical trial clinic so I can get some money to go out hiking in the mountains again. Here’s to a glittering career of testing new medicines and blowing the cash on adventure. Here’s to helping cure humanity’s ills while sitting around playing on an Xbox. Here’s to social alienation and awkward pauses whenever someone asks me ‘what I do’ for work. Now, if only I can get rid of these purple spots on my skin…