Me, aka. AB12345 — The Temp Lab Rat
Toyed with for easy cash — Pinky or the Brain?
I arrived at the clinic late afternoon on the 14th February 2021, overjoyed and excited. In these Covid-friendly times, rare were the opportunities to get a few nights out of the house. Moreover, I had no one to celebrate Valentine’s day with, so I was pleased to get company. Too bad it was only female though. That was logic, I was going there — along with twenty-three other women — to play the lab rat for a contraceptive pill, a drug Latin-sounding with over four syllables which would have been great for Scrabble, had I caught its name.
I met some fellow subjects immediately upon arrival. The waiting room was overflowing with women from all races and backgrounds. A mosaic of ages and ethnicity, with very little common denominator. The only things I knew about them is that, just like me, they were pre-menopausal, non-smoker, not currently using hormonal pregnancy protection, without pre-existing medical conditions and hadn’t eaten pomelo in the past ten days (why the pomelo, and not the apple, was the forbidden fruit for us, eves? God only knows!).
It seemed impossible to make an average of this estrogen pool and yet, we were about to share the same adventure.
I was all in for the journey but certainly didn’t expect the trip to be windowless; I guess it was to avoid outsiders to observe the human zoo we were representing…or to simply prevent us from escaping mid-way through the experiment. I wasn’t clear on what to expect when I had signed up; The promised cheque of $1425 was a good enough motivation for me to sign.
I should have probably paid more attention to what I had to do in exchange: staying locked up in a clinic for thirty-six hours, twice, two weeks apart, forced to fast for forteen hours, and subject to their absolute control until they collected a total of fifty-two blood samples.
Upon arrival at the reception desk, a man in white blouse checked my passport and made me sign my name on a twenty pages consent forms.
— “It’s wrong”, he barked, as I returned the pile of sheets.
I frowned. “No, it’s my name. I’m pretty sure I spelled it correctly.”
He barked, “you had to put your surname first.”
“It doesn’t make any difference, and it’s nowhere written I had to do that.”
“Everyone knows. It’s always surname first.”
I was dying to reply, “Really, you don’t believe it makes more sense for the ‘first’ name to come…Well, I don’t know… First?!” but then, I remembered the dude had easy access to a bunch of needles...
So, we agreed to disagree.
Had I known that this man would be the only one to care about my name, I’d probably would have been more grateful. Ironically, that was both the first and last time anyone enquired about either of my names.
As I stepped into the experiment room, a stiff woman in her mid-forties wearing a white blouse acknowledged me, “what’s your number?”
I raised my eyebrows. The female lab technician didn’t offer me a chance to think. She grabbed my wrist and studied the tag. There was no name on it. Only the code of the study, my subject ID — a sequence of seemingly random letters and digits — and the purpose of her inquiry, my number.
That number didn’t mean anything else than my spot in the queue and my designated chair in the room, but it dictated my entire planning for the days to come. She checked my breath to make sure I was sober, gesturing for my blow in the opposite direction and ordering me to put my mask back on straight afterward. Duh, thanks, I’ve heard about Covid! Then, she proceeded to search — or rather, rummage! — my bag for prohibited items. Her eyes glowed when she found a long-forgotten pack of gums at the bottom of my backpack. She raised it high above her head as if it was crack, “confiscated!”. I shook my head and blurted out excuses, “Sorry, I forgot it was even in there.” “You can’t have food here!” Food? The poor thing considers tempered gums dinner. She should be amongst us; she seems to need as much cash as I do.
Once stripped from my proscribed ‘goods’, she sent me to my seat. The light blue plastic cushion squished. My bottom had more padding than that chair; the following day was bound to be uncomfortable. With twenty-four participants in this study, I was roughly in the middle. Too bad it translated as having a chair at the worst angle from the TV, right under it, and on the far side. Talk about an unlucky number; it was bound to give me a stiff neck. Obviously, there was no way I could swap.
Number 13 was my destiny and my new identity. Same as the other numbers; just two minutes apart from the ones before and after me.
The first evening passed quickly, ‘entertained by’ the news channel, warning us yet another time, about the dangers of an infamous virus. I wasn’t particularly scared of it, but I was mindful. I must admit that seeing every participant diving in the condiment tray without previously washing their hands made me hiss. What was the point of us keeping the mask on at all time and employees wearing single-use gloves when addressing each different patient, if it was to have our fingerprints mingle together in the ketchup basket? Regardless, this was my last meal before a lengthy forced fast and it wasn’t going to hamper my appetite.
Right after supper, they opened the doors of our dorm and we were shown our quarters for the night. The bedroom area resembled a narrow corridor, with a bunch of bunk beds lined up against the walls. Only the bottom bunk was assigned to a subject number, leaving the top free, likely following an internal Covid protocol.
What was the point, as all of us were going to snore the same air overnight?
I immediately moved my sheets to the upper bunk. Deadly virus or not, I wasn’t keen on smelling number 12’s feet. To my surprise, the other girls opted for a different strategy, using their sheets as privacy partitions to create their little private capsule pods. I giggled. #ThrowBackSummerCampDays.
D day (Dosing day!) came quickly.
Before dawn, the next morning, someone burst into our dorm, “you have one hour before restrictions start.” Still in a blur, I didn’t fully process the news. When I emerged out of the room, it was too late, the water fountain was in mourning, covered by a black garbage bag. My worst nightmare had come to fruition. I was going to die of thirst. “Washrooms will be locked in ten minutes.” I hurried and despite the pressure, managed to squeeze out a small wee. I had no clue how long these restrictions would remain in order. I didn’t notice that the times were on the door itself; obvious consequence of an over early and coffee-free wake-up call.
Starting from 6:30, all the subjects were summoned, to get their catheter installed, for once in no particular order.
I’ve never been a big fan of needles, but I gave blood on several occasions before, so I wasn’t afraid. I was amongst the first ones to ‘volunteer’. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The hollow needle sharply pierced my skin. I was impressed by the ease and speed of the laboratory technician… before she started wiggling the metallic nozzle inside my flesh. Clearly, she was no dart professional. I winced but said nothing; wasp stings were far worse than this. After a few uncomfortable seconds, the vampire-friendly device was taped to my arm, on my hunkiest mid-arm vein.
At 7 am. the study officially started… at least for number 1. Each number got called two minutes apart.
At 7:36, a bold laboratory technician handed me two tabs. I fidgeted. When I signed up, I was told I’d get only half a dose.
“Two? Why two? I thought it would be a half-crescent shaped pill.”
“Don’t worry, it’s normal. Swallow now. It’s time.”
I had signed up for that particular study because it seemed risk-free. The other option run by the clinic in the same timeframe was paying twice the amount I was getting for that one, but had never been tested on humans before. I wasn’t keen on giving a run to my antibodies nor taking the risk to grow a tail or to see my skin turn purple with yellow dots, so I’d declined. However, now I was wondering, was I really getting the drug originally mentioned or the obscure one? Or, what if it was a psychological study undercover, like the Milgram experiment, and they were simply testing my obedience, using mere placebos instead of real drugs?
“Come on, hurry, you have to swallow now,” the laboratory employee insisted.
Men and their obsession with swallowing, something I’ll never understand. I wanted to argue, but I wanted the cheque even more. So, I downed the pills, and my concerns, with the glass of water offered. I decided to trust the recruiting agent’s words — and my guts — the clinic was (likely) legit and I was going to be fine. Anyway, at least, I was finally getting a drink.
For a while, I stayed confused about what had just happened, but trays of empty blood containers were already circulating in the room. An employee switched the communal TV to Netflix and the latest trendiest Romcom started; I don’t know if it was meant to sedate us, but it totally worked on me. I stopped wondering what drug I was given and barely paid attention to the succession of lab technicians who came by every fifteen minutes to collect the blood samples. Apart from the third one, who was so tall, she obstructed my view of the hotshot male lead in my love drama. Luckily, employees only had a two-minute window to operate.
Thanks to the movie, the first ninety minutes passed quickly. However, once “Squared Love” ended, things became less linear. Number 9 seized the remote control and flicked through the Netflix catalog in the section Thriller. I immediately objected, “maybe, we should put a comedy, instead. There’s enough blood in the room, don’t you think?”
Number 6 joined in, “Nah, thriller is great. Check this one, looks good!”, she said, pointing at a snapshot image on the right corner, the one with a dark red background and a title in gory letters. Well, 6 and 9, you make a really good pair!
I shushed. We all had our laptops so it wasn’t such a big deal but, I would have loved to spare myself the occasional glimpse at an abducted kid being abused. Sigh. Only 86 minutes to wait for the next vote; Four blood draws.
The thrill of the novelty of the experiment wore off after the first few draws. I was growing hungrier and crankier as the sample tubes were being filled. Mid-morning, I wanted nothing more than ripping off the catheter from my inner elbow; that thing was getting itchy, my arm was getting sore, and I was far from feeling bionically enhanced. Time was dragging and the giant clocks reminding me of it weren’t helping. In search of comfort, I wrapped myself in my beige blanket, cocoon style, only unwrapping the arm supporting my catheter when the blood collector needed it.
But all of a sudden, everything sped up…
As yet another ‘non-nurse’ placed her tube on my catheter to collect her red sample, she made a concerning humming sound before commenting, “it’s too slow, you’re gonna get a blood clot,”
My pulse suddenly raced… Where were the doctors when you needed them to check on your vitals?
Was this the way I was going to die? With enough heads-up to put me to rest-not-in-peace but not enough time to let my loved ones know how much they meant to me?
I trembled and clung to the coarse blanket. I was too stunned to articulate. Saliva was already hard to swallow.
“Grab a heating pad when I’m done”, the technician said while gesturing towards the nearby microwave.
…Ohhhh that’s why the other ladies gathered there! Maybe I should have talked to these chicks rather than staying in my cheap cotton wrap. I immediately joined them; Screw the radiation, that was a potential long-term concern. Today’s priority was to keep all my limbs alive.
While in the queue, I overheard a woman commenting on a previous experiment. “Less than fifteen minutes after taking the drug I ran to the toilet. I almost didn’t make it. It was running like no tomorrow. I almost didn’t last till the end of the study.”
I shivered; I hadn’t considered the potential side effects.
I’m fine. I’m fine. This is just a contraceptive pill. You took that same shit for ten years! Oh no, wrong word choice. Okay.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
….Wait, not too much; people are too cluttered here….
Return to cocoon!
Shortly after I sat, heating pad nested onto my catheter and fairly reassured that I would live at least until the next draw, number 10 rose. She was moving in very slow motion, and the light brown tint of her face had faded with her muscles. She looked miserable. To try to cheer her up — and distract me from my own drama — I threw a friendly “are you okay?” in her direction.
She growled “Can’t wait for this to be over. My catheter stopped working after the first draw.”
I stared at her like a dead fish. I urged my brain for a decent comeback. Despite her lack of apparent strength, I was pretty sure that a ‘Hang on, only 16 more syringe stings to go’ or ‘Good thing you have two arms so at least you can alternate’ would reward me with a punch in the face. I gasped a couple of times, muttered a shy ‘sorry’, and lowered my gaze.
Eventually, she …m…o…v…e…d… …o…n.
When time came to select another movie, I didn’t argue, still sheepish from the previous exchange. I pondered.
Are you pondering what I’m pondering?…
Why Number 10 didn’t give up if it was so bad? Why wasn’t her family supporting her? What about the other participants? I was eager to know these ladies, understand their motivations, and hear their stories, yet I was too scared to ask; opening up meant exposing myself to their pain, and I wasn’t sure I could tolerate the emotional tide, in addition to the physical drain.
Then, I started to digress. What if one day I had no other alternative than doing this on a regular basis? Will I regret not having settled for an average Joe to support me through ‘sick’ and ‘sin’? Will I despair over the heirs I hadn’t brought into this World?… Have I made the wrong choice by tossing in the bin my promising and well-paid career to pursue my dream of traveling the World?
C’me on, Number 13, Pull yourself together! Trust the Universe. Don’t doubt. Just live in the present. You’re happy now, right? Yes…I mean as much as one can be with a needle planted in the arm. Anyway, it’s impossible to be happy ALL the time. Feelings can’t be controlled; They come and go. You can only choose the way I interpret things. And I’m positive! No husband, no trouble. No stable job, no constraints. Aging parents, inheritance incoming. See, all good.
I followed this self-hypnosis with some math to calm me down. It works great as impromptu meditation. $1425 divided by (2 times 3 stays of 36 hours plus 2 times 3 returns) subtracting 1 hour 30 per way for transportation multiplied by the number of total trips and, voila… This ‘occupation’ amounted to $17 per hour — provided I wouldn’t miss one of the returns, or else it meant fifty dollars deducted. I almost burst out laughing.
Seventeen dollars weren’t worth reconsidering all my biggest life decisions.
Eventually, I smelled food being warmed up. Bliss… in the waiting. The clock had to show ‘11:46:00’ before I could dive in the meal tray placed on my individual table. Chicken soup, chicken leg with rice, grilled vegetables, crackers, juice, and fruit. The smell was inviting, and patience had never been my forte. Seconds dragged. Screw the vegetarian diet I’d been following for months. When the soundless bell rang my time, I dived onto the chicken like a vulture.
Apparently, not only my blood sells cheap; My principles too!
I was about to start my desert, a lemon-curd turnover, when I noticed number 14, grabbing a laboratory technician to inform her she had just spat out her meal in the toilets. Overhearing her story, I felt nauseous too. I turned around and sent her a telepathic hug. A few seconds later, the first bite of my lemon-curd turnover was traveling down to my stomach. Ah, the undeniable advantages of living in the present.
The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. Another Netflix thriller was selected, forcing me to also question the sanity of participants 3 and 22 in charge of the selection. I felt grateful when they finally re-opened our dorms. Too bad I was so full, I couldn’t nap. So, I just chilled.
It was nice to do nothing for a while. No pressure to perform. No wondering what to eat or wear (loose pajamas were the highest fashion in style in the clinic). No jumping from one call to the other, or from one chat to the next. I didn’t even need to check out my watch as several technicians were on top of the clock to make sure we were at our seat when needed.
In my mind, I was sunbathing in Miami. Best holidays in a year…and paid too. Wicked!
Right after the next to last draw, I requested my catheter removed; There was solely one withdrawal left for the day, scheduled four hours later. When I finally recovered mobility in my arm, I almost cried. Suddenly, a realization hit me:
I had intentionally wounded my body to offer my mind some rest.
So, what if the same was happening when we were tricking ourselves with little household ‘accidents’ or when we were developping diseases? The word itself was a pretty solid cue: ‘dis-ease’. Hurting our bodies and breaking our bones had become a common way to ‘catch a break’ in our busy societies.
Holly shit, what was in these Pinky pills for me to get this revelation? Or, could it simply be the aftermath of giving The Brain a rest?
Well, maybe I should try the same thing every night — Chillax, aka. Meditation. The best way to take over the World…or at least, get out of the rat race!
Many thanks to the Annette Street Writer’s Group ❤