A Day in the Life of a Human Lab Rat

It is 6:35 Friday morning and I’m watching cartoons with 31 other men. Some of them are still in their underwear, alternately gazing up at the television and down at their bare feet, muttering, “Coffee, coffee . . .” Others have already showered and combed their hair and are now sitting up straight, with their backs to the television, watching the clock across the room as if it were a descending deity. The rest of us are hunched over, glaring at Muppet Babies through half-closed eyes. I look down at the piece of paper in my hands. My gaze rests on the third line:

3. I wake up fresh and rested most mornings.

A voice crackles over the loudspeaker: “Number One–Rupert. Lab.” This is the first thing the voice has said since it told us to wake up, to get out of bed, to sit in these chairs. And now everyone glances over at Rupert as he stands and makes his way past the pool table, past the Super Nintendo station, past the dining tables, across the gray room lit by fluorescent bulbs.

9. My daily life is full of things that keep me interested.

10. I am afraid of losing my mind.

It’s 6:42. None of us has had much sleep, and now the door to the sleeping room is locked. We won’t be given any food until noon. I decide not to look at the clock anymore. Without it, however, it could be any time of day; heavy venetian blinds close out the world. The only way out is a door on the far side of the room. But if anyone tries to open it a siren will sound.

“Number Five–Jesus. Lab.” Jesus is a big smiley guy from Colombia who punches me in the arm when I beat him at pool and lifts me off the ground in a bear hug when I lose. The voice over the loudspeaker does not pronounce his name with the Latin accent, Hey-Zeus, or even with the French one: Jay-Zoo. Here he is just plain “Jesus.”

Jesus mutters something in Spanish as he pushes himself out of his chair.

“What did he say?” asks Number Four, sitting down.

“Think of the money,” I say.

Number Four nods. It has become a sort of materialistic mantra around here–“Think of the money.” This is not, after all, a jail, nor rehab, nor some Orwellian summer camp. This is Phoenix International Life Sciences Inc.–the Rolls Royce of clinical testing. And we’re all in it for the money.

If you want to make some cash as a human lab rat, this is the place to be. According to the company’s prospectus, it is “the world’s fifth-largest contract research organization serving the pharmaceutical, generic drug, and biotechnology industries.” With net revenues of $171 million in 1998, Phoenix pays top dollar to healthy males for the right to test drugs on their bodies. And although it now has clinics across the United States and Europe, Phoenix is wisely based in Montreal, a city overflowing with poor young men.

“Number Six–Sauganee. Lab.” This is actually as close as they’ve come to my name so far.

I am here because my money ran out before my school term, my lease, and my need for food. And although I’ve had no trouble finding work in cities all over the world, from Veracruz to Venice, Montreal is different, especially if your French is about on a par with Andrew Dice Clay’s. So, after a long desperate job search (which included applying for such positions as “promotional swordfighter” and “Jewish homeworker”), I finally decided to answer a long-running ad in HOUR magazine for “participants in a study,” promising “compensatory indemnity of up to $1,000.”

I signed myself up for the first available study and had only to pass the medical exam and screening process. Phoenix took samples of my blood and urine, measured my height and weight and EKG levels, asked a bunch of questions, then sent me home. I felt pretty confident. After all, I was young and resilient–a perfect specimen.

The next morning I got a phone call: “Unfortunately, Mr. Shaugauness, your liver enzymes are above the acceptable level.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means,” my girlfriend told me later, “that drinking like Bukowski since the age of 15 does not a good guinea pig make.”

The next day, she came home from the library with information on the ultimate liver-cleansing diet.

“No drinking,” she said.

“Yeah, I should get up early tomorrow anyway,” I said.

No. No drinking for at least a month. And no coffee. No drugs. No smoking.

“Uh . . .”

“No meat. No fried food. No processed food.”

“But . . .”

“By the time we’re finished you’ll have the liver of a 6-year-old girl.”

I’m looking down at the paper in my hands, my pencil hovering in the air. There are still four hours until lunch, and no more blood draws or EKGs until afternoon. And so I’ve decided to work some more on this questionnaire.

90. If I were an artist, I would like to draw flowers.

91. I have never vomited blood or coughed up blood.

It turns out that Montreal is a mecca of clinical testing, and during my liver-cleansing month I was able to secure a couple of less lucrative studies. One of them includes this list of 400 statements to which I must respond either yes or no. So far, very few of them have proved easily answerable.

95. The top of my head sometimes feels tender.

96. I like to go to parties/other affairs where there is lots of loud fun.

It is 8:53 a.m. and in my hand I’m holding four pink pills that may or may not contain calcitriol, a synthetic Vitamin D analogue used as a calcium supplement. The drawl of Fried Green Tomatoes echoes behind the staccato click of pool balls and the incessant be-boop-boop of Super Mario Bros. I swallow the pills and gulp down a glass of water.

“Open your mouth, please,” says the nurse. I open my mouth. She looks in, prying back my cheeks with a tongue depressor. “Lift up your tongue.” I lift my tongue. She looks under it. “Please open your hands.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your hands. Please open them and show me the palms.” I imagine Jesus coming in after me and slowly, coyly, revealing his stigmata.

Then I realize what she’s looking for. After all I’ve been through, a month of shakes and cold sweats, nic-fits and caffeine withdrawal, and endless brown rice and vegetables, with not even a beer to wash them down, Phoenix thinks there’s a chance I would palm their little pink pills. What for? To save them for later? To sell them to some milk junkie? But I do not protest. I show her my palms.

190. At times I feel like smashing things.

191. Someone has control over my mind.

It is 9:14 p.m. We have had lunch and dinner and have just finished our evening snacks. We have had 16 different needles pushed into our veins. Our arms are swelling and bruised and one person has fainted and one has vomited and three seem to have disappeared. I have responded yes or no to 244 inane statements. Besides Fried Green Tomatoes, we have watched Nell and Spaceballs and ConAir and Dances with Wolves and now, as they are attaching the electrodes to me for the last of the day’s 15 EKGs, I can hear the TV blaring the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Some sadomasochistic freak has chosen A Clockwork Orange as the day’s final video.

The nurse smiles at me. “You don’t mind if I shave your chest,” she says.

Behind her I hear Malcolm McDowell’s voice-over: “. . . it seemed a bit crazy to me, but if I was to be a free young malchick again in a fortnight’s time I would put up with much in the meantime. Oh, my brothers!”

An urgent voice blasts over the loudspeaker: “Number 5–Jesus–to the kitchen to finish his milk. Jesus did not finish his milk.”

“°No me gusta leche, por nada!”

“What is Jesus saying?”

“He’s saying he doesn’t like milk. That’s all. He just doesn’t like it. And please don’t shave my chest.”

The electrodes are attached to my nipples, my stomach, my shins. I’m staring up at the ceiling, listening to a room full of mumbling men and Beethoven and Jesus and an impatient nurse. There are four more days of this, 24 more blood draws, 18 more EKGs, countless more movies, urine samples, pills, glasses of milk. I tell myself to think of the money.

Instead, I think of a real job–one where you dig the earth, or lift big boxes, or cook food, or save people from drowning. I think of the men in the other room. Benoit is an actor and a security guard, but he can’t make enough to feed his kids. Enrique was a lawyer in Mexico and has applied to every Mexican restaurant in the city. As companies like Phoenix expand, I can see men in cities all over the world moving into clinics, closing the blinds, turning on the TV, sipping their milk.

I tell myself this isn’t it, this isn’t all. I’m still young; I can still be whatever I want to be. I just need some money right now. I just have to pay the rent, curb my student loans. That’s all.

I think of the setting sun, of waterfalls and road trips, of open-air concerts and the desert and stars and swimming in the ocean. Then I think of the money, and how Jesus and I should go out for drinks when all this is over.

From Saturday Night (Sept. 1999). Subscriptions: $31.45 (10 issues) from 184 Front St. E., Suite 400, Toronto, ON M5A 4N3.

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