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Travails of a Human Guinea Pig…

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A person will do some strange things for love.

Like moving to a place that is as far away from your own country as it is possible to be, without actually leaving the planet.

Or being blithely, absurdly, unconcerned at the fact that you speak nary a word in the language of your new home beyond bonjour and merci.

Love will make you believe that the massive, plodding, obfuscatory bureaucracy of Canadian Immigration will – against all evidence to the contrary – make a rapid decision in accepting you as a resident.

And not only will they accept you, they will positively embrace you with open arms and copious good wishes, a bottle of champers and a letter saying, “Your love affair is the real thing, the real shebang, it made us all cry and we’re delighted to have you here. Welcome, welcome, welcome.”

Ah, the joyous naiveté of one in love.

Suffice it to say, the reality is not quite what you’d imagined.

Life is effectively put on hold as you flounder in the peculiar grey area accorded the non-resident – where you are required to pay taxes, but are ineligible for subsidized health care or French language classes – while you wait for Immigration to process your application.

And wait.

Then, just to up the ante, your working visa expires. Those nice people at Immigration inform you that you may not renew it; nor may you leave the country or legally work while they are processing your forms. Unless, of course, the idea of deportation appeals. Which, oddly enough, it doesn’t.

Meanwhile, on top of not being able to work, you have a credit card debt the size of Mount Vesuvius, the monthly interest of which could probably clear the deficit of a third world country. (Or go some way towards digging America out of the red, at the very least).

If all this is beginning to sound bitter to you, think again. This stuff is a snap when you’re madly, giddily, deliriously in love.

But if people will do some funny things for l’amour, they’ll do even stranger things for money.

Which explains why, while idly flicking through a newspaper one day, your eye is caught by an advertisement from a pharmaceutical company offering upwards of $1000 for volunteering in clinical trials.

Upon further investigation, you discover that you will receive – in exchange for your participation as a human guinea pig – a big wad of cold hard cash.

Put simply, you get paid to swallow drugs and give blood.

The best part is, you’re eligible for such studies despite your current status as a persona non grata.

Naturally, your interest is piqued.

So, you begin.

You get yourself registered and on file. You have to go through a thorough check list of medical and personal history. Do you smoke? How often do you drink? Have you ever had a major operation? Are you allergic to any medications? Do you use any form of birth control?

Once they’re satisfied you’re not a chain smoking, crack addicted manic depressive, then they book you in for a medical. This is where they take your blood pressure, your height and weight, a cardiogram, a urine sample and a blood test.

You are made to sign papers stipulating that if anything goes wrong, (like, er, death for example) you understand that you are not legally entitled to sue the company.

Your results are then analyzed to see whether you’re suitable to be a subject. If you’re fit, trim and spry – and you meet the criteria of the study – then you’re on the trial.

Normally, one study will involve a clinical stay for a short period of time, like two to four stays of 48 hours. The longer you stay, or the more blood you give, the larger the amount of cash you receive at the end.

Outside of the clinical stays, you have certain restrictions you’re required to follow. No alcohol, coffee, tea or chocolate. No prescription drugs. No herbal remedies. (No recreational drugs – unless you want to be kicked off the trial and permanently banned from ever participating in one again).

Once you’re inside, everything you do is regulated. You’re told when to eat, sleep, shower and pee.

When you arrive at the clinic your bag is searched, you’re given a number and then assigned a bed in the dormitory.

For the next couple of days you will be sleeping, eating and sharing a bathroom with around 40 complete strangers.

There is a common room and a video room where everybody congregates to kill time between blood draws. There’s also a small smoking room for those unfortunate sods hooked on nicotine. They are allowed a fag every four hours, and the speed with which they materialize once the call goes out, defies belief.

Warning: anyone with an aversion to needles should stop reading right now.

The primary reason for these studies is to determine the efficacy and safety of a given drug. (The drugs being tested are usually generic copies of ones that are available on the market).

The easiest way for a company to ascertain the effectiveness of a drug is to determine and compare the amount that gets into your blood after taking a medication.

To do this they need to take blood. Often. Very often. And lots of it.

In one stay you will give blood a minimum of 18 times.

That’s 18 times someone will poke a needle in your arm. In the same vein.

If you’re lucky, the study will call for a catheter. Because those nurses can get pretty reckless. Or mean – depending on how you look at it. Especially when it’s midnight and you’re the five thousandth person they’ve stabbed a syringe into.

“…Who cares if I can’t find the vein in the first go? Let me just wiggle this whopping great needle around under your skin a bit – it’s got to be here somewhere…”

Ouch. Very ouch, baby.

It does pay to keep in mind that you’re being handsomely remunerated to act as a human pin cushion. And to eat terrible food and sit around watching dreadful movies.

Remember, at the end of all this, you will hold a tax-exempt $1000 in your hot little hands.

Not bad for a poke or two, you might say?


There must be a better way to earn a buck. Surely.

Legally, I mean.

I meant legally.

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About Kirsten Cameron