There was a time in my life where I regularly searched for medical test listings in the Gigs section of Craigslist. I don’t do this anymore. Whenever I feel stalled, I should remember this. Things are getting better. I no longer have the search terms “testing medical,” “testing subjects paid,” and “study experimental drugs” bookmarked.
One ad was looking for people with relatives who were mentally ill—qualified participants would be paid the princely sum of $500 upon successful completion. The week before, I’d let some undergrads stick probes up my nose and scrape out sinus cells for $15.
I scanned the ad. To qualify, I needed to:
Be between the ages of 18 and 45.
Check. I was 23.
Have a family history of depression and/or anxiety and/or other mental illness.
All of the above. Score.
Not be on any medication (INCLUDING BIRTH CONTROL!!!!)
Sure. I didn’t have health insurance and was too tired from working two low-wage jobs to even begin to consider the types of activities that would necessitate birth control.
Not be a smoker.
I would never smoke. I was doing random medical testing while living in a decrepit SRO outside of Penn Station, breathing in the fumes of 1,000 taxis and Greyhounds every second of every day and surviving on chalky yogurt from Jack’s 99 Cent Store, but goodness no, I wouldn’t smoke. That would be unhealthy.
Not be a steady drinker.
My mom called whenever she saw a movie or TV show set in New York. She’d ask me about the places she saw, as if I was constantly swirling cosmos and rosé at Pastis and Balthazar. Sure, they’re nice, I’d say, because I was sure they were.
That $500 was mine.
You interview for medical testing like it’s a real job. First, you write a note expressing interest and showing off your qualifications (look at all of these bright shiny organs I have!). Then they schedule a phone interview with a low-level team member. If that goes well, you get called in for an in-person interview, sometimes several, before you get the call telling you the good news—you qualify for being a guinea pig.
Medical testing is unlike a real job in that every single time you enter the premises, you have to pee in a cup and then make a fist so they can take a tube’s worth of blood.
This is to double check that you haven’t gotten pregnant or taken drugs since you were last in. I was once in an allergy med study that let us out for a 30-minute lunch break and then did the pee/blood tests when we came back. I was flattered they thought I could accomplish that much in a half-hour.
I sailed through the phone interview, rattling off my caffeine intake and sleep schedule, height, weight, and usual bowel movements. I’d been doing testing since I moved to New York a few years before—I was a pro.
The study was in a hospital complex uptown. Stepping off the train, the neighborhood was wild, even at 7 a.m. The streets were crowded with people getting breakfast from trucks in the street, from the fruit vendor with a Styrofoam carton of egg sandwiches, and from little old ladies pushing laundry carts packed with freshly fried donuts.
Some of the hungry customers were civilians—kids with heavy backpacks and tired moms, construction crews in paint-spattered sweatshirts—but about half were wearing scrubs.
The noise and color fell away when I opened the door to the hospital. The buildings were severe monoliths built sometime in the midcentury and connected by sky bridges. The mental health buildings had a single entrance with a guard and a series of locking doors.
“Wait while I call your floor,” the guard shouted at me. In my experience, there are two types of people in mental hospitals: staff and everyone else. Visitors are just potential patients. The staff explains everything loudly, with small, clear words—go here, stand here, wait quietly—as if the work had worn them away to just one default setting, the one that worked best on someone having a psychotic break.
“Go directly to your building and directly to the 14th floor,” the guard yelled as he stuck a visitor badge to my shirt and buzzed me through.
I had been to the vaulted 14th floor several times because it was lined with research labs. Getting there required using a sky bridge, and I walked slowly across because the view was so spectacular. The buildings were perched on the cliffs of the Hudson River and the view of the river was almost pastoral, angled so that I could only see trees and water.
On the other side of the bridge, the halls of the 14th floor were covered in bulletin boards advertising the latest studies.
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