5 Things I Learned From Participating In Clinical Trials

1. How to hustle

??My introduction to clinical trials happened during summer vacations when I was in elementary school. My mother, traditional enough to reject giving her kids an allowance but entirely comfortable with her children undergoing random medical tests, indirectly sold her son and daughter to research.

But with the 70 or so dollars that promised new LEGO sets and nights fueled by store brand pineapple soda, we gladly submitted. The process was fun. We would arrive and the doctors would ask us questions. Sometimes about our mood or our memory. At this time in my life, I considered myself an intellectual and I loved blowing the researchers mind with my ability to recall sequences of numbers. Doctors were impressed with my memory They paid for our lunch.

For me, clinical trials were an advanced form of having a lemonade stand. I respect little hustlers. I tried my hand at hustling too, before the cops shut down my selling of bottled water off the highway. But why hustle when money can be had answering a few questions??

Once I gave blood for 25 dollars. One hour, one prick, one good deed for science. If I could make this into a palindrome, I would and I’d teach it to children. I’d stimulate the economy and save a life.

??2. How not to read the fine print

??When signing up for any clinical trial, a doctor will provide a document outlining the purpose of the study, the methodology the researchers will use, and most importantly, the potential risks of participating. She or he will ask you to read it, initial each page, sign the back, all the while repeatedly asking if you have any questions.  

In general, I recommend not reading this document. Now, your rational mind might rightly be rejecting this advice. Foreign substances, some entering humans for the first time in recorded history, are about to be injected into your bloodstream. Still, every hospital has an Institutional Review Board, whose job is to evaluate medical tests using human subjects. Who am I, a nothing, to open pages and pages and question the approval of Ph.Ds and trained-medical professionals at Columbia University Medical Center or other worthy institutions? The idea of participating in a clinical trial has been hijacked by myths of third arms growing out of radioactive pancreases.

Plus, if I live cynical of the authority above me, how could I ever find confidence in other institutions of power, like the House of Representatives or the Metropolitan Transit Authority? Sometimes the more you know, the more you over-think things. Most people wouldn’t open a business or a start-up if they knew the risks. Similarly, most of us wouldn’t ask another out for a date if we knew the risks. Not knowing things can be an asset, a tool for discovery and understanding new things.

Of course, this attitude has fueled my continued love for McChicken sandwiches, reality television, and the belief in love at first sight. And guess what? ‘Tis a wonderful life, indeed.

3. How to stay still

??One of the places I got to know very well during my time in clinical trials was the inside of an MRI machine. If you are claustrophobic, this might not be the place for you.

The worst thing you can do in an MRI machine is to brainstorm the ways you’d escape in case of an emergency. Imagining a ton of magnet collapsing on you? Not prudent. Envisioning the doctor operating the scan collapsing? Not prudent. Worrying about a filling in your back molar getting ripped out by magnetic forces? Counterproductive.

The key is to strategize ways to stay relaxed. I’d try to pass the time by replaying some of my favorite albums entirely from memory. My go-to choice was The Spirit Room by Michelle Branch. The key was not rushing the album. Naturally, I didn’t want to sing “You Get Me.” I wanted to jump straight to “All You Wanted” or the hidden gem of the album “Sweet Misery.” But the time won’t go faster if you keep waiting.

In life, patience is rewarded, even in the MRI machine. Sing the whole album the whole way and “Goodbye to You” is your reward, as the sliding bed goes out with a doctor telling you how awesomely still you were.??

4. How to avoid getting a checkup

??For me, clinical trials were the Affordable Care Act. Actually, more like the No Cost Care Act.

For no money and no insurance, I got regular checkups, checkups I’d never get for myself otherwise. Because of them I was diagnosed with high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and a false positive for a heart condition called pericarditis. This last diagnosis, the scariest of the bunch, was determined to be a false positive that African American youths sometimes have on an EKG machine. (Whew.)

I haven’t looked into how to fix any of these. But I appreciate the knowledge. ??

5. How to give unpaid internships the finger

After my freshman year of college, I had signed up to intern at my favorite soft rock radio station, 95.5 WPLJ. Like most internships, this was unpaid. Before I had formed an opinion on the ridiculousness of paying for work experience, I was stoked.

Before it began I was smart enough to budget. The math was simple. Zero dollars times anything would in all likelihood equal zero. But I looked to the place I knew salvation was constantly in supply: Craigslist. I scanned ads and saw my answer. I don’t remember the specifics of the ad, expect the important parts. One week. $2,175. Cool.

It turned out to be an adult summer camp. Twenty or so guys roamed about in teal scrubs, battling over the last of the cream cheese in the morning. We watched the World Cup. I watched a season of Will and Grace as I slept on my Tempurpedic bed. Whether or not participants in the double blind study got the placebo or not, we all were in good spirits, interacting with the nurses. Plus, the check awaited Saturday morning.

And that summer I did not worry about money and the internship was a lot of fun. ??A commitment to scrappiness.

I’m the guy that donated blood between classes because I wanted a snack of cheese and crackers and juice. I’m the guy who suffered through a semester’s worth of spam emails from random clubs because I wanted free food at their introduction meeting. I joined a program called Global Kids my sophomore year of high school because I had a crush on a girl there. This is scrappiness, which I define as ingenuity without shame. ?

Scrappiness isn’t cutting corners. It isn’t beating the system or avoiding responsibility. Scrappiness is understanding a need and finding inventive ways to beat them. I aspire to be scrappy. Clinical trials are for scrappy people. But my time for science is over. It ended rather uneventfully. The prospect of a thousand dollars for three days spoke for itself. But the nice doctor was looking for three good veins on my right arm. He could find 1.5. Ouch. I took that as a sign.

And so now I am resigning myself to a life of honest work with honest wages. No more EKG machines. No more praying for the placebo. No more wires over my face. Unless, of course, the MTA raises the price of a monthly Metrocard again. In which case, I’ll try out the glamour of sperm donations.

The world needs more Michelle Branch fans anyway. TC mark

image – Robert Wohner


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  • http://robvincent.net Rob T Firefly

    This is brilliant.


    As a clinical research assistant I loved reading every word of this article. This is absolutely and 100% true. 

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      On behalf of all healthy controls, let me thank you for that the work you do. Never during my many stints in your colleagues’ care did I feel unsafe, unappreciated, or neglected. Not including the time when one very nice attendant had a little trouble drawing blood (I still have the mark on my arm), it really was always a pleasure. You rock! 

      • GUEST

        Thank you! :)

  • Meredith

    a really great article, but really, really poorly edited.  what’s up, TC? 

  • http://twitter.com/jadika Jade Thompson

    Very interesting! I’ve always wondered about clinical trial subjects.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/HOARGJO46AMFQUX7OTTCWJN5PE es

    “Plus, if I live cynical of the authority above me, how could I ever find confidence in other institutions of power, like the House of Representatives or the Metropolitan Transit Authority?”

    Maybe you should question those institutions that do not represent your interest for a change instead of putting yourself down as ‘not wise enough.’

  • Scottlief

    “2. How not to read the fine print”

    Robert, this is a great article, but I find the above point very disconcerting. I study medical anthropology, and a huge portion of that field addresses abuses by medical research. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment may be the only example that has truly reached mainstream America’s public consciousness, but these abuses have been far more frequent and far more scandalous than our country would like to admit, and they most often take advantage of populations that are already marginalized, such as racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. The most flagrant instances occurred in the past or are occurring today in developing countries rather than in the US, but it is still vital for clinical trial participants to be aware of exactly what risks studies may pose them. If consent is not informed, then participation is the trial is not legal, and more importantly, it is not advisable. Exploration of the Institutional Review Board approval process demonstrates that it is not always sufficiently cautious, nor is every Board necessarily impartial. Clinical trials in the United States are much safer today than in the past, but ultimately, the only person you can trust is yourself. If there is anything that you do not understand or are concerned about, ask questions and refuse to give consent and participate until they have been sufficiently answered. The onus is on researcher to make sure that you are informed before giving consent, so help them do their jobs correctly.

    The bottom line is that if you’re volunteering to participate in a study of any kind that could potentially affect your health or well-being, you should ALWAYS read the fine print, ask question, and be aware of exactly what risks you are assuming in exchange for about $10/hour.

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      Really important comment. Obviously, my motivation for participating was almost exclusively financial, but I definitely respected the science and the purpose of the research. I wholeheartedly recommend participants be totally honest about their eligibility to participate and remove themselves if they do not qualify. I want the research to matter. So in screening or in testing, be honest and informed so both parties get what they’re looking for. We are agreed. 

      But in a way, you have almost inadvertently defended my, slightly facetious, point. In your studies, you’ve dedicated your life to studying and ensuring the effectiveness, ethical standard and safety of clinical trials. Your commitment to protecting volunteers makes it possible for shlumps like me to have confidence in the process and not become paranoid about the future possibilities. That you would take the time to write what you have actually makes my confidence even higher! My whole point is that sometimes people overwork themselves trying to comprehend things that smarter people, like yourself, have dedicated themselves to understanding. 

      So I believe in everyone being educated in this process. But at some point, people have to strap on the parachute and jump out of the plane! Or take the pills, so to speak. 

      • Scottlief

        Thank you for your very reasonable response. To be perfectly clear, I am a humble undergraduate, so I am not an expert and have not “dedicated my life” to this subject. But unfortunately, my area of study only exists because abuses within the medical research process persist to this day.

        I am less concerned about your advice impacting the accuracy of findings than I am about it helping maintain a research climate in which scientists can take advantage of trusting subjects. The main point I want to get across to readers is that they should never put complete trust in the public health system, the medical system, or any other system conducting scientific research for its own ends. 

  • Sophia

     I’ve never done a clinical trial before (where do you hear about them?) but I do sign up for “Behavioral Labs” at my university, in which I sit down and essentially take a personality test for 45 minutes, and walk away with $10-20. Scrappiness for the win.

    • sychan

       Craigslist, in the jobs section. Usually under [etc]

      • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

        You both are speaking my language right now. 

  • Jess

    Did you really mean a palindrome? (A word  or phrase that can be read both backwards and forwards like “race car.”) I know that palindrome SOUNDS cooler and SOUNDS like you’re smarter- but really using the word you actually mean is less pretentious and more effective. I think you meant acronym- but honestly I don’t know. Overall this is a good article- and funny- just really poorly edited. 

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      Hey! Well, in this essay, I advocate not reading medical fine
      print, admit I’ve never looked into somewhat serious medical conditions I’ve
      been diagnosed with, and feature a massive photograph of myself sticking out my
      tongue with wires on my face. If there is one thing I never force, it’s trying
      to look cooler or smarter than I actually am. In some ways, I might force looking stupider than I actually am for the sake of the humor. Which I’ve zero problem with doing. 

      And everything is better as a palindrome! The
      phrase, “one hour, one prick, one good deed for science” was
      intended to mirror my favorite one, “A man, a plan, a canal panama.” That
      was my stylist choice. If that failed, that’s on me, not anyone else. 

      • Rob Woh's Number 1 Fan

        Haha, you tell em Rob!

  • Michaelwg

    This made me happy, in my heart. I appreciate your scrappiness.

  • http://ruthtam.com Ruth Tam

    I have also sat still in a chair with wires stuck to my face for money! And thanks to this article, I am now listening to The Spirit Room on Spotify.

  • Alex

    Ha this is great.  My mom was also not above selling her kids to the scientific industry.  My mother did them too and she would always schedule our appointments on the same day, let me skip school, and call them mother-daughter bonding days.  Great article! 

  • lyds

    Interesting, and I liked it. 

  • http://twitter.com/gypzAndy AndreaCarmona

    Ah, so true. I am at the Survey-and-Questionnaires stage. Next is donating blood. THEN when I get free time and courage, Clinical trials! 

  • https://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/healthcare-cheats-for-the-uninsured/ Healthcare Cheats For The Uninsured | Thought Catalog

    […] end up with fish gills on my neck and radioactive genitalia. This never happened to Robert Wohner, who wrote about how he spent two weeks at a clinical trial and made $2,000 for his trouble. Wohner was diagnosed and treated, for free, for high cholesterol […]

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/08/healthcare-cheats-for-the-uninsured/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

    […] end up with fish gills on my neck and radioactive genitalia. This never happened to Robert Wohner, who wrote about how he spent two weeks at a clinical trial and made ,000 for his trouble. Wohner was diagnosed and treated, for free, for high cholesterol and […]

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