I’ve had circulation to my left arm cut off for two hours while an arterial line monitored my blood pressure ($300). I’ve had alcohol injected directly into my veins while I rested motionless in a PET scanner for 3 hours ($500). I’ve had my brain zapped to test the effects of TranscranialMagnetic Stimulation ($90 a pop). And I’ve spent many weekends in a clinic testing how long such and such pill circulated through my blood stream ($500 to $1200). I made good money as a human guinea pig before graduate school. But having E. coli injected into my lungs and then breathing carbon monoxide for 6 hours made me rethink my willingness to donate my body—even temporarily—to science.
I was in my second year as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The NIH is the world’s leading biomedical research agency, and the primary source of funding for health-related research in the country. It was the ideal place to gain research experience before I went off to graduate school, where I would study psychology and neuroscience.
The only catch was that my NIH salary –while fair– wasn’t overly generous. And so began the lucrative side job of earning extra cash as a research volunteer.
If you’re a healthy adult, self-recruitment into high-paying cutting-edge medical experiments at NIH is fairly straightforward. You simply go to a website and decide whether you really would, for example, subject yourself to a biopsy of your leg (leaving a rather large permanent scar) for $1,200 or “test the effectiveness of spironolactone in treating pulmonary hypertension” for $400. I first toyed with the mildly invasive $100/hr experiments. But the cheap and easy studies were just a gateway to the riskier and higher paying experiments, culminating in my final experiment.
The details were somewhat murky, but the $600 experiment would involve a ‘bronchoscopy’ (didn’t know what that was), E. coli, and carbon monoxide. It sounded bad, but they assured me I would be in good hands. In hindsight, a warning flag should have been raised when, during the initial visit, they needed to test my cognitive skills to gauge whether these would decline after the experiment was completed.
A bronchoscopy procedure, for those who don’t know, is when they shove a tube with a little camera down your lungs. This is almost always done while the patient is under loads of anesthesia because the tube forces a gag reflex and can make the patient feel like they’re drowning.
They did not use enough anesthesia.
The first time they went in, they squirted some drops of E. coli into one lung and then some saline into the other lung. It was brutal. They warned me that any attempt to talk would bruise my vocal cords, so I was to give thumbs down if things were uncomfortable. Despite the growing sense of suffocation, I resisted the urge to give the thumbs down.
I was rewarded for my bravery with a gas mask attached to a tank filled either with carbon monoxide or air. They would tell me what I was breathing at the end of the study.
Six hours later, they had to go back in to extract the E. coli. I braced myself, knowing what was in store. But this time the bronchoscopy procedure seemed to drag on…and on.
“He’s going into tachycardia, doctor,” I heard the nurse say at one point.
“Hang in there, Joey, we’re almost done. You’re doing great.”
I waved my hands wildly, giving two thumbs down indicating that, in fact, I was not doing great. I tried to blink erratically to get their attention, hoping that the tears gushing down my face might alert them to the fact that I could feel my heart racing out of control. The feeling of suffocation had triggered the fight-or-flight response deep in my brain, and it took all my willpower to remain on the hospital bed – not to rip the tube out of my throat and run to safety.
Eventually it ended. The lead research surgeon asked me how it was and I lied. I asked if I could keep the videotape they recorded of inside my lungs (they needed to record where they dropped off the E. coli the first time so they could go back to the same exact spot to retrieve it). They gave me the tape and I now have a soundless document of my last research study, and a personalized horror movie to watch each Halloween.
The videotape ends with the tube being recoiled out of my lung, up my throat, and out of my mouth. In the last few seconds you can see me on the hospital bed surrounded by medical equipment, nurses, and the lead research surgeon. The grainy quality of the VHS tape doesn’t quite capture my terror.
“So, what do you think? Were you breathing air or carbon monoxide?” The doctor asks me a week later.
“Uh, carbon monoxide?” He smiles and nods. For some reason this makes him very happy.
I developed a rather nasty cough in the months following this experiment, but my cognitive skills did not appreciably decline as a result of breathing carbon monoxide for 6 hours. My biggest regret isn’t that I participated in this horrific experiment. My biggest regret is that it never occurred to me to ask anyone what the point of the experiment was.
Joseph Dunsmoor received his Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from Duke University and did his postdoc at the Department of Psychology at NYU. He is now a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas at Austin, investigating how fear shapes memory.