Imagine that you’ve just lost your job. Then an offer of taking part in a clinical trial, working with NASA no less, comes through. And there’s a payday attached to the offer – almost $18,000 for a two-month assignment. You’d definitely take that, right? But take it from us, before you commit yourself, you might want to read on and find out a little bit more about what the trial actually involved.
Andrew Iwanicki was the man who found himself in precisely the position we outlined above. It was August 2014 and he’d just lost his job as an artist manager. And a day later, he got notification that he’d been accepted to take part in a clinical trial being run by NASA.
NASA runs a range of clinical trials using human subjects. The purpose of these trials is to study the effects of space travel on human physiology. The agency is nothing if not thorough and they run trials examining everything from cardiovascular health all the way through to nutrition.
Iwanicki had actually sent his application to be a NASA guinea pig a year prior to the arrival of his acceptance letter. He’d seen an advertisement looking for study participants on Reddit. Iwanicki had little hope that his application would be successful – he was, after all up, against 25,000 other aspiring clinical trialists.
On top of that, the ex-manager had no idea how he would be able to manufacture a 15-week gap in his busy life to undergo the trial. But then he lost his job. Scheduling was no longer a problem. In an article he penned for Vice magazine, Iwanicki wrote, “Should I rush to find a new job or become a NASA lab rat? I decided that I needed a break. So I put my life on hold and flew to Houston, Texas, two weeks later.”
By the time Iwanicki arrived in Houston, he’d already given NASA more than 20 pages of documentation about his medical history as well information about his family’s medical background. And once he got to the lab, he faced an exhaustive barrage of health checks and physical tests.
The trial that Iwanicki was now enrolled on, conducted by the NASA Flight Analog Research Unit, had the grand sounding title of “Countermeasure and Functional Testing in Head-Down Tilt Bed Rest Study.” The study’s purpose was to find out more about how muscle tissue and bone reacted to prolonged periods of space travel when a person was immobile.
In plain English, that meant Iwanicki would have to spend 70 days in bed. But before he could start on that, he had all those physical tests to face. And he was already somewhat apprehensive about the project. The one-time manager is super-fit and had recently completed a grueling Ironman race. How would he react mentally and physically to such a long period of enforced inactivity?
The actual process of enrolling on the first day of the trial was akin to entering prison. Iwanicki had to give up all his personal possessions and submit to a thorough search. An apple that he had with him was taken. The testers needed to be able to control every aspect of Iwanicki’s life during the test, including his diet.
The initial days of the trial were a reasonably gentle introduction. The researchers wanted to get Iwanicki used to his routine and to balance out his nutrition. This period was to last for three weeks before the bed-rest proper got started.
The three weeks involved a cavalcade of tests: blood tests, urine tests, and scans. One test that Iwanicki remembers with particular distaste was an ordeal that he dubbed the “Muscle Twitch Test, a.k.a. the Blast Your F***ing Leg Full of Electricity Test.” This involved attaching electrodes to his leg and passing an electrical charge through the limb to test his strength.
Iwanicki was subjected to this electrocution ordeal around 20 times. He wrote in Vice, “After the fifth shock, I was wincing and cursing; by the tenth, I was wishing eternal damnation upon all of NASA.” And at this stage, he hadn’t even got to the hard part of the trial yet – the 70 days immobile in bed.
And if you’re thinking “I wouldn’t mind a couple of months in bed!” think again. For a start, this period in bed had a fiendish twist to it. The entire time that Iwanicki was forced to lie in bed he had to do so at an angle of six degrees, with his feet higher than his head. Try doing that for just an hour and you’ll soon find out the discomfort that it can cause. And remember, Iwanicki had to do it for 70 unbroken days – that’s 1,680 hours.
And when the NASA doctors said that Iwanicki had to spend 70 days in bed, they really meant it. Bathroom breaks were out. When nature called, he simply had to do his best with a bottle or a bedpan. And don’t forget all of that has to be accomplished lying at a six degree angle. And as the intrepid test-subject soon found out, showering was a massive challenge as well.
And that trivial sounding six-degree angle caused Iwanicki a lot of suffering. His back ached as the human spine is not designed to stay prone, particularly at that angle, for so long. Headaches also plagued him, caused by his own blood pressure creating extra stress in his downward-angled head.
And then there was the food. As already mentioned, Iwanicki was on a strictly controlled diet and it had to match the diets of the other participants in trial. “After the fifth time I ate a soggy, microwaved filet of fish, I finally asked if I could be served something else,” Iwanicki wrote. The answer was no. Being allowed extra black pepper seemed like a major victory.
One highlight for Iwanicki, albeit a nerve-wracking one, was a visit from his girlfriend. He was concerned about the impact his physical and mental state might have on her. As it was, she spent three days sitting in a chair next to his bed – only limited physical contact was permitted. But it was a positive experience. In Vice, Iwanicki wrote, “It shook me from my meditative state and reawakened a desire for my life outside the hospital walls.”
At last, the end of the trial at drew near. Mentally, Iwanicki now looked on the positive side of this bizarre experience. He’d earned $17,800, he’d done a huge amount of reading and he’d rekindled his passion for video games. Finally his big day came.
Iwanicki was now taken to undergo the same tests that he’d started with, so that comparisons could be made. Now he was allowed to stand up for the first time in 70 days. A member of the medical team stood at each side of him. “My feet tingled like they were asleep,” Iwanicki wrote. “My legs felt strong but my balance was weak. My first steps were sluggish as I dragged my feet across the ground and kicked my ankles.” He was upright again.
Released from the trial, Iwanicki could now use a toilet, eat and drink whatever he wanted and resume his relationship with his girlfriend. Had it all been worth the cash? Describing the moments after his release, Iwanicki wrote, “As I sipped a Bloody Mary at the airport, I found myself looking into new research studies. There was one infecting participants with a new flu strain, which paid $4,000 for ten days… Who says I couldn’t do it all again?”