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Monday, May 14, 2012

Guinea Pig

Merlin the Peruvian Guinea Pig shuffled over to his cage to greet me. His long fur parted in the middle of his back covered his eyes and toes. It was hard to tell which way he was facing until he moved. Merlin and I were simpatico. I knew what it was like to be a human Guinea pig.

Hospitalized frequently during my childhood, I tested the first oral polio vaccine in the 1950‘s. It satisfied a need I had to be useful. I also believed I owed a debt to the medical researchers who were trying to discover new treatments.

In 1967, my doctor asked if I would test a new anticoagulant. The new medication had only been used as a last resort on soldiers, serving in the war in Vietnam, who had suffered deep tissue burns. I was 18 years old and for the first time I was going into the hospital for a planned procedure, to have my four wisdom teeth extracted. I casually agreed to be a guinea pig again.

A nurse started the IV line in my right arm before the doctor arrived. A technician made a tiny cut in my left arm. She explained that it was 10 mm long and 1 mm deep. Every 30 seconds she used absorbent paper to draw off the blood. Normally the bleeding would stop before 9 minutes. I watched as the blood bubbled up one drop at a time, knowing that with no fibrinogen it would take a lot longer than 9 minutes to stop. Without fibrinogen the blood would not clot. I watched the doctor place the bottle of medication on the IV pole and connect the tubing. He stopped the saline solution and started the medication. I turned my head to look at my left arm and the little drops of blood had stopped surfacing. Amazed, I looked back at the face of the doctor and noticed that his lips were moving but I couldn’t hear any words being spoken. A second later everything went black and I remember my last thought was, “I’m dying.”

When I opened my eyes I was startled to see at least ten people by the bedside. Where did all these people come from and why were they looking so worried? There was a cart that had not been there before and I heard one of the doctors say the word, “anaphylaxis” and then “the adrenaline worked, thank God.”

From deep in my belly I started to laugh. It was like a magic trick I had popped back to life before their very eyes. The audience of doctors and nurses looked more concerned at my laughter, so I stopped, but I just could not wipe the grin off my face.

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