Charles River Medical Theater

It was only after several fits of petty desperation that, fortified with a morbid depression, arrived in the waiting room at Charles River clinic. Considering it beneath me, at this stage in my life, to work for near minimum wage at the Westside Olympia Target or any equivalent job, I followed instead my predilection for depravity and decided to sell my body to corporate medicine. The drug being tested, for diabetes, had never before been used on humans, and preliminary to admit it required a set of unique restrictions- no cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, cabbage and the like- a restriction I violated by rabidly gorging on D. Harris’ carnitas tacos the night before), no alcohol or drugs of any sort and an eight hour fast- conditions which predisposed all the incoming itinerants to a weary blandness. Punctuating this blandness, in the waiting room that afternoon and all through my stay here, would be loudly exclaimed inanities; the cackling voices of medical mendicants failing to suppress the reality of the existence we shared.

Medical testing demands routine. All experience must be controlled. In service of this effort long questionnaires about medical history must be repeatedly filled out, food intake must be closely monitored by bored nurses (“First bite is at 9:25, last bite at 9:45”), exercise forbidden and doors to the restroom kept closed. It’s strange how the nurses enforce this dictate. No forks must be raised to glistening lips until the second they are permitted to, as though the variations in metabolism in human bodies responded to clock time.  As a result of this obsessive attention to procedure everything feels a little… unscientific. It feels more that the workers here are enacting a very dull ritual than collecting valuable results. Human existence, boiled down to this type of pulpy routine, acquires a false, commercial shine.  The protocols become law once, just to say that it happened, and then the subjects squirm off to their disarrayed lives in which the reality of the pill will perhaps someday manifest, to be forgotten, swallowed hastily with a Red Bull or taken two at a time in a sudden guilty recollection. But I suppose that’s the idea of the control group- to test an experimental medicine on a “normal person” so as not to have to deal with the unpredictability of disease. That the space in which the control group comes into contact with the pill is completely artificial, a stark medical theater in which mannequin people shuffle into their recliners in strict abeyance to some poorly understood formalist theater, isn’t relevant. This is medicine, not philosophy.

Which brings me to the incessant, inane declamations of the patients. I happen to be assigned to the “funny guy” corner. Directly to my left sits RLS (we are all called by our initials here- another formalist gesture towards medical privacy, but one that is quickly foregone when people- and this is common- fail to recognize their new names and must be shrilly summoned to snack by their first names instead), a heavyset forty something year old black man who shaves in the piddly, motion activated stream in the faux marbled plastic wash basin every morning. To my right is ARJ, a grizzled middle aged white man with whom I consistently avoid eye contact. Each has their preferred type of weird antisocial outburst. RLS, who “is used to a higher calorie diet, don’t ask me to move no furniture”, loves to reminisce about chain restaurant bargains- the Applebee’s Tuesday All You Can Eat Ribs for $10.00, the Changs Mongolian Grill in Kent near the Big 5 and Target; he could “get down with some Carl Junior” and “loves me some Family Size Pizza”. These affirmations, spoken to no one in particular, come when he’s in a good mood. At meal time, when the unappetizing repast brings these lofty dreams to earth, the vibe changes. Suddenly it’s all restrictions: “I don’t eat eggs, except boiled”. He also doesn’t eat peppers, cheese (except on pizza) or greens. ARJ’s themes run more to the morbid side- he’s repeated his lame joke about losing a kidney as a way to weight loss three times over the course of 12 hours. “They’re going to take your body and hang it on a meat hook” etc. Macabre themes such as these I’ve been known to enjoy if delivered in an understated way, but ARJ punctuates every statement with a high pitched, self affirming cackle that reminds me of a neurotic thirteen year old on nitrous oxide. These aphoristic statements, if people are feeling sociable, collect into grotesque swirling conversations that morph from belief in God to necrophilia to nurses on Harleys to clit piercings- a nauseating cocktail garnished with manic cackles where periods should be. Sometimes, when excitedly discussing which of the nurses are the hottest, both RLS and ARJ get up from their recliners and stand for one purposeless moment before sitting down again. I’m convinced that none of these statements serve any purpose than to simulate the feeling that they allude to. RLS talks about food because he wants to summon the appetite that made him feel alive. Sex talk about horse faced nurses alludes to a virility that can only be completely dead. Popping up from the chair? Human boner marionettes dancing to the beat of a struggling will.

The facility itself is a sterile taupe monstrosity, windowless to avoid the fluctuations of natural light. A giant commons area, called ambiguously “Conduct”, is divided into four distinct quarters. Towards the back a 52″ TV towers darkly over rows of leather chairs populated by zoned out “participants” covered in thin beige blankets. Old issues of People, Woman’s Day and Popular Mechanics (“I hope GM doesn’t go out of business” a chubby older participant says sadly to himself) litter the chairs and floor.  The TV churns on and on, shifting seamlessly from “2012” to “24” to the 10:00 news- no one seems to take control of the remote. The sound of TV makes it impossible to think; especially maddening is a Burger King commercial featuring an adult baby in a sandbox failing to comprehend the world- a commercial that seems way too cynical to sell anything besides self hatred, which everyone seems to have plenty of already. Behind the theater are a few tables with incomplete puzzles, board games missing pieces, and the eternally occupied internet kiosks. Glancing furtively over the shoulders of the surfers while waiting for a turn, I find that they are a)indiscriminately downloading pictures of volcanoes and pyramids onto their shared desktops b)browsing Safeway’s website for coupons c) reading the online sports page. At the darkened card tables in the back I’ve seen two different people idly reading the yellow pages.  The procedure area extends outward from the leisure quarter, carpet turns into off white linoleum set off by mottled olive squares. Three rows of ten recliners each face forward toward a blank wall. These chairs are where all the research gets done. Phlebotomists scoot rolling blood extraction, vitals and ECG stations along in office chairs, taking blood in staggered five minute intervals from restless patients. Some lie fully reclined, laptops on their chests, punching the keys of some Flash game. Others phlegmatically discuss God or women with the underpaid nurses, who cast anxious glances at one of the 10 synchronized digital clocks that scatter the upper part of Conduct’s ceilings. A row of airplane like bathrooms line the right wall. Along the left wall is a mess hall, set apart by a clear acetate screen, affording a slight respite from TV chatter. Meal times are so anticipated by the participants that this dinner area has an exclusive vibe. Only a chosen few sit in here at any given time, and conversations around the table seem somewhat more animated.

Participants quarters are accessed through a horseshoe shaped hall running all around Conduct. My quarters consist of four single beds arranged economically in a cross stitch pattern. The room offers no relief from the incessant TV info flow. My roommate, who’s initials I haven’t bothered to learn, loves to have comedy central on while he pecks infrequently at his inexpensive laptop.  Thought is cancelled out. Periodically, a voice on the intercom reminds study 076 to come drink their water. A single window looks out into the morgue next door (ARJ wildly asserts that he witnessed an autopsy through the window last study to couple of skeptical phlebotomists). Most bizarre, however, is the slow, futuristic flange sound that constantly hums through the walls 24 hours a day. No one comments on this dystopian sci fi sound effect, and the restless brain, lying untired in the stiff bed at 11 pm, imagines a large machine swirling urine and blood into a complex spiral, sifting Fajita waste from valuable data. For all the attempts at control, for all the studied blandness, the environment leaves an imprint. Beyond the slimy residue and the strange, lithops- like pattern left by ECG leads on forearm skins and the wrinkled imprint that tight gauze strips leave around the elbow are the mental imprints left by repetitious actions in a confined space. The funky keyboard outro that every daytime show uses to segue into commercials. The ungrammatical instructional sign for clean catch urine collection in the bathroom that I stare at every time I urinate reading “Hold Labia Apart With One Hand Until Finished Urinating Container”. The inarticulate anxiety, manifesting as lower back pain, that comes as a result of not being able to move the body in any manner besides slowly shuffling from one chair to another. My unnamed roommate tilts his head upwards at a visibly uncomfortable angle, to pore over a commercial for 5 hour energy featuring a man riding a mountain bike. We conform slowly to the environment, emphasizing again the absurdity of representing a “normal human”, that which they are constantly testing to see if we are, in this setting. The skin receives the needle, over and over again.

There’s a lesson to be learned somewhere here. Although the evidence of economic hardship is everywhere, it seems more like people come to medical studies like these because the idea of being able to veg out and watch movies is more appealing than work. Charles River clinic simulates a prison in the sense that it forbids people to leave and exercise, but the manner in which people spend their time, beyond that, is up to them. The fact that so many people choose to float in a TV haze, room to room, is weird. Either it’s a haven for leisure addicts or it’s Stockholm syndrome on a huge, culture wide, scale. You tell me?

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