By Sam Levin
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People participate in medical studies at Gateway Medical Center for different reasons.
Alecia Hoyt does it for the cash. The 25-year-old social worker says she was paid $450 to $850 apiece for four studies, each of which required two overnight stays. She uses the money to pay off her student loans, to make payments on her computer and for recreation. "My last one paid for a trip to Hawaii, where my boyfriend lives," says the St. Charles native and resident.
"During the screening we're seeing all these very attractive men walk out, all these college guys," Wilson says, recalling her first visit to the clinic, when staffers drew a blood sample and measured her height and weight. But it wasn't to be.
"We showed up to our test and we were like: Where did all the attractive guys go? Where was everybody's teeth?" says Wilson, who blames the dearth of hunks on the fact that the study permitted smokers among its participants. Hoyt even found herself having to fend off the advances of one unacceptable would-be Romeo. "He wanted to cuddle on the couch," she notes ruefully.
One chap -- let's call him "Ben" -- did it for journalism. That is, he attempted to do it for journalism.
Beyond the first obstacle (abject fear) lurked the screening process. "We test for marijuana going back six months," a Gateway staffer says ominously when Ben calls to inquire about upcoming studies at the 50,000-square-foot facility, located just off Highway 370 in St. Charles. Nevertheless, Ben is inclined to push forward. (The $500 payment for participation is a factor.)
But first he pumps Hoyt for more information.
"You check in at 7 p.m., and then lockdown begins," the blue-eyed, curly-haired blonde imparts. "I hate to call it 'lockdown,' but you're unable to leave. You can leave, but then you forfeit your money.
"'No hanky-panky to be happening,' is explained when you check in,'" she continues. "And they also basically say 'no making out on the couches' and have a 'no laying down on the couch' rule."
But you deal with it.
"They have two big-screen TVs, satellite and 500 movies to pick from. Usually one of the TVs has sports, and the other has a movie," Hoyt says. You can play pool on the center's bright red table, bring your PS2, headphones, laptop, board games, homework, magazines, whatever you want, she adds -- except pornography or your own videotapes. There's also a "quiet" room, a smoking lounge and private showers.
The bad part comes when you take the drug -- which in Hoyt's case was delivered as pills or a syrup. Generally, Gateway tests generic versions of drugs that have already been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for conditions such as Parkinson's disease, depression, heart trouble or ulcers. Ingestion is followed by four hours of sitting in one place and a barrage of blood draws. In one study, Hoyt recounts, blood samples were taken 42 times over two sessions. "You get a needle stuck in your arm every fifteen minutes -- it kind of sucks," she says. "I usually switch arms halfway through. Whenever I go to the doctor now, I say, 'I just want you to know, I'm not a heroin addict.'"
But it doesn't have to be all bad. You might get lucky and get a fun drug. Once Hoyt got hydrocodone, the soothing painkiller found in Vicodin that Brett Favre and William S. Burroughs both took a fancy to. At any rate, Hoyt says that knowing the substances have already been fully approved for use on humans makes her feel safer about her participation than she would otherwise.
Then you pass out.
"The beds are comfortable. The staff give you extra blankets -- they're really nice."
An expert of sorts, Hoyt participates in clinical trials as often as she can. If she has any advice, it's to be kind to your phlebotomist friend.
"If you're nice to them, they're nice to you. Otherwise they'll kick you out. You always want to be nice to somebody who's drawing your blood," she advises. "I saw them mark on someone's file who was arguing with one of the phlebotomists that he'd never be able to participate in one of the studies again. They have 6,000 people in their database, I've overheard, and in the past year they've doubled, so they're not hurting."
As a warm-up exercise for the Gateway sleepovers, "Ben" responds to an ad for a smallpox study at the Center for Vaccine Development at Saint Louis University. One little vaccination, and only a dozen or so blood draws over the course of the next few months -- how bad could it be? Besides, when all is said and done, he'll be able to withstand a bio-terror attack while his unvaccinated buddies perish before his eyes!
There's also the 600 bucks.
The vaccination is painless, the blood draws mundane. "I took a bath with an HIV-positive pregnant woman with eczema last night," Ben cheerfully informs a nurse -- knowing full well he's supposed to keep the vaccination site tightly bandaged and stay away from anyone whose immune system might be vulnerable.
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