Sixteen years ago, I contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome. In a nutshell, GBS is an autoimmune response generally triggered by a viral illness. The body attacks the virus, which is good, but then gets confused and attacks the myelin sheath, or the protective covering on the nerves, which is not good. I spent 7 weeks in intensive care, paralyzed, kept alive by drugs and machines. It took a further 2 months in rehabilitation before I could stand up, walk, or care for myself and slowly return to everyday life.
You could forgive me if I chose to avoid medical institutions forever after a horrible event like this. But with a fascination for medical science and a desire to give back, I applied to participate in a clinical research trial as an inpatient rather than taking a 2-week trip away.
CMAX Clinical Research: My Destination With A Difference
CMAX Clinical Research, located in Adelaide, South Australia, is one of Australia’s largest and most experienced clinical trial units. Their world-leading research has advanced global medicines and technologies, from cancer treatment and pain control to early warning bio-devices and hormone replacement therapies.
My trial involved testing components of probiotics for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Animal studies have shown that microorganisms found in fermented food can have an anti-inflammatory effect, which is an area that scientists want to investigate further.
The Check-In Procedure
My partner drove me 40 minutes from our home to the city of Adelaide. After passing the compulsory rapid antigen test, I checked into the research facility with minimal luggage for a 15-night stay.
As a nurse inspected every item in my suitcase and read the labels on my toiletries, I realized quickly that this was a rigorously controlled environment. Maybe I could’ve pretended I was going through security at an airport to enjoy this scrutiny. I did feel easy knowing I had adhered to the list of approved and non-approved items.
That was until she confiscated my small block of hotel-sourced soap, which was out of the packaging and consequently forbidden. I accepted unlabelled shampoos and lotions were a no-no, but my little piece of soap?
My second realization, and one very different from an airport, was that everything runs by the clock to the absolute second. When data is collected, every patient must be on the same schedule with the same amount of time between events.
A Room With A View
The facility resembled a hospital ward with 16 beds separated by curtains running on a track. Clinical staff, their faces illuminated by computer screens, collated data in the adjacent glass-fronted office. A dining room and three bathrooms made up our level on the six-story city fringe building.
I was fortunate to be placed at the end of the row. My cubicle had a wall of windows and a bed with a view. It wasn’t an ocean view; I didn’t overlook the pool or mountains or see palm trees, but the Adelaide skyline was a better view than my fellow “guinea pigs” had, and I adore natural light.
Not Quite Resort Life
A timetable was posted on the wall every morning to outline the day’s activities. Alas, there was never mention of snorkeling, wine tasting, or a cooking class. Daily activities, while varied, consisted of blood tests, electrocardiograms, stool sample collection, and blood pressure checks.
Every day I was required to lie supine in bed at precisely 10:50 a.m. for five minutes, after which a nurse took my temperature and blood pressure. At 11:10 a.m. on the dot, I swallowed 10 capsules of either a probiotic or placebo under the watchful eye of two nurses. A quick torch shine in my mouth ended the day’s dosing regime.
I referred to the schedule on the wall to see my meal times. 5-4-3-2-1 — a staff member counted down the seconds until I could start the fifteen-minute eating window. She would then record everything I ate or left on the plate. We all received the same meals except those with specific dietary requirements. Although far from lobster thermidor or tropical resort cuisine, the meals were wholesome and did help to relieve the monotony.
Fond Memories And Unexpected Highlights
With a broad demographic of participants, or inmates, as we jokingly referred to each other, it was interesting to watch how like-minded people gravitated to one another.
Younger university students filling in their summer vacation tended to spend time playing video games, while others read books, practiced yoga, or binged on Netflix with the free Wi-Fi. A few of us over-50s walked laps around the perimeter, dodging clinical staff pushing trolleys and carrying clipboards. We were probably quite a nuisance as we completed our 2 kilometers per day before settling down to a game of cards or Scrabble.
I didn’t expect to make ongoing friendships but have remained in contact with three other participants and still socialize with them today.
The More Difficult Elements Of Being An Inpatient
One of the most challenging elements I found was spending so long away from loved ones. My partner missed me greatly because I later learned he went out and purchased an engagement ring for me during this time!
Participants in a clinical research trial cannot leave the building, and they spend the duration in an air-conditioned space. The air conditioning was a little erratic, and I often had to put on an extra layer of clothing as I felt cold. As I pressed my hand against the warm glass, I longed for the sunshine and fresh summer air I could see outside my window.
I missed drinking coffee or having a glass of wine. Hot beverages weren’t available, and abstaining from alcohol during the trial and for a week afterward was difficult.
Tips To Consider Before Applying To Participate
Clinical trials are age and gender-specific and conducted over varying time frames, from 1 night to 1 month. A screening visit takes place within a month of the trial commencement. Staff record baseline medical data here and ensure you understand the trial and associated risks.
Dosing methods vary, including oral tablets, inhalation, injection, or intravenous delivery. You can select a trial with a dosing method that suits you. Being connected to an intravenous drip for the duration doesn’t sound fun, and I would avoid studies that required this method of dosing.
A clinical research trial is not for everyone. Specific personal attributes make participation easier when attending the facility. Everything happens to the second. Being methodical helps you abide by the schedule. You only have a small area for your belongings. Be organized and tidy. The trials are in a disciplined environment. Be compliant; you can’t change the system. Many people cohabit in a confined space, so respecting other participants and the clinical staff is imperative. Participants come from all walks of life. You won’t connect with everyone, but it is important to be accepting of others. Be open and receptive to new friendships. Finding people you bond with helps pass the many idle hours. Be prepared to attend follow-up visits at the facility after your in-house stay. The number of these visits varies with each trial.
Would I Participate Again?
Yes, I would. I may not choose a trial as long as 15 nights, but there were enough positive elements to make it enjoyable.
More On Why I Opted For A Clinical Trial Instead Of A Real Vacation
Beyond the warm and fuzzy feeling of contributing to medical science, having an insatiable desire to help my fellow man, and wanting some absolute downtime for self-analysis, I refer to this experience as a “reverse vacation.”
Typically, if I went away for 2 weeks, I could spend $5,000 AUD. However, for my commitment to the clinical trial, I received compensation of $5,290 tax-free. Hence a “reverse vacation.”
No, it wasn’t a trial for hay fever, but the amount of compensation is not to be sneezed at and can be used to fund my next real vacation.