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Go Go Guinea Pigs

by Siduri

2002-05-29 21:58:11

Robert Helms makes a living volunteering for medical experiments. Though Helms — and almost all guinea pigs — get paid for their participation in medical trials, they are still "volunteers" according to a byzantine legal code. They are compensated for their time, not paid to ingest medicine. He and "guinea pigs" like him have learned the intimate art of taking catheters in their veins, tubes in their intestines, EKG electrodes on their nipples.

The trick is to mat down the [chest] hair with rubbing alcohol just prior to attaching the electrodes.

The hep lock is a blood-sucking contraction to be put into your best vein...taped to you all day and all night for 2 nights at a time.

Helms has seen friends go permanently nuts after signing up for brain-altering substances. He knows what it's like to donate bone marrow ("exquisitely painful"). And he started a jobzine, Guinea Pig Zero, so that all this experience of blood and piss and hospitals and pills would not go unrecorded.

Now GPZ has found a printer, and there's a "best of" anthology coming out in book form, which you can sign up for here. It's slightly worrisome that the site still seems to only be taking pre-orders, as the book was supposed to start shipping on May 1, but I've got an advance copy and I can assure you that the anthology is well worth reading. In fact, the GPZ anthology is easily the most worthwhile thing I've read all year.

In GPZ, the self-titled "medical meat-puppets" issue report cards to their doctors and erstwhile superiors. They de-mystify the machinery of science. And the art is wonderful: cartoons of big-eyed, anime-style hamsters popping pills or submitting to brain scans. My favorite is one of three guinea pigs looking over a trench wall, waving a big gun and a tattered flag, while one in the foreground issues a demure little word balloon. It says, "work is for saps."

One of the great joys of Guinea Pig Zero is how alive the writers are to all the interconnections among subcultures — phone phreakers, strippers, lepers in India. As Helms says, "Outcasts must form associations and rely upon each other if they want any chance of squeezing a decent life out of this world."

It's politically incorrect to call them lepers. All the doctors and mucky-mucks say 'leprosy victims.' The people themselves laugh at this, showing you their fingerless hands saying, 'Are you joking? Look at me! I'm a leper if ever there was one!' I think of this whenever a nurse calls me a 'study subject' or a 'volunteer.' I bear no illusions about the economy of my flesh as I wander through this meat-rack of a world, and so I call myself a guinea pig.

Guinea pigs seem to be an itinerant lot, doing what they need to do at the moment in order to get by. They sell themselves nearly absolutely, and with the proceeds they buy an almost perfect freedom. But their misfit status leaves them terribly vulnerable, and GPZ also has stories of the volunteers that die due to neglect or malpractice, or the "study subjects" that weren't volunteers at all. Helms has a keen political awareness, and in reading GPZ you'll find yourself confronting frontier medicine, Gulf War syndrome, and WWII-era medical experimentation from a new — and wrenchingly intimate — viewpoint.

My favorite of Helms' historical narratives is his research into "The Guinea Pig Strike at PENN." The year was 1935. Gastroenterologist W. Osler Abbott was close to perfecting a new intubation technique — requiring the insertion of twelve feet of rubber tubing into the human intestine — which would prove efficacious in the treatment of stomach and intestinal disorders. He needed human subjects willing to test the intubation process, and what he found was poor black men who would work for fifty cents an hour, swallowing rubber balloons and submitting to x-ray irradiation once the tubing was in place. (There's no evidence that Abbott ever disclosed the dangers of repeated radiation to his subjects.)

Abbott's racism, in the journal entries that GPZ reprints, is palpable. "I'm sure my animals had a larger intake of corn liquor, pork chops, and chewing tobacco than the white rats in the medical school, but at least they were humans," he quips. After the fluroscopy revealed a revolver bullet in one of his subjects' muscle tissue, he mused that "such events led me to wish at times that I could keep my animals in metabolism cages."

The scary thing is that Dr. Abbott was actually very progressive for his time. He argued to his peers that volunteer subjects should be always be used in place of unconsenting hospital patients: "With voluntary professional subjects knowing what it is all about, from whom nothing need be hidden (save perhaps in the field of habit-forming drugs), before whom one can talk freely to the students, everything is easier," he wrote.

But Abbott was, in the end, surprised by his "animals." Days before an important medical convention, during which the doctor planned to put his guinea pigs in an exhibition booth to display his new intubation technique, the men went on strike. They refused to display themselves at the convention unless they were given double pay. "No dogs, cats, rats or rabbits that I had ever handled had done this!" complained Dr. Abbott to his journal.

Apparently deciding that the next best thing to black slave labor was student slave labor, the doctor sprinted for his third year obstetrics class, which was due to take final exams that day. He "gave them an impassioned appeal for volunteers, offered the pay of my striking blackamoors, and in five minutes a shipment of scab labor had signed up. That would have made any factory foreman green with envy." And so the 1935 guinea pig strike failed.

But this time around, the world is a better place. This time around, it has Guinea Pig Zero. "Take this to heart, fellow zinesters," says Helms. "Work hard, stand your ground, and box 'em to the ropes...wipe the filthy smirk off their faces."

Fuck, yeah.

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

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