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
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
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
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 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
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