Drug Trials Were My Part-Time Job

Sometimes I could tell when I didn’t get the placebo.

Photo credit: Canned Muffins, CC BY 2.0.

Some people clean motel rooms part-time while studying; others work McDonalds nightshifts for a month before quitting. (Okay, these were both me.) But my preferred way of earning a few hundred bucks as a student was to sign up for drug trials.

The fact that the recruitment company was located right across the street from my university campus was… deliberate? Yes. Exploitative? Maybe. But the trials weren’t as bad as they may sound. They were actually quite good fun.

I was skeptical when I first heard about the trials from my flatmate, and it was actually the promise of staying in a well-heated room for the weekend that tempted me to go to the office and put my name down. I was living in Dunedin, a student city in the far south of New Zealand, and my overwhelming memory of 2002 to 2006 is of being cold and damp. Indoor heating was not a thing that University of Otago students factored into their budgets.

The deal was this: for an average of $500 per trial, I’d need to spend two weekends (four nights) in the trial facility downtown, in a room full of other students. Kind of like a hospital ward, but really just a converted office space. I’d arrive on Friday night and not be allowed to eat dinner. Early the next morning I’d take a pill, and for increasing intervals for the rest of the day, I’d have my blood taken from a cannula attached to my arm. The blood takers were usually med students, doing their bit for some extra cash too. Everyone was allowed to eat lunch, which came in plastic boxes but was actually quite palatable. The awesome drug trial garlic bread had a reputation of its own, and I can still recall the taste.

Groups of friends did drug trials together. My boyfriend and I did them together several times. There was a TV and pool table. I was a nerd, so I always took school work along with me, although it was hard to get much done after a poor night’s sleep from the inevitable snorers in the group.

Before the trials, participants would all be given thorough medicals (blood tests, blood pressure, the normal stuff) to ensure we were healthy, and we received similar medicals a week or so after the end of the testing period to confirm we had maintained our health. I rarely bothered to go to the doctor as a student because I knew that if anything were wrong with me, it would be picked up by the drug trial doctors.

Nobody was allowed to do more than one trial within a three-month period. The company called you once the embargo period was up and let you know what other trials were coming up. It seemed unfortunate at the time, as it limited the amount of money I could make, but this was definitely for the best.

You never knew whether you were being given the active drug or the placebo, although you always knew what kind of drug you were going to be given before signing up. There were no nasty surprises. One time it was a sleeping pill. I know that I wasn’t given the placebo that time, as my vision went blurry and I started speaking extra loud until I passed out. A few times they tested different types of painkillers, and once a steroidal skin cream. The recruitment company even phoned my boyfriend and asked if he’d be interested in doing a trial for a libido-reducing drug. They were having a hard time recruiting enough males for that one. He declined.

These were trials of generic equivalents of drugs already on the market, not phase one trials where you’re the guinea pig for a previously untested medication. Those kinds of trials seemed scary, and in fact during my ‘tenure’ as a trial-ee, there was news of a horrific case in the UK. Two men swelled up like balloons after taking a drug on a first-phase trial, and their internal organs were irreparably damaged. The recruiting company I worked with in Dunedin had to do some damage control after that news, reassuring potential participants that this was not the kind of testing they did.

The company always advertised for healthy people between the ages of 18 and 50, but the average age on the trials must have been around 21. I always wondered how our age group might have affected their data. Would it have been weirdly skewed because practically everyone whose blood they took was young and probably drank more than the average New Zealander? But that wasn’t my problem.

Those $500 paychecks every few months over three years helped pay for my books, my Poppa’s Pizza and Indian takeaways, and my six-month study abroad trip to Europe. The money may be long gone, but I still have my health—and the memories of some extraordinarily delicious garlic bread.


Elen Turner is a freelance writer and editor living in Kathmandu, Nepal. She has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities (Literature, Gender Studies and South Asian Studies) from the Australian National University. Most of the time she can be found riverside or mountain-top in Nepal, or chasing the terrible Nepali Wifi around her neighborhood. See more of her work at www.wildernessmetropolis.com.

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