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Day 113: The National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health

Amy’s blog yesterday about Bethesda as a “pool of mercy” and a location of biblical healing in Jerusalem triggered a memory from my college days about our neighbor the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  I was a junior in college and my girlfriend at the time had a sister who worked at NIH.  She was involved in testing over-the-counter drugs and their interaction with alcohol.  They needed to figure out if these drugs needed warning labels with alcohol interaction, so they devised studies to test the drugs and their level of impairment as it related to alcohol.  In a nut shell they needed subjects to take drugs and drink.  What better volunteers could you find to do both (drink and do drugs) than college students!  And here’s the kicker.  They paid you to drink and do drugs!  Only an American institution could dream this stuff up.

I signed up for the summer testing.  I was to report to NIH for 10 weeks every friday over the summer break.  For those 10 days of “work” I would be paid nearly what I would have made the entire summer working some low-end job.  They sent a taxi to my apartment at 7:00 a.m. to chauffeur me to the NIH campus from College Park.  (You can’t have kids drinking and doing drugs and then going home in their own vehicle!).  Each day I was given a “dose” which included 180 proof alcohol mixed with ginger-ale and the drug.  They mixed up the dose.  Sometimes it was no alcohol and twice the drug.  Sometimes twice the alcohol and no drug.  All the combinations were explored.  I’m really proud of our U.S. Department of Health for being so thorough.  The drugs were sedatives mostly.  Nice stuff…..  Then every two hours they would draw blood and record the blood alcohol level.  Did I mention the free cheeseburger lunch?  During the day they would hook up all kinds of electrodes to your head and heart and put you behind a driving simulator and ask you to do some motor skills tasks.  The whole time you move around the place in a wheelchair for fear you may get tipsy or pass out or something.  Let me tell you the whole thing was such a hoot.  Then, when the day was finished you climbed back into the cab and headed home at the government workday closing hour of 4:00 p.m.

The first friday appointment was a breeze.  No alcohol and no drug.  Cute medical assistants drew the blood and the cheeseburgers were pretty good.  I thought wow this is fantastic.  The next Friday was not so good.  Double alcohol and, I later found out, double the drug.  After embarrassing myself with flirtatious comments to anyone I came into contact with I was led to the driving simulator.  It was dark in the simulator and when they opened up the enclosed capsule I had been in for 30 minutes I was snoring loudly.  I was completely passed out.  I guess they decided to put a warning label on that little blue pill. I finished the 10 week “volunteer” study and the cash I earned helped see me through another year of school.  Ten years later, in a bizarre turn of events,  I ended up meeting the woman who ran the study when I was there and helping her sell her home and then helped her and her husband buy their next house.  They’re still clients to this day.

Now there’s a lot of stuff that goes on at NIH.  NIH is the country’s agency responsible for medical research.  Their goal is to improve the health of our country’s citizens “–making important discoveries that improve health and save lives.”  Did you know that at the turn of the century the average life span in this country was just 47 years (that’s my current age-yikes!).  Today that life span is now 77 years and cancer rates and disability rates are down signficantly in no small measure to many of the advances made possible by NIH research.  Their website is chockfull of interesting information about this huge government-run facility.  For example, “More than 80% of the NIH’s budget goes to more than 300,000 research personnel at over 3,000 universities and research institutions. In addition, about 6,000 scientists work in NIH’s own laboratories, most of which are on the NIH main campus in Bethesda, Maryland. The main campus is also home to the NIH Clinical Center, the largest hospital in the world totally dedicated to clinical research.”  Our NIH neighbor has supported over 130 Nobel Prize winners.  “Their studies have led to the development of MRI, understanding of how viruses can cause cancer, insights into cholesterol control, and knowledge of how our brain processes visual information, among dozens of other advances.”  Of course they also let you know to be careful about mixing drugs with alcohol.

The National Institutes of Health was constructed in Bethesda in the 1930’s and began life as the National Cancer Institute.  Bethesda is also home to the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest biomedical library and is open to the public.  It is curious that the name of our town, Bethesda, derived from the name Bethsaida from the Gospel of John, has such a deep connection to healing and health for our entire country.  Next time you drive by the campus, think about all the hard-working scientists developing new advances and perhaps me, back in the day –relaxed, having a “drink”, and enjoying a cheeseburger. 🙂 ~Brian

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