Guinea Pigs have a bad rep. So bad, that we’ve made them into a metaphor of passivity. All those helpless squeaky rodents with helmet hair seem to be offering a small sacrifice, but not so! For to lend one’s self to improve our knowledge of health and disease is in reality a lion’s feat. You can join the ranks too! (Bad hair day not required.)
I played the role of “healthy control subject” in the lab of Dr. John Floras at the Toronto General Hospital The study involved looking at cardiovascular changes in adults who had had repairs done to their aortic valves as infants. Dr. Philip Millar led me through a series of tests to understand if the “flight or fight” response affected individuals who had been compromised in heart health. Phil compared these individuals with “healthy subjects”. I was matched with a 26-year-old female. (If she didn’t also love cats, I thought this might be scientifically unequivalent, but I didn’t tell Phil.)
If you’re curious about what went down, read about my experience below**. But first, why should you volunteer to be poked and prodded in your spare time?
1) Generate medical knowledge. The most salient reason, of course, is because you are contributing to what is presently understood about healthy functioning and disease. Researchers develop evidence around an issue and health providers (doctors, nurses, etc) put the evidence into practice (and sometimes they research too). Knowledge is in your hands (…and feet, and kidneys, and liver….).
2) Tour backstage! Witness current medical dilemmas and the technology that is used in solving the problems. Glimpse the questions medical professionals are grappling with today and actually see current technologies for measurement and treatment.
3) Learn about your body. Learn about your anatomy, witness your physiology in action, and ponder your body’s vital statistics. If you’re lucky, see your organs on a screen.
4) Get paid for your time, too. Not the most important reason but hey, guinea pigs work hard.
Notices about studies are posted around hospitals and universities (and their websites). My hard work is done, and I am off to the pet-store to buy a venerable Cavia porcellus.
Big props to the little fluff balls.
**Phil and nurse Beverly Morris (Bev) lead me into a sunny room crowded with machinery. I relax on a clean bed and watch a spider explore the ceiling. Using sound waves (ultrasound) we view my aortic valve at work and image my entire heart (echocardiogram). We spy on my brachial artery, first while resting and then after five minutes of blocking blood flow to my hand. Upon releasing the inflatable cuff, the ultrasound picks up a stormy swoosh of blood flowing back into my hand. (Mildly unpleasant.)
Finally, a small acupuncture-size needle on the outside of my knee is connected to an amplifier and the resting electrical activity of my nerve is broadcast over the airwaves. We hear impulses like ticks of a clock remixed with Cuban son clave. My blood pressure is measured repeatedly and I am amazed at the variation from moment to moment. When a doctor from Brazil enters the lab, my love for samba causes my beats-per-minute to flutter and mimick Jobim.