Sunday 13th March 2011

by Megan Beth Koester

“Varenicline Mechanisms of Action in the Human Brain: A Position Emission Tomography Study.”

There are two boxes at the top of the study’s consent form. One is labeled “minimal risk.” The other is labeled “greater than minimal risk.” The latter box has a checkmark inside of it.

“To give you an idea about how much radiation you will get, we will make a comparison with an every-day [sic] situation. Everyone receives a small amount of unavoidable background radiation each year from natural sources (approximately 325 mrem). Some of this radiation comes from space, some from naturally-occurring [sic] radioactive forms of water and minerals, and some from radon gas. This research gives your body about the same amount of radiation that you would get in about 4 years from this background radiation…the effective dose to the whole body is comparable to the exposure from natural background radiation for persons who live in Los Angeles for 20 months.”

I have agreed to let the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center fill my veins with low-level radiation. For this I will be paid $20 an hour. The amount of radiation that will soon course through my veins is, according to the consent form, tantamount to four years’ worth of living in America or 20 months’ worth of living in Los Angeles. Radioactively, then, this study will make up for the time I have spent living outside of Los Angeles. Once it is complete I will refer to myself as a born-and-bred Angelino. I will do so without shame.

“The purpose of this study is to use an investigational radioactive compound, called ‘2-18F-fluoro-A-85380’ (abbreviated ‘2=FA’), to examine nicotine receptors in the brain when smokers take a single dose of the medication varenicline.”

It is the ungodly hour of 8:15 AM and I am sitting in a hospital waiting room. My only companion is an ill-tempered, middle-aged black man wearing a leather duster. The duster emits an odor of cigarette smoke potent enough to tighten my throat. The final episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” blares from a small TV set in the corner; the episode itself is highly emotional but we both feel and express nothing. I can barely keep my eyes open; I am not used to waking up this early. He flips through an old issue of the Jewish Journal as I fade in and out of unconsciousness.

Having passed my piss test with flying colors, I am now watching television from the clinical confines of a hospital bed. I am tired and irritable; the fact that “Good Day L.A.” is on television augments my irritation. A young brunette, far too perky for this hour of the morning, asks if I’d like a snack. I respond in the affirmative and ask what my options are. She acts coy; her mother must have taught her that men love women with weak personalities. Because of her coyness, she neglects to give me a solid list of options. I find this to be, while perfectly adorable, wholly unacceptable. In my tersest of voices, I tell her, “I can’t make a selection when I’m not given an option.” She stares back at me with the earnestness of a child. It is going to be a long day.

A mirror hangs across from my hospital bed; I stare at myself in it. My hair looks fantastic. I find it criminal that my hair looks this good on a day in which I’ll be stuck indoors for fourteen hours. ‘What a waste,’ I think. It’s like turning a beautiful building into a church or an art deco theater into a swap meet. I sigh. ‘A waste,’ I repeat. Insult is added to injury when the sound on the TV stops working; a ventriloquist on “Divorce Court” had the presence of mind to bring his dummy to the pseudo-trial and the fact that I can’t hear him plead his case kills me inside. I change the channel; a sobbing obese woman is on “Cops” but I am also unable to hear the soundtrack to her nightmare. ‘Cruel fates,’ I ask myself, ‘why do you mock me?’

I finally find a channel with sound. As I watch Denis Leary advertise his brand-new book of tweets on it, I realize the risks that may arise from my exposure to radiation are irrelevant. I have already been damaged beyond repair.

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