I have been in this bed for three weeks now, and I will be here for seven weeks more. Forty-four days ago, I had my last beer, last cup of coffee, last burrito, last walk around the block, and last bit of sunlight on my skin. It's been 66 days since I've seen my girlfriend. In 64, whatever is left of me can go home.
My bed is in the NASA Flight Analog Research Unit in Houston, Texas, where I'm being paid $18,000 to lie down for 70 days while NASA researchers study me. The study, CFT 70 (Countermeasure and Functional Testing in Head-Down Tilt Bed Rest Study) is part of a three-year effort to learn about bone and muscle atrophy in space. There have been 54 patients so far, but the study ends with me. As I lie here, I can't quite decide if I've struck gold with this scheme or if I am just a fool willing to do anything for a stack of cash. Either way, I'll be lying here for a while.
Back in August, I was unexpectedly laid off from my artist manager gig. When I received an offer to join the NASA study the very next day, it seemed like nothing short of fate. I had applied to the study a year earlier on a whim, assuming I'd never be chosen from the pool of 25,000 applicants and I'd never be able to halt my hectic life for 15 weeks. But then I suddenly found myself with an empty schedule, an offer in hand, and a decision to make: Should I rush to find a new job or become a NASA lab rat? I decided that I needed a break. So I put my life on hold and flew to Houston two weeks later.
Just before joining the NASA study, I had finished my first Ironman race and was used to rigorous training every day. Now, I was about to spend two and a half months bedridden, forbidden to sit up even to take a shit, and hoping that my body wouldn't fall apart completely.
As I entered the hospital wing on my first day, the ceiling caught my eye. Hundreds of colorful tiles covered the hallway. Each was uniquely decorated: the Texas Longhorns logo next to a rendition of Dali's Meditative Rose, a space ship orbiting a yin-yang sign, a large plain blue dot, several crucifixes, and a slew of inspirational quotes. Over the past decade of bed rest studies, each test subject left one of these squares behind as a relic of their time here. Each is a 24-inch by 24-inch window into a mind just before rejoining the outside world. On a tile above the doorway to my room was a list of foreboding advice: "Don't get too comfortable pooping at negative six degrees" and "Be careful who you let visit."
Once the nurses took inventory of all my goods, thoroughly searched me for contraband, and confiscated the apple in my backpack, I took a look around what was to be my new home. The space was small and sterile, but that would be of little importance once I was confined to my bed. As I wandered through the hospital wing, I saw my first glimpses of the other study participants. They each had their reasons for being here: One was working on a novel while he earned enough money to buy his first motorcycle; another had a baby on the way and wanted to put some extra cash away before the delivery date. Several gamers were drawn here because it serves as an ideal environment for escaping into the digital world without the usual responsibilities of daily life.
I was most intrigued by the veteran test subjects. One was here for his third NASA bed rest study. With the funds earned from his months here and at other research facilities across the country, he had been supporting himself for years. Surprisingly, his story was not so rare. Another subject showed me the scarring on his inner arm from the hundreds of blood draws and IVs he received during numerous studies.
This was the "pre-bed rest" period, during which I would acclimate to my new routine, familiarize myself with the exercise regimen, and level out my nutrient levels. At 6:00 AM on my first morning, the door flung open, florescent lights switched on, a thermometer was placed in my mouth, and a blood pressure cuff wrapped around my arm. By 6:15 AM, another nurse popped her head in the door, prodding, "Have you urinated yet?" It would take me a few more days to realize I was the slow pisser of the bunch and that the nurse's question was a discreet command: "Pee now so we can proceed with the schedule."
The first few days were a blur of body scans, needles, physical tests; urine jugs filled, collected, and analyzed. One day, amongst the laundry list of testing on my daily schedule, I saw the "Muscle Twitch Test" on my agenda. Researchers strapped me into a modified leg extension machine, put a shin guard on my right leg, and fastened it to the machine while they explained the nature of the test: "The brain only allows you to exert about 85 percent of a muscle's full capability, so in order to bypass that limitation and measure the full force of your muscle, we are attaching these electrodes to your leg to stimulate it directly at varying amperages until we find its maximum output." In layman terms, they shocked the fuck out of my leg some 20 times to see how hard I would kick. After the fifth shock, I was wincing and cursing; by the tenth, I was wishing eternal damnation upon all of NASA.
But even the uniquely disturbing pain of the muscle twitch test became part of my accepted routine. After years of working hard and seeking illusive answers to abstract questions, it was comforting to simply follow orders and enjoy the ample free time. Lie in the MRI machine for 90 minutes without moving? Happily. Breathe through this tube while you add some carbon monoxide and take blood samples? As long as I won't die. Wear this mask and pedal on this bike at 75 RPM's until I can't anymore? No problem. Strap on this gear and run through the obstacle course? Why not?
After the three-week pre-bed rest phase, there was but one mission left: to get in bed and stay there for 70 days. I gathered and arranged all that I could put within arm's reach of my bed. I used a proper toilet one last time. I looked out the window for a final view of the outside world. Then, it was time to go head-down.
Almost immediately, I was fighting the six degree angle. Every time I turned or twitched, I slid toward the headboard and, within a few minutes, was slammed against it with my neck turned sideways. To resist the gravitational pull, I laid as still as possible, but then the back pain began to set in.
I had been warned that back pain and headaches were common during the first few days of bed rest. The spine is not accustomed to remaining horizontal for an extended period, and it takes on the weight of internal organs above. The shift in blood flow to the upper body also increases pressure in the skull--all things that made lying down very, very uncomfortable at first.
Later that day, the nurses brought my first meal in bed: soup.
That night, I tossed and turned. Every hour, I awoke mashed against the headboard with increasing neck pain. I had anticipated that I would struggle with some discomfort during this period, but this was far beyond my expectations. The pain and sleep deprivation sparked a sense of panic that echoed through the next few days; I wasn't sure how long I would be able to withstand this.
I spent the next five days on my side, curled in the fetal position to relieve the pressure on my spine. I sank into a throbbing haze as blood flow to my head increased. On the third day, my intestines triggered their own alarms. Never in my life had I gone so long without unloading a bowel movement--the digestive system is not as effective without gravity on its side.
When I finally called for a bedpan, I decided I had hit rock bottom. It's impossible to maintain even the slightest bit of dignity while crapping in a horizontal position; doing so simply defies the human anatomical design. As I struggled on my little plastic shit pot, I couldn't help but reflect upon the fact that my new bathroom was also my dining room, living room, and bedroom for the next two months.
Beyond the pain, I learned that it was nearly impossible to perform everyday tasks while slanted at the negative six degree angle. Taking showers consists of dousing myself with a hand-held shower head, and it's especially hard to clean my back, legs, and feet. Reading books is exhausting, since I have to hold my arms outstretched in lieu of lifting my head up. Using my laptop is equally strange while lying down. Every time I brush my teeth, I feel like I'm going to choke on the toothpaste. Then I have to spit into a cup, but it inevitably dribbles down my cheek and through my beard every damn time.
But within a week, I started to adapt. The physical symptoms subsided, and I managed to plow through all of House of Cards and half of The Wire while waiting for my spine to adjust. It's still difficult to drink anything, and I can hardly manage to put on socks (I'm losing flexibility every day), but altogether, I feel surprisingly good. I've started reading Ram Dass's Paths to God to help myself recenter; I've even mustered the gumption to resume my schedule of GRE and LSAT studies.
I'm now weeks into bed rest, and I feel settled. I know I will hit a wall at some point in the next two months. I know unforeseen demons await me in this bed. But, for now, I am cautiously optimistic.
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