Donating My Body to Science

Illustration by Ken Davis

AS A TEST subject in an ongoing medical study, I can report with confidence that, so far, I’m still alive—an important variable in research that measures the effect of Vitamin D and fish oil on heart health. At least, that’s the stated purpose. But, after taking the pills every day for two years of the five-year study, I’m thinking there may be something else going on.

It’s called a “vital study,” and it’s being run by the Harvard Medical School, a prestigious institution that typically leaves your average research projects to lesser entities, such as the federal government. But this is a “vital study,” and if Harvard is involved it must be big, probably top secret. And it chose me for a reason (other than my awesome averageness, of course).

But why? I admit I’m an older white male, the main population for the study, but since our contact has been exclusively by email, how did Harvard know? Were they tipped off by my habit of Googling subjects like calcium retention, wrinkle removal, and the name of the woman on Gilligan’s Island who wasn’t the movie star. (Editor’s Note: Mary Ann.) Doh!

Perhaps Harvard used email as a clever ploy to mask the fact that they’ve been closely monitoring me for years, observing my selfless nature and noble commitment to the greater good, except when I’m driving. To Harvard, I must have seemed the ideal subject for a secret project to build a lean, mean, elderly fighting machine!

BEFORE YOU think I’m making too much of an unsolicited email (like the time I sent $25 to the Obama campaign and assumed the reply was from Barack Obama himself—he called me by my first name!), I’m sure this Harvard thing must be real, on account of it’s “vital.” It clearly states that on the packages of capsules that I take every day.

The question is: Are these orange and yellow pills infusing me with a super intellect, capable of incredible mental feats, such as solving a Sudoku puzzle without using the same number twice on one row? Or will I develop the superhuman strength required to open new jars of mayonnaise and walk up stairs without wheezing?

For years I’d selflessly wished for special powers to support local law enforcement, defend our nation, and impress the kids in my high school. And I still feel that same patriotic desire for super abilities, despite my age. Harvard must have known this.

But I had to find out, so I called the 800 number for the study.

Thank you for calling the Vital Study.

(Told you.)

This is Reginia, what is your discreet subject number?

Wait! Is this a secure line? There could be arch-nemeses listening in. Is that the right word, the plural of “nemesis”?

Sir, how can I help you?

Okay, let’s cut to the chase: I know you can’t come right out and say what you’re really working on, so I’m going to give you some names to see if any are relevant to the results you’re seeking. Just answer yes or no: Spiderman?

Sir, we’re looking for medical indicators only.

How about one of the Fantastic Four? They got their superpowers after exposure to cosmic radiation. Although when I cut open your capsules, it’s just some kind of oil. Could it be cosmicoil, maybe from another galaxy?!

Please don’t open the capsules, sir. The placebos are designed to have identical physical characteristics to the primary materials, but subjects should not interfere with the blind testing.

Please tell me it’s not Aquaman.


Ah, geez! Aquaman is solame.

Sir, I’m quite busy. Did you have any other questions about the study?

Fine. So at the end of the study, how will you determine the results?

The efficacy of the study will partly be based on any health benefits accrued, and also on subject mortality rates.

You mean, if I’m alive when you call ...

Then you’ll be listed in one category of results.

And if I’m dead.

That would be another category.

What if I’m incredibly strong and able to stop bank robbers and whatnot?

I don’t know how to answer that. But I doubt it would have anything to do with Vitamin D or fish oil.

Okay, that’s not a no. I can live with that. So ... how do you feel about capes? Too showy? 

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

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