If you were asked to lay in bed for over two months and still get paid, would you grab the opportunity? Most of us would have easily said yes, because what could be so bad about getting to be in bed all day and still get paid? Twenty-eight year old Drew Iwanicki, one of NASA’s Bed Rest study participant, would have other things to say before you grab that seemingly fun and easy job.
In 2013, Iwanicki stumbled upon a post on Reddit regarding the job opening for NASA’s study titled CFT 70, also known as Countermeasure and Functional Testing in Head-down Tilt Bed Rest Study. This study aims to understand how the human body, particularly the bones and muscles, would deteriorate in space. Out of interest and boredom, he decided to apply for the job.
A week later, Iwanicki got a response from NASA asking for more information. They went over his medical history, as well as his family’s medical history, and then he was asked to fly out to Texas for a physical examination. After this, Iwanicki went on a series of examinations and a whole year of waiting. Just as he was about to lose hope getting picked as one of the participants in the study, he was laid off from his full time job as an artist manager in August 2014. As if everything was planned out, he landed the job in NASA the following day.
Iwanicki decided to grab this one of a kind opportunity instead of looking for any other job. Before him, there have been 55 participants in the said study and he was the last one chosen to participate out of the 25, 000 candidates. “It was kind of perfect timing where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Then I saw this crazy opportunity to do a once-in-a-lifetime thing, make a good chunk of money, and also take a step back and reflect on what I wanted my next move to be,” he said.
The first five days were the most difficult for him because his body was just trying to adjust to the new environment. “I’ve never had any serious type of hospitalization, so the idea of bed rest was a very foreign idea. Then the fact that I was not able to sit up makes it more extreme. Physically, it was a painful experience; the body is not used to laying down for extended periods of time,” Iwanicki added. Contrary to what most of us believed, he wasn’t allowed to lie flat in bed, instead he was tilted at a negative six degree angle with his head over his feet. He said that he had experienced serious headaches because of the increase in blood pressure. Other than that, he also experienced a lot of pain in his spine due to the pressure of the organs lying on his spine throughout the day. Fortunately, he was allowed to turn to his side and stomach. “In the first couple of days, I would curl into the fetal position so I could extend my back and release some of the pressure. I spent most of my day rolling over from my back to my stomach to change things up and relieve some of the pressure on my spine,” he said.
Iwanicki had to comply with a strict sleeping schedule where the lights go out at 10 pm and goes on at 6 am. Aside from this, he was not allowed to take any nap while he is in bed all day. “No napping allowed during the day, which is one of the cruelest jokes about being stuck in bed all day, not being able to nap,” he added. Iwanicki was also closely monitored 24/7 via camera and the only private time he had was when he needed to pee or defecate. He would push a button to call a nurse who would close the curtains for him. He is then allowed to pee in a jug or relieve himself with a bed pan while lying down. When it was time to shower, he would be wheeled over the shower room, where he would be transferred to a plastic bed set up for him. He would be given a handheld shower head and the doors would be shut. From there, he is allowed to clean himself.
He explained that privacy was one of the things that he had appreciated the most during his participation. He said his door was always left open that even private conversations over the phone could be heard by anyone outside. Even when his girlfriend visited, physical interactions were limited to just holding hands. “We were allowed to touch each other as far as hold hands, but we weren’t allowed to be intimate. There was another bed in the room and I asked if she could wheel that bed over and we could lay on it so at least we’re both at the same angle and she could look straight at my face, but they wouldn’t even allow that. So basically for the three days that she came to visit, she just sat in the chair next to my bed,” Iwanicki said.
The couple weren’t allowed to share a meal as well since guests are not allowed to bring food from outside and he had to follow a strict diet. Iwanicki sad that the food he received were basically “cafeteria food” and all were measured down to the last portion and calorie by a dietitian. This is to help him maintain his weight. He was not allowed to lose or gain weight during the experiment, so since he entered the study at 200 lbs, he left at 200 lbs as well. The diet he was on had very low salt content, but he said that the food given to him was decent. “You had to clean your plate with no bites left behind. If there were some ketchup on the side, you had to use every bit of ketchup. There were times where some of the condiments came out in funny amounts because they were calculating calories and nutrients. I would get French toast in the morning and they would bring me about four times the syrup that I wanted to use. There were a couple of occasions where I thought that I finished my breakfast and used enough of the syrup but they took a look at my plate and they would tell me to take a shot of syrup and finish my plate after I already had finished the meal,” he added.
When asked how he passed his time in bed, Iwanicki said that he read books, studied for the LSAT, played Starcraft, and went on the internet. “I had a bedside table where I could keep a lot of my things. There was a bracket which could hold my laptop. I would clamp my laptop in and hold it over my head. I would be lying on my back and looking up at my laptop screen; it was pretty comfortable and convenient. But after using the computer for a long period of time — I would be holding my arms up in the air, so they would get sore after a while — I would have to take breaks to stretch out my arms and muscles,” he explained.
When the study finally ended on December 2, 2014, Iwanicki was asked to stand after 70 days of bed rest. “As soon as the bed was tilted to the vertical position, my legs felt heavier than ever before. My heart started to beat at 150 BPMs. My skin became itchy; I was covered in sweat. Blood rushed into my legs, expanding the veins that had become increasingly elastic throughout the past several months of bed rest. I felt like I was going to faint.I was fighting to remain standing from the start, and it only became more difficult. Around the eight-minute mark, my pulse dropped from 150 down to 70. My body was about to collapse. As my vision started to go black, the staff saw my numbers drop on the machines and promptly returned the bed to the horizontal position,” he described.
When asked about his pay, he said that he was paid on ten dollars for every hour that he’s awake. Expenses like food, accommodation, and healthcare were all paid for and Iwanicki receives his pay through direct deposit every two weeks. All in all, he came up with $17,800. He was paid for the whole duration of the project including the pre-bed rest period, which occurred three weeks prior, and the post bed rest period where he underwent a series of tests. “The money I made there went straight to the bank — and for taxes unfortunately. It was sad at the end of the year when I had to cough up $5,000,” he added.
Even if they were allowed to leave any time if they wanted to discontinue the participating, none voluntarily quit in all 55 participants. Some were asked to stop due to health concerns, but all of them showed up for the long haul. Since the whole study ended, Iwanicki found himself looking for more studies to participate in. He said that one should be completely healthy in order to be qualified for jobs like this one. “You have to be very healthy. You have to have a completely clean bill of health. You have to be completely clean of any drugs; they test for alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. You can’t even be taking applied vitamin pills,” he said.
“It’s pretty tricky to get in there, and there’s also a big market of people that are trying to get in these studies — it’s a good way to make money, especially for people that aren’t very qualified for other work. I’ve met some crazy characters in these studies. You can also have a criminal record and they don’t really care. It’s a good way for a felon to make legal money,” he added. At present, Iwanicki is studying for the LSAT and plans to go to law school and manage artists in the music industry.
“I can still remember that first moment when I first left the hospital and just felt sunlight on my skin for the first time in two and a half months and I had the biggest smile on my face. To be able to be outside, feel the sun, feel a breeze and not be under fluorescent lights just felt so good. To come home, I remember having fries and ketchup and it being so good. The first beer I had, the first nachos I had, the first burrito I had, it was all so good. Everything had a new shine to it,” he said.