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I made $9,450 and erased my credit card debt by joining 2 clinical trials. I just had to agree to get the flu and dysentery.

Hilary Brueck   

I made $9,450 and erased my credit card debt by joining 2 clinical trials. I just had to agree to get the flu and dysentery.
  • "Challenge" trial participants agree to get sick for science.
  • Their volunteer work can enable new treatments or novel prevention strategies.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Christopher Silva, a 39-year-old from Pennsylvania who works in TV and film production. It's been edited for length and clarity.

Why not me?

That's what I thought when I saw a clever ad on the internet about two years ago asking for volunteers to participate in a vaccine research study to fight dysentery. The ad was neon green, a throwback to the two-toned Oregon Trail games I played in middle school typing class, where dying of the diarrhea-prompting disease was a common way to go.

Dysentery still kills a lot of people around the world, especially kids, so I figured helping out the scientists trying to create a vaccine against the shigella bacteria that causes many of today's dysentery cases would be a nice thing to do.

I'm an adventurous guy who tends to just say "yes" to things that sound fun or seem like a worthy cause. Working in TV and film production gives me a flexible schedule, so I didn't have to ask for time off.

Plus, the dysentery study came with a decently fat check. More than $7,300, once all was said and done. I signed up and spent two weeks in April of that year living in a hospital ward.

I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't get sick during my stay. Maybe it was a sign that I got the real vaccine instead of a placebo shot and that it worked!

So when researchers at the University of Maryland called me up again late last year, asking if, this time, I'd be willing to spend a few days in a hotel getting exposed to the flu, I thought, 'Sure.' I'm a man of science.

My haul for the two studies combined was about $9,450. I used about $3,800 to wipe out my credit card debt. The rest I put into my bank account (and paid off some parking tickets.)

My flu clinical trial stay came with free room service

The seventh floor of a historic Baltimore hotel was my home for 12 days in January. This was the isolation area where experts would try to get me sick, studying how influenza viruses get transmitted most efficiently from person to person, something they still don't fully understand.

My room had a nice corner view and two beds — one that I used for sleeping, the other I used as a couch, for eating meals and relaxing. (Just to be clear: I would never eat in my bed at home — gross — but when living in a hotel room with an extra bed, why not?)

After a few days, I almost forgot why I was there. It was like a vacation. My meals were delivered, and I had a quiet space of my own to work and write music. I'm lucky that I'm not prone to cabin fever, so the prospect of being stuck, quarantine-like, inside a hotel room didn't faze me.

There was just one problem. No one was sick. We waited for several days for the researchers to find a proper "donor" who could spread the flu. I spent a lot of time in my room. It was great. I got so much done. The researchers also set up a social room for us. So for about an hour or two each day, we'd go play cards or games together. I was eager for just a sprinkle of human interaction, so I went, even though there was definitely at least one guy just making up his own rules for Uno.

There were devices everywhere in the hotel set up to monitor the air. Tripod-like stands in the halls held germicidal UV lights to kill the flu outside the experimentation room. There were also cameras recording how we interacted with one another. Some people even wore highly technical virus-measuring backpacks, to assess how much virus they were inhaling with each breath.

The scientists conducting this study hope that all this tech can more accurately tell us exactly how we get the flu. Should we more often blame the tiny aerosols floating through the air after sick people talk, sing, or breathe near us? Or, are bigger droplets ejected from sneezes and coughs most often at fault? What role does touching shared objects like cell phones or silverware play?

Finally, it happened. A woman arrived who the scientists determined was shedding enough virus to be contagious. Now the real experiments and data collection could begin.

We spent about twelve hours together, all told, on the day she showed up. We played card games, listened to a Shirley Jackson audiobook, and did things that required our germs to mix and mingle for a few hours at a time. We'd pass an iPad back and forth between each of us and the sick person, passing it back to the "donor" each time we touched it, then passing it along to someone else in the group. Like some highly infectious, twisted version of hot potato.

Again, I was lucky. The researchers gave me and three other participants in my group face shields. Others in the room had no protective gear on. Us shield-wearers also went through an elaborate, carefully orchestrated procedure before we entered the room to sanitize our hands and use gloves to put on our shields, trying to eliminate any contamination. We were also strictly forbidden from touching our faces during the experiment. The researchers had little scratching sticks on hand in case we got itchy.

Despite all the germs swirling around me, I never felt worried about my own safety during the study. There were always plenty of nurses around to help us. Besides, I can't remember the last time I got the flu. They tested our blood several times and swabbed our noses regularly, but I never fell ill.

All in all, I was happy to donate my body to science for a little while during these experiments. Now I'm pursuing a degree in anthropology. I think being in these studies encouraged me to continue learning and go back to school.

I also made pretty good money for very little effort. I think it's worth it to volunteer for a clinical trial if you have a flexible work schedule, and want to make some extra cash while helping out your fellow humans and science.

As long as you're relatively young, healthy, and OK being cooped up for a few weeks, it's not a bad gig.

Have you been in a clinical trial and want to share your story? Email Business Insider Health Correspondent Hilary Brueck at

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