How I Felt After 70 Days Of Lying In Bed For Science
Categories: Life Stories
I woke up on December 2, and for the first time in 70 days, I stood up. Or at least I tried to. The nurses wheeled me over to a hospital bed that would be tilted vertically, with blood pressure cuffs hugging my arm and my finger, an ultrasound machine pointing at my heart. Then they told me, with the encouragement that you'd give a toddler learning to walk, to try standing for 15 minutes.
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. It was only later that they told me that none of the NASA bed-rest subjects have lasted the full 15 minutes.
It was no surprise my body acted this way, of course. After spending 70 days tilted at a negative-six-degree angle, I had lost about 20 percent of my total blood volume. The standing test simulated the effects on astronauts' cardiovascular systems during spacecraft reentry to Earth or Mars. But it was easy to forget all that because most of the NASA bed-rest study had been, despite my expectations, kind of boring.
When I last wrote about my experiences in the study, I was still in the honeymoon phase—there was a parade of researchers poking and prodding me, sure, but it was also one of the most relaxing times of my adult life. For years, I had continually been in a rush: cramming for tests in college, staying ahead in the workplace, and fulfilling social obligations during whatever gaps I could find. All of that was suddenly gone. Beyond following the program protocol, I had no real responsibilities. I was free to do as I pleased—as long as it didn't involve leaving my bed, or eating a snack, or taking a nap. Some days, I read from morning until night. On others, I spent several hours on the phone with friends and family. I spent an ungodly amount of time fiddling with my fantasy football teams and playing StarCraft 2. Sometimes, I would simply lie peacefully, reflecting on the past, planning for the future, or basking in a quiet moment. I was truly appreciative of these opportunities afforded by my state of isolation. But eventually, the novelty wore off.
The following eight weeks in bed were a drastic departure from that early period. While the days were punctuated by regular meals, exercise, vital-sign readings, and intermittent testing, the bulk of my time was empty. Even the testing became increasingly monotonous: I was often asked to lie completely still while data was collected. An MRI machine measured the growth and decay of my muscles. An X-ray checked my bone density. A plastic bubble captured my air intake. I was left alone for extended periods of time with only my thoughts and a view of foam-tile ceiling.
By the fourth week, I could feel a significant psychological shift. I became accustomed to my isolated antisocial state. I wrote fewer emails to friends. Conversations with the staff became shorter, more practical. I made phone calls to family less often. I often felt I had nothing to share.
"Hey, Drew! What have you been up to?"
"Not much. Still in bed..."
That's not to say my days were completely blithe. I was still shitting in a bedpan, after all. I still experienced moments of fear and anxiety. I was certain that I was one bad day away from a mental breakdown—how could I possibly just drift through ten weeks in bed?
The most intense anxiety during this time actually stemmed from my girlfriend's upcoming visit. I was fully aware of my odd mental state, and I was certain I looked pretty foul, though I hadn't glanced in a mirror in more than a month. What would our visit be like when I couldn't even stand up to properly greet her?
Was I even capable of extended conversation after so many hours of solitude? How would she react when she saw me in shambles: detached, vulnerable, and dependent? Tears were inevitable, and I wouldn't even be able to comfort her the way I should.
As soon as she came into the hospital wing, she jumped on the bed to hug and kiss me. A rush of euphoric release was immediately interrupted as a nurse rushed in to inform her that she could not be on the bed at any time. In fact, she wasn't allowed to even touch the bed "for safety reasons." We had been waiting for more than two months to see each other, and this was how it had to be.
She sat in a chair by my side as we talked for three days. Physical contact was limited. We couldn't explore the town together. We couldn't even share a meal, since guests weren't allowed to bring outside food into the unit. When lights out came around, she drove back to her hotel to sleep alone. It was a cruel tease that reminded us both of what we were missing. It shook me from my meditative state and reawakened a desire for my former life outside the hospital walls...