Monday, June 20, 2011

living donors doin' D.C.

It's gonna be another long one kids, so grab a PBR, sitchurass down and read yourself to sleep...

Back in February, I volunteered to take an online test for the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University.  This 90 minute test featured several visual tasks and questions that would determine if I would eventually be eligible to be a participant in their Social Behavior Study on Altruistic Living Donors. Because my brain is flawless (duh), I was selected to be a participant and invited to spend a weekend held against my will, in a dark and cold science building on the beautiful campus at Georgetown University. Dr. Abigail Marsh,  and her adorable assistants (beautiful and smart - I hate them all) arranged for the testing on Saturday, June 4th.

As many of my readers know, I have made a special bond with my donor mentor, Cara Yesawich, since first being introduced to her last spring. As luck would have it, Cara was selected to be a part of this study too. A little organized planning, with the help of Georgetown University and Cara, we scheduled our testing on the same weekend so that we could finally meet in person. I don't know if I was more anxious to meet Cara, or have my brain picked. My anticipation for this weekend was killing me leading up to it and I feel so fortunate that this opportunity came my way. Cara and I decided to add an extra day to the weekend so that we could tear up the town Saturday night and leave our mark in D.C. We succeeded and I must say that I have found a friend for life that totally 'gets me', fills my heart with joy and enjoys wine equally as much as I do.

Kidney sisters, for life...
Cara and I enjoying dinner and drinks, and drinks, and drinks.

We were told very little about the purpose of this study. We knew only that the day would entail a series of tests, an MRI and an interview by Dr. Marsh. Considering the battery of medical and psychological tests that we both went through to become a donor, we knew we could handle pretty much anything they would throw at us. 

Our arrival at the CFMI (Center for Molecular Imaging) was at 10am, and in we strolled hungover, still up from the night before, and stinky. Kidding. Kinda. No, I'm kidding, we were clean and sober, greeted by Dr. Marsh and her assistants, and given our itinerary for the day.

Our first item on the agenda was to meet privately with Dr. Marsh and her team and sign our life away, again, on all kinds of paperwork. Since I was having an fMRI scan, a pregnancy test was required, just to confirm that I was safe with no bun in the oven. Now, I have never selectively taken a pregnancy test in my life. I'm not sure if that's a good thing, or a bad thing, but it's the truth. I don't even know how they work, to be honest. The assistant gives me the test and tells me to dip the strip in the urine sample and then watch for the results. I have no reason to believe that I would be pregnant, unfortunately, but I was more terrified of that test than I was donating my kidney. I don't know what it was, but I was a nervous wreck watching the strip slooooowly reveal the results. I couldn't help but think, what would I have done if it showed up positive? Probably have many regrets about the night before.

I want to know what exactly does 'invalid' imply?

So that drama scene ended quickly and they shuffle me off to begin the fMRI. What is an fMRI, you ask? Well let me tell you. 

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), is a technique for measuring brain activity. It works by detecting the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity. Get it?

In I go through the tube with this giant contraption thingy attached to my head. I look into the headpiece they place over my eyes and inside is a view of the desktop of a computer monitor. I'm not liking it already. I thought I was going to be able to sleep for 90 minutes and dream of an island adventure with Derek, now I'm being told I have to think. They put a clicker device in my hand with buttons that correlate to numbered answers of the 750 questions that I think I had to answer. I can't divulge the details of the test, but let's just say that I was a little creeped out. Between the repetitive banging noise and the rapid flashing of a million black and white photos, I couldn't stop thinking of "1984". The movie, not the year.

"1984" with John Hurt and Richard Burton
This was me, only they were kind enough to let me lie down.

It was all very surreal, slightly uncomfortable, and too damn hard for 11am on a Saturday morning. I was equally fascinated though. The tests were very interesting and left no time for you to think about an answer. You had to think quickly and accurately and go with your gut. Speaking of gut, mine was getting grumbly and after the 90-minute fMRI exam, I was free to roam the compound in search of food and beverage as long as I kept my ankle bracelet on.

This is some glamour shot, isn't it? Smokin' hot!

They provided us with lunch, so I loaded up from their 450 item salad bar and sat outside to eat since I would not be seeing daylight again for another 5 hours. The one day that I am required to be indoors and I think it could have quite possibly been the most beautiful day of the year.

I think it was about 1:30 after I finished lunch and I was expected at White-Gravenor Building for more computer tasks. If you have never been to the Georgetown  campus, you don't know what you're missing. It's absolutely beautiful and the architecture is stunning.

White-Gravenor Building, where we remained for the remainder of our study.

Elise Cardinale and Alissa Mrazek were the two lovely assistants that conducted most of the exams that day. I wanted to adopt them. Beautiful and smart as I mentioned, but they could not have been kinder and more accommodating the entire day. Poor Alissa must have drawn the short straw because she had the pleasure of monitoring me the rest of the day while I took all my tests. I can't share too much information about the nature of the tests, or the brain police will come after me. As much as I would like to provide details on the specifics of the tests, I would not want to compromise their study. They have put so much time and hard work into this program and as important as it is to them, it's just as important to me. Any efforts that are given towards the study of altruistic living donors is applauded by me and I can't thank them enough for this opportunity to help them with their research program. 

What I can tell you is that there were several visual challenges. Remember when you were a child and the teacher would give you a word, like 'wet', and then you were given images to select from and had to choose one that would best represent that word, like 'pond'. Well, that's kinda the nature of these tests. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Of course it is, for the first 15 words, then she's shouting out vocabulary with no vowels, showing me photos of world maps and asking me to match them up. Not good. I was hoping for a stack of Rorschachs thrown at me. I'm an artist, not Magellan. I felt like I was 12 again. No, like I was 6 again. It was horrible and did wonders for my already diminished self-esteem.

We moved on to some short answers, fill in the blanks and multiple choice. Now we're talking.

Personality and character questions - the easy stuff, finally.

These were relatively simple, but still had you thinking hard at times. Let's just say, a lot of the material was based on morality, character and values. That's pretty obvious though, since the study is about our emotions, personal choices and why we make the decisions we do. 

We finished up all the computer and paper testing and my final portion of the day's itinerary was to meet with Dr. Marsh for an interview. The interview was conducted in her office and 2 other team members involved with the study were present to observe. She asked if she could film me and I told her only if she got my good side. She drilled me with questions that are pretty typical of those that I have already been asked by others in my life:

Was there a life-changing event that motivated you to donate your kidney? No. I was bored and needed some downtime.

How did your family react when you told them of your decision?  "You'll do anything to lose 5 lbs., won't ya?"

How has this experience changed you?  I walk a little lopsided now.

You get the point. And the questions continued for about an hour or so. I lost track of time, as this was probably the most interesting portion of the study for me. I enjoy talking intimating about my experience and I rarely get an opportunity to do so, freely, without being judged or sometimes even ignored. I suppose that one of the joys of my trip to D.C. was because of the lengthy conversations Cara and I had about our journey - comparing notes, laughing and reminiscing about the day of our surgery.

My day wrapped up around 6pm and although both Cara and I were mentally drained, we had just enough energy left in us to hit the town for a cocktail and a nice dinner. This night was especially enjoyable for me because of our conversation about the day's events.  A perfect ending to a perfect weekend.

I don't know the duration of this study and although I have been given some information regarding the purpose of it, it's not for me to share. I will say that it was an honor to play such an important role in the gathering of neurological data that can be derived from living kidney donors. I learned a lot, and I finally had the chance to meet my mentor... my friend, Cara.

Until next time... this girl is lovin' every minute of the sun and sweat in NY!