Meet the Pregnant Woman Who Vapes and Has Mild Brain Damage Making Six Figures From Research Studies
She's preeclamptic too.
Most students at the University of Iowa are familiar with receiving emails from research labs looking to recruit study participants. One Iowa City woman, however, has managed to use her unique medical history to make being a study participant her full-time job. I sat down with 28-year-old Suzanne McNamara to learn more about how she became a professional research subject.
Given her high-demand medical profile, which includes being pregnant, having a history of preeclampsia, vaping, and experiencing unresolved concussion symptoms, McNamara arrived looking more than a little exhausted. She paused before entering the room to take a hit of her vape. She then requested that the lights be turned off while we interviewed to help with her chronic headaches.
ME: So, how did this all start? What made you decide to start being a research subject?
MCNAMARA: My husband works for the University, and while I was pregnant with our first child, he suggested I go to one of the hospitals’ studies on pregnant women. It was the easiest job I’ve ever done. All I had to do was sit and answer some questions and let them take some of my vitals. They gave me $40 for it. I immediately went home and told my husband I was quitting my job.
ME: All it took was one visit for you to give up your livelihood?
MCNAMARA: Before that study I was working as a nurse. It was so exhausting—always running around, taking care of all the patients day and night. Suddenly I got to go somewhere and just sit, and have MY vitals taken! And they pay ME for it! It’s not even taxable income. Turns out, I qualified for more studies than I could have ever imagined. I’m booked every day now.
ME: That’s incredible. So did you—
MCNAMARA: Sorry, do you mind if I just—
She pulls out a vape pen.
ME: Oh. Go ahead.
MCNAMARA: Thanks. I mean it’s not like I’m addicted or anything. Y’know.
ME: Of course. Totally.
She inhales and releases watermelon-scented vapor into my face.
ME: So how have your various… conditions put you in higher demand for research?
MCNAMARA: Oh, the UI Hospitals LOVE pregnant women. Especially ones like me, who have a history of preeclampsia. There’re just not enough ladies getting knocked up out there for them to get information from. That’s why right after my son Gavin was born, we decided to give it another go.
She pats her belly.
ME: You decided to have another child to make more money from studies?
MCNAMARA: That’s one way to put it. Pregnancy is hard, but it’s worth it. When they diagnosed me with preeclampsia the first time around, my husband and I were crying tears of joy in the examination room because we knew the research labs were seeking women with a history of it. The doctor had never seen anything like it.
ME: Tell me more about your concussion.
MCNAMARA: Now, I’m not the kind of person who goes around concussing herself for money. But let’s just say that when I hit my head after slipping on little Gavin’s spilled applesauce, I wasn’t complaining too much. I didn’t let my husband take me to the ER because I remembered that the Integrated Neurophysiology Lab was accepting participants with unresolved concussion symptoms. I’ve had headaches and a few unconscious spells here and there, but I’m racking up the dough.
ME: Don’t you ever wonder if all this—not getting your concussion checked out, vaping—
MCNAMARA: It is not an addiction. I’m not addicted.
ME: I… didn’t say you were. Don’t you ever wonder if it could be posing a health risk to your baby?
She hits her vape.
MCNAMARA: My baby will be just fine. I’m doing this for her, you know. She’s going to grow up rich because of these studies. We’ll go to Olive Garden every month, at least. If she has any medical issues, she’ll have access to the best treatment money can buy—especially in a few years when she and her brother qualify for the parent-child road crossing studies!
Me: As time goes on, what future do you see for yourself in research participation?
At this point in the interview, McNamara had suddenly fallen asleep, most likely due to her concussion. I had never faced such an ethical dilemma as a journalist: should I seek medical attention for this obviously unwell woman, or respect her wishes to preserve her livelihood as a human test subject? I decided to try and wake her. When she came to, she vomited all over me, ran for the door, and sped off in her car before I could convince her to see a doctor. I left the interview concerned, confused, and covered in vomit, but most of all, I was impressed at the sacrifices made by this woman who chose to be analyzed for a living.