The life and times of a human guinea pig.

bedresterin2.jpg Erin Peterson in a familiar position.  Courtesy of Erin Peterson

Erin Peterson has not walked a single step since February 20th. She didn’t have a stroke that left her paralyzed. She wasn’t in a car crash that broke both of her legs. It’s just that Peterson is being paid to lie down on the job.

The 21-year-old former cashier and bank temp is part of NASA‘s “bedrest study”—her only duty for the last three months has been to lay horizontal so that her feet never fall below her head. By lying in this position and not supporting her own weight, Peterson’s body has experienced similar symptoms to what a body undergoes while weightless.

Last December in her hometown just outside of Cleveland, OH, Peterson saw an ad requesting participants for the NASA experiment. By keeping their heads at a -6° angle, volunteers live in what’s essentially amounts to a zero-gravity environment for 12 straight weeks, allowing researchers to study the effect of space travel on these “simulated astronauts.”

“I was looking for a new job, and I saw this ad that said ‘get paid to stay in bed,’” said Peterson. “I thought it was a scam.”

But after two months of phone calls and passing all the necessary physical and psychological tests, she was ready to go to bed for science.

With President Bush calling for future space trips to Mars, NASA needs to figure out how to keep an astronaut’s body healthy for long periods of weightlessness. Past missions have averaged only a few months, but a Mars mission could send an astronaut into space for nearly a year and a half, said Ricki Englehaupt, the coordinator of the study.

“That is such a lengthy mission that we really do need to come up with counter measures for the loss of bone density, otherwise the missions could be extremely problematic for the astronauts,” said Englehaupt.

And that’s where Peterson comes in.

bedresterin1.jpg Peterson in the zero-gravity locomotion simulator.  Courtesy of Erin Peterson

A study in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology reported that a person in a “reclining bedrest” position experiences the same weightless environment that an astronaut’s body must adapt to while in space. Without any exercise, Peterson’s body is going through the same muscle atrophy and bone density loss endured during space travel.

Astronauts can lose 1% to 2% of their leg’s bone density in just one month in space, said Englehaupt. That is a substantial effect, he added, and is equivalent to the bone density loss a postmenopausal woman has in one year on Earth. According to Englehaupt, astronauts also experience muscle atrophy in their legs from not having to support their own weight.

“It’s a case where if you don’t use them, you lose them,” said Englehaupt.

Today, when Peterson stands up for the first time in 12 weeks, she can expect immediate vertigo, nausea and muscle atrophy, along with soreness on the bottoms of her feet. Englehaupt is quick to point out that these conditions should correct themselves fairly quickly. On the other hand, the effects of the bone density loss will not be known until further testing takes place.

Peterson’s body was not the only part of her at risk of atrophy during this study. Her inability to leave the hospital over the last 12 weeks created some big obstacles for keeping her mind occupied and sharp. Extreme boredom can set in when you are laid up in a hospital room for just a weekend.

“I had some bad depression around week three and four,” said Peterson. “I was like, ‘Why did I sign up for this? I want to go home and go to [concerts] and be a normal person.’”

Eventually Peterson adjusted to the new environment, even accomplishing a little self-discovery.

“I became very comfortable with being alone,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself and how the body and the mind can adapt to really strange situations.”

Friends have come to see her, referring to Peterson’s room as “visiting Mars” and talking often about her eventual “return to Earth.” Her visitors have brought plants, lights and pictures to help turn the cold hospital room into Peterson’s private living space.

“I’ve done a lot of work to make it feel like she is in a room rather than a cage for a lab rat,” said Mike Cormier, Peterson’s boyfriend of two-and-a-half years. “We took some Zen mentality to it and sure enough, everyone likes to come in and hang out. It’s the nurses’ new break room.”

Peterson has made friends with much of the hospital staff and volunteers with whom she interacts daily. An avid fan of knitting and crochet, Peterson has kept herself busy with different crafty projects and taught her techniques to several clinic staff members.

bedresterin3.jpg A Cleveland Clinic staff member shows off Peterson’s handiwork.  Courtesy of Erin Peterson

Peterson has also used the Internet to cure any remaining moments of boredom, while simultaneously documenting her adventure in bed resting. Using a laptop mounted above her, with the screen facing the ground, she started a blog, Stardust Holiday, fully equipped with photos of her experience. The blog follows her from pre-screening highs to the vertigo lows.

“I knew the days leading up to [the experiment] would be a blur, and once I got into bed, I couldn’t discern day two from day 12, so I wanted to keep a record,” she said.

Peterson’s bed-first dive into science comes to an end today, but it seems that Stardust Holiday, “Chronicles of the Chronically (and voluntarily) bedridden,” could continue. George Viebranz, a friend of Peterson’s has begun the screening process, giving Stardust Holiday a new author.

“Mostly I want to do this because its just seems like an amazing opportunity to learn a lot about myself and at the same time help out the Cleveland Clinic and help out NASA,” the 25-year-old Viebranz said.

Obviously, the bedrest study isn’t NASA’s only experiment subjecting people to strange environments. In April’s NEEMO 9 experiment, astronauts lived underwater for 18 days, testing space medicine and lunar walking techniques. Recently, the NEEMO crew sent Peterson a note, thanking her for her contribution to the NASA program.

“Seems like a pretty extreme environment that you’ve been living in for the past couple of months as well,” the NEEMO crew wrote on their last day underwater. “We’re thankful for all you’ve been doing, and we wish you all the best.”

The recognition from the astronauts buoyed Peterson and helped spur her on during the grueling experiment.

“I realized I was doing the same kind of thing as the aquanauts,” said Peterson. “This is my little part of the space program.”

Originally published May 14, 2006

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