Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Research subject

Eric Cohen
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States


Much has been written about clinical research and its societal benefit.1 But research can also confer unexpected individual benefits, as shown by the story of Mrs. G, the recipient of a kidney transplant.

She had been feeling ill for several days, short of breath and coughing. So, her husband brought her to the clinic, even though she herself did not think it was urgent. At the clinic, the phlebotomist drawing her blood saw at once that she was ill, and so did the nurse. Her cough, fast pulse rate, and grayish color were signs enough that she needed to be admitted to the hospital.

I was at the time in my office, one building away, catching up with paperwork. I was not on call and had not planned to go to the clinic that morning, until the nurse phoned asking if I could come over. The normal procedure would have been to send the patient to the emergency room, but when I heard that it was Mrs. G, I rushed to the clinic. Something in the nurse’s tone told me that all was not well.

I found the patient coughing profusely, breathing rapidly, and very gray despite receiving oxygen. We rushed her over to the emergency department, three floors down from where we were, and just in time. Promptly, she was intubated. Her color improved at once. She had, it later turned out, a particularly bad case of pneumonia.

Mrs. G recovered after several days and went home. When I saw her the next time, she gripped my hands and said I had saved her life. I replied, “No, it was the nurse, and also Veronica, our blood drawer, but thanks anyway.”

Yet she may have been right. Sent to the emergency room in the usual manner she might have died on the way. This, of course, was not the first time that I had wheeled patients to the laboratory, to the radiology department, or to the emergency room. But her case was different. She had once participated in a study, at least 10 years ago, so I remembered her. She had put her trust in me, taking part in a study that had no direct clear benefit to her. She had changed her life at my request, even if only at low risk; and having been a research subject, she gained my allegiance, even a sort of love.

Did I run to the clinic merely because she had been a study subject? I hope this was not the only reason. But probably it was part of it. By participating in that study, she may have gained an increment, however small, of priority in my mind. Most of the time such priority is trivial, but every so often it may truly matter, an unforeseen reward for having altruistically participated in a research study.



  1. Johnston SC, Rootenberg JD, Katrak S, Smith WS, Elkins JS. Effect of a US National Institutes of Health programme of clinical trials on public health and costs. Lancet. 2006; 367: 1319–27.


ERIC P. COHEN, MD, is a nephrologist. He received his Doctor of Medicine at the Université de Liège in Belgium. He has been at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee since 1987.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2011 – Volume 3, Issue 1

Winter 2011  |  Sections  |  Doctors, Patients, & Diseases

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