By Jim Hagarty
I’d been pulling my hair out for years and suddenly someone wanted me to put it in an envelope and send it to them.
Along with my toenails.
Found in the mail I was sorting through one day a while back was this request from something called the Canadian Study of Diet, Lifestyle and Health, which, nobly, was trying to discover ways to prevent disease. To do that, they aimed to collect the nails and hair from 85,000 adults, including me, and test them for various properties.
Now, I thought this was a good thing and wanting to participate, I scrolled through the documents that had fallen from a plain brown envelope onto my desk. The instructions were helpful, especially for someone like me who had not been the subject of a lot of medical research.
Particularly useful were the passages describing how I was to obtain the samples needed. “We would be grateful if you would take a clipping from each of your toenails (their emphasis) and place them in the small envelope marked TOENAILS,” read the request. I was relieved, because I was tempted to put them in the envelope marked HAIR. Unfortunately, the letter did not specify whether or not I was to label to which little piggy each nail clipping corresponded, though I supposed medical researchers would have some scientific way of discerning whether it was from the one that ate roast beef or the one that had none.
The section on acquiring my hair samples was a bit more alarming. “We would be grateful if you would pull out about six strands of hair, including the roots, either from the back of your scalp (close to your neck) or from other parts of your body, and place them in the small envelope marked HAIR.” I considered how this might feel and sure enough, reading further, I found my answer: “It is possible that you will experience some minor discomfort when obtaining the hair specimens.” No fool, I am, and I saw “pain” where they wrote “discomfort” and I began to think of a shortcut but they beat me to the pass: “Please DO NOT simply cut off hair strands, since by doing so you will NOT obtain hair roots.” I guessed they’d dealt with my type before.
But most surprising, and yet useful, were the instructions detailing how I was to arrive at various body measurements the researchers wanted. Helpfully, they included a measuring tape with these details: “Measure the torso at a point one inch or two and a half centimetres above the navel (“belly button”) EVEN IF THIS IS NOT YOUR USUAL WAISTLINE.” I read that over a couple of times, thankful for the belly-button clue, but wondering whose waistline, if not mine, that might be.
Then the shocker. They wanted me to measure my buttocks.
“Slide the tape up and down until you find the largest spot between your waist and thighs,” the instructions stated. “When sliding the tape to the correct spot, be sure that it is kept horizontal.” Now I was in trouble as I began to question what the “it” that I was supposed to keep horizontal might be.
As I might have guessed, the researchers wanted me to be “either unclothed or in minimal clothing” while doing this and they had another request: “We ask that you make the measurements with the help of another adult.” They didn’t, however, suggest any dangers in having two adults, one naked, with horizontal things about, taking measurements.
I was also instructed to choose among sketches that showed people covered in various numbers of moles and freckles and indicate which most resembled me.
Although the researchers guaranteed the information about me would be kept confidential, they also said the results would be made available to the media and I imagined the press conference: “Most respondents were normal,” a white-coated scientist would say, “but there was this one guy with a really wrinkly butt with freckles all over it. And toenails thick as slate.” Friends would start guessing.
And then, the letter said I would be contacted in four years and in eight years to repeat these procedures, time needed, I supposed, to let my head heal.
To top it off, I was asked to sign a consent form giving the researchers permission to obtain information on my “vital status” from “the National Morality Database”, which is maintained by Statistics Canada. Either their typesetter’s “t” key was busted or, not content with measuring my behind, they wanted to size up my morals.
Having none, I didn’t object to this and I reached straight away for a pen to sign up, proof of my long-held contention that I’ll sign anything.