I sat down on the folding chair in front of the emergency room admitting nurse and explained what had happened: “I’ve had an accident in my laboratory.” I was expecting a dramatic reaction. Instead I got barely a raised eyebrow. It must take a lot to surprise an emergency room nurse but still, hadn’t she heard about all the superheroes that have emerged from lab experimentation gone awry (Did she not know about Spiderman, who was bitten by a radioactive spider, or The Incredible Hulk, who was irradiated by gamma rays?) Was she not curious as to what superhuman feats I would soon be capable of? She was not.
“I’ve injected myself with hamster cells,” I continued. I had been performing a novel, but ultimately unfruitful, experiment wherein I was attempting to track the movement of hamster cells in a swirling flow using some fancy cameras and a fairly sizable laser. The idea was to inject the cells into a vortex using a hypodermic needle. The idea was not to miss said vortex and stab the needle into my left hand.
The mention of hamsters piqued the nurse’s interest and she looked up from the form. I showed her my hand. There was very little blood; it had been worse immediately following the puncture. If I had not stopped for a fortifying sandwich en route to the ER, I’d probably have garnered more sympathy. As it was she didn’t seem to care about the wound. She did, however, care about the hamsters.
“Yes.” I smiled in what I hoped was a manner that, while sheepish, also conveyed my concern at having bits of hamster flowing through my bloodstream, getting closer and closer to my heart or, even worse, my brain.
“Like those animals that run around on those wheels?” she asked. “How do you spell that?” I was now getting concerned that she had not grasped the seriousness of the situation so my response was a little testier than it should have been. “Ham. Ster.” My testiness went unnoticed.
“So you’ve injected yourself with hamster blood?” she said. Not blood, I replied, ovaries. Again she looked up from her form. I assured her that it hadn’t been an entire ovary, merely a few million cells. Chinese Hamster ovary cells have, for a variety of reasons including reduced risk of pathogenic infection, become leading vehicles for recombinant protein production. The syringe I was handling that day was full of a solution of these cells; a solution that vaguely resembled opaque tropical punch. However, I didn’t feel that it was the time to get into the ins and outs of cell culture seeing as it was, in my mind, one of those life-and-death moments where every second counts.
The nurse continued, “But the hamsters – they’re healthy?” This is a frequent misconception. Whenever I mention that I work with hamster ovary cells people envisage a room full of cages with me hunched over an operating table, harvesting ovaries from defenseless hamsters splayed out beneath my scalpel. This is not the case, as I explained to the nurse. There are no live hamsters, just their ovary cells grown in suspension.
My explanation seemed to satisfy her. “Okay, but the ovaries – were they healthy?” she asked. “Ah…well no. They have cancer,” I replied. We had reached her breaking point. She put down her pen and told me that I was going to have to see a doctor. She had no interest in hearing that cancer was induced in the cells so as to immortalize them, allowing them to proliferate ad infinitum.
I was shown to an examination room where I received a form to fill out. The form was clearly designed for intravenous drug users and asked a variety of personal questions that seemed to have no connection to science experiments or lab accidents. As I was writing “Hamster” in the space allocated for the name of the person with whom I’d shared a needle, the doctor entered. He had already been updated on my situation and, after taking the form and throwing it in the garbage, gave my hand a few investigative prods. He then pronounced his diagnosis. “Well, you aren’t dead yet so I think you’ll be fine.”
And with that vaguely unsettling bill of health I headed off to await my metamorphosis into Ham-man the half-man half-hamster scourge of evil-doers who, based in his secret lair constructed from chewed up paper towel rolls, and traveling the city’s mean streets in a large transparent sphere, fought crime with his sole superpower: an unrivaled ability to eat his own offspring. I was not looking forward to it.