By Kerry McKean Kelly
If you’re not watching “First in Human,” you’re missing a beautiful ode to the human spirit.
“First in Human,” a three-part documentary airing on the Discovery Channel, tells the stories inside Building 10 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. It’s there that people with rare and particularly insidious diseases go for help when all other medical treatments have failed them. They are human guinea pigs, eking out their last sparks of hope from cutting-edge treatments that have never before been tried in humans.
I watched the first episode chronicling the journeys of people with cancer, sickle cell disease and the rare Job syndrome in fascination at this amazing place with brave patients and smart, committed physicians and researchers. The second episode, out of nowhere, had me crying. It proved far too real for me after being a close witness to Steve’s fighting spirit through two clinical trials. Emotions rushed back through so many scenes from the documentary:
- Cancer patient Bo, a young athlete left pale, thin and with tubes and ports snaking out of the body that he had worked so hard to keep strong and healthy
- Deirdre, a 39-year-old with sickle cell disease, grimacing and shifting in her hospital bed as she quietly endured the pain wracking her body
- And adorable 7-year-old Lucy, whose mom and dad’s smiles served as a dam against what certainly must have been torrents of fear, grief and anger as their little girl endured countless invasive procedures for the autoimmune condition Job syndrome.
I recognized, too, the calm and reassuring physicians and researchers, always careful to offer hope without guarantees, always mindful that they operate in a realm where there is no prior experience and no certain answers.
As Steve’s cancer progressed, he had begun the very early stages of enrolling in a clinical trial at NIH. It was a last grasp at a cure – or at least a few more years of survival. In the end, it wasn’t to be. Enrollment of pancreatic cancer patients in that particular trial had been temporarily suspended, and very soon thereafter Steve’s condition had worsened to a point that he probably couldn’t have endured the treatments anyway.
As I watch “First in Human,” there are certainly some “what-ifs.” But yesterday’s what-ifs have no relevance today. Instead, I am left inspired by the spirit and passion of the patients and healthcare professionals inside Building 10. And I am reminded anew of the heroism of clinical trial participants, like Steve, whose legacy is hope.
Go to www.discovery.com for the latest episode and air dates of “First in Human.”