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An Experiment Nets a Lifetime of Health Care

Medicine: Half a century ago, Nellie Parker became a pharmaceutical test subject in exchange for perpetual coverage. At 97, she's reaping benefits.


INDIANAPOLIS — Her silver hair is tucked under her lavender sun hat, and a sandaled foot dangles from the examining room table. Over the decades, the 97-year-old patient's clinic visits have become a ritual.

"How's your hand?" the doctor asks Nellie Parker, gently rubbing a swollen finger she cut while opening a can of dog food. "You need to put on some lotion."

Nellie smiles sheepishly as the doctor, one-third her age, checks her lungs, her heart, her blood pressure. Then she slides off the table like a schoolgirl relieved that a big test is over.

"This is my second home," she says. "They've done me a lot of good and they still are doing me good." She stops in her tracks, then does a little jig.

"I'm going to come here until I drop dead," she vows. "Yep."

And she will. Nellie Parker is more than a patient; she's proof of one company's unusual promise.

In an era when many elderly people can't afford to see a doctor or complain that drug makers have set prices out of reach, Nellie, who squeaks by on $400 a month, has no such worries because of a handshake deal she made about 50 years ago with Eli Lilly & Co.

She agreed to be a volunteer in the company's testing program for pernicious anemia, which was then a potentially fatal blood disorder that had landed her in the hospital. The arrangement was simple: become a "guinea pig" in exchange for free medical care for life.

The drug company has no written record of this deal, so no one knows exactly when it was made or what was said, but the pledge has been honored through the decades.

Doctors and nurses have come and gone, but Nellie has stayed on.

"It's a wonderful piece of history being passed on," says Dr. Charles Benson, the latest physician to treat Nellie. "This is almost a relic."

Every month, her trusty cabdriver, Paul, arrives at her tidy red brick house. She negotiates her steep steps -- this day she's decked out in a gingham pantsuit and pearl earrings -- and heads out for a checkup and vitamin B-12 shot at the clinic.

Once about 200 people received free medical care for participating in the testing program, which lasted from the 1940s to the 1980s. Most of the volunteers have moved away or died. Of the three who remain, Nellie is the oldest; the others are in their 80s.

They're cared for by nurse Mary Vinson, who has befriended all three in 23 years on the job. But she's especially devoted to Nellie, who has been alone since her husband and only son died long ago.

When Nellie's collie ran away, when her refrigerator broke, when she had problems with her phone bill, along came Mary to find the dog, to scrounge up a new appliance, to help solve the problem.

"I've never had a grandparent, so I've kind of adopted her," Vinson says. "It just doesn't seem fair that someone who has lived that long has nobody. So we've become her somebody."

"She's my doll baby," Nellie replies, patting the nurse on her arm.

The two talk regularly and Vinson occasionally takes Nellie shopping for her favorite foods: caramels, cupcakes and bananas.

"I worry about her," Vinson says. "She never complains."

Since the 1950s, Nellie's free health care has included two operations -- one for oral cancer, one on her intestines -- as well as visits to the dermatologist and neurologist, X-rays and mammograms, medication for high blood pressure, annual physicals and eye exams.

And speaking of her eyes ...

At age 97, Nellie still doesn't need glasses. "So far," she adds.

And she's trimmer than she used to be. She opens her wallet to show off a sepia-tinged photo of her as a husky, raven-haired woman, then tells one doctor how heavy she was.

"204." And how could she possibly remember? "Oooh, honey, I don't forget nothing. I wanted to lose that weight. It was like jelly on a plate," she says, shaking her leg.

Lilly says it can't put a price tag on what the medical care has cost for Nellie and the others, but it's a safe bet it hasn't created much of a ripple in the bottom line of an $11-billion-plus company.

Still, Benson says, it's the type of arrangement that wouldn't be started today because it would be too expensive.

The balance sheets of pharmaceutical companies have drawn the anger of senior citizen groups and many politicians, who say prescription drugs are often unaffordable for those who desperately need them. The industry responds that prices are set in part to recoup the high cost of drug research.

It's rare for a drug company to provide lifetime health care for a testing volunteer, says Jeff Trewhitt, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

What's more common, he says, is for companies to pay medical care for people while they are part of a clinical trial and provide the medicine being studied, even for a time after the testing is over.

It was a much simpler time when Nellie, then a housekeeper, was hospitalized, so sick she couldn't walk or talk. "Seems like my whole body was tired," she says.

Approached by Lilly doctors, she agreed to participate in the drug maker's testing program.

There was a very personal interest in pernicious anemia research at the company. The wife of J.K. Lilly Sr., son of the founder, suffered from the blood disorder, but it was too advanced for any medicine to effectively help her.

Lilly Sr., a one-time company president, and the doctor who started the clinic personally made the free-health care guarantee to those who joined the program.

As Nellie approaches her first century, she has scaled back her routine. No more Jazzercise. She gave that up at 94. And no more lawn mowing.

She has high blood pressure and her hearing isn't what it once was, but considering her age, Nellie is doing well. And she thinks she knows why: the regular medical care, and something more.

I don't run around," she says with a sly grin. "I don't drink." She pauses. "I guess it must be working."

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