Richard Dunne Fitzpatrick makes your average couch potato look like a rank amateur, and after 17 weeks of lying down on the job, he may be ready for the spud hall of fame. The 45-year-old Houstonian-cum-tuber has lucked into a nine-to-fiver’s dream situation, one that has required him to stay in the sack for more than four months running—or rather, in his case, not running. “I can’t get up,” he says cheerfully. “For anything!”
If he did, NASA would probably punch him a one-way ticket to the moon. Fitzpatrick, who is paid $200 a week for remaining almost totally inert in Houston’s Hermann Hospital, is taking part in an important NASA-sponsored research project on calcium loss and bone loss, which afflict astronauts on extended missions in the weightlessness of space.
“Putting someone to bed is the closest—down here—you can come to duplicating that environment,” says Dr. Victor Schneider of the University of Texas Medical School, who is overseeing the experiment. Both American and Soviet astronauts who have spent more than a month in space have suffered some tiny but discernible bone loss, he says, and longer missions could pose a much greater risk. “We hope that experiments such as this will help us devise exercise programs or drug therapy to prevent or reduce bone loss,” Schneider explains.
But lounging for a living is no bed of roses. Fitzpatrick must attempt to stay horizontal at all times, to put as little stress as possible on weight-bearing joints. He is not allowed to raise his head more than six inches off his bed and must roll back and forth to change clothes—usually a pair of shorts. Massages and a mattress pad with an egg-carton surface prevent sores.
Fitzpatrick eats lying on his side and is required to lick the plate clean. Confined to his room except for medical tests, he’s made only two forays into the outside world—on a stretcher. He attended a special concert of Italian choral music in a local church, and in November he asked to be transported by ambulance and hospital gurney to a Houston speciality shop so he could help his sister pick out a Christmas present for his parents. He also stopped by the bank to open a new account. “Naturally I called ahead and didn’t just drop in on them,” says Fitzpatrick, who was rolled into the building by two NASA aides.
His biggest problem? “Boredom!” sighs Fitzpatrick. To combat it, he has studied Spanish, learned to crochet and struck up a lively correspondence with old friends around the world. He has also developed a serious sweepstakes habit, though he has yet to win anything from the numerous contests he enters. In fact, postage is his only big expense, says Fitzpatrick, who is forbidden to lick the stamps he buys because “the doctors are afraid I’ll ingest something I shouldn’t.”
Fitzpatrick has also been studying up to become a state-certified chemical abuse counselor. He applied for the NASA job, he says, because he had “burned out,” working seven days a week for a network of city shelters for battered wives, the homeless and people with AIDS. After undergoing a series of medical and psychological tests, Fitzpatrick was selected from among the 100-plus applicants who answered the NASA ad. When he was finally offered the job, the researchers urged him, aptly, “to sleep on it,” Fitzpatrick says.
Surprisingly, he makes little use of his television and VCR—the life-support systems of so many unsubsidized loafers. “I watch television less than ever, maybe two hours a day,” says Fitzpatrick. “When most people are watching television, they go to get a beer or go to the bathroom. When I’m watching it, I’m really watching it, so quality is important.” PBS shows and the news are his viewing staples.
Fitzpatrick first spent 10 weeks undergoing tests and gradually restricting activity to prepare for his lying-in, and doctors say it will take at least three weeks to reacclimate him to the vertical world when bedtime ends next week. The bottoms of his feet will be tender at first because the protective calluses have disappeared, and it will be several days before his joints are strong enough for him to walk unescorted. When they are, he says, he’ll head straight for “a first-class restaurant with cloth napkins and waiters in tuxedos.” But not to worry, he adds: “I promise I won’t lick the plates.”