This is the first of a two-part blog post that shares the journey of someone who, from heartache, found her purpose and passion for laboratory animal care and research.

Cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, cystic fibrosis – these are ugly words.  I hate the words almost as much as I hate the diseases.  “It’s incurable”, “there’s no treatment”, “there’s nothing more we can do” – phrases I hate to hear. Phrases that one day, I hope we will never hear again.  This is why I do, what I do, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY! I never want to lose another family member to any of these ugly diseases.

Before I started working with a contract research organization (CRO), I went to school to become a medical assistant, with the goal of going back to school and becoming a cardiac nurse. At the time, I had no idea what a CRO was, and most of my family and friends referred to animal research facilities as “rat factories.” Then, as it often does, life happened. I didn’t go back to school for my RN, and I was in a job I didn¹t care for.  However, I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and I wanted to do more than test glucose, take blood pressure, and collect urine samples.

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“I miss Jimmy’s smile every day.”

Unexpectedly, my brother got very sick, and my life was changed forever.  My brother, Jimmy, was intellectually disabled, physically handicapped, and suffered from cystic fibrosis – but he was the light of everyone’s life.  Although he was not very self-sufficient, he had the talent of making anyone’s day better.  Just seeing the smile on his face would put a smile on yours.  He was a great guy! I know it may sound odd to some people who don’t understand mental disabilities/handicaps, but I looked up to my brother.  He wasn’t aware of his disabilities – he was so innocent, carefree, and always had a smile.  Jimmy couldn’t talk, but you can be sure that if he wanted something he knew how to tell you exactly what it was.  I had no doubt he could understand whenever someone spoke to him, he just wasn’t able to communicate back. There is no end to the ways that Jimmy and the way he lived influenced my life, and our family’s lives.

Because of his cystic fibrosis, Jimmy was consistently in and out of hospitals beginning at a very young age.  A bout of pneumonia would send him to the ICU for days, if not weeks at a time. Jimmy lost his battle to his health condition on November 27, 2011, two weeks after his thirtieth birthday. I was devastated. My life was never going to be the same. I almost didn’t attend the funeral because I was so torn. The thought of my big brother lying in a casket and knowing he wasn’t coming back to hold my hand for a walk in the backyard was devastating. I was depressed, and I didn’t know how to get out of it.  Wisely, my mom gave advice, saying that I would regret it if I didn’t say my final goodbyes.

In some amazing way, somewhere in the middle of dealing with my brother’s death, I met the woman who was to become my wife, Emily.  This amazing woman has been my rock throughout my devastating loss and depression.  I remember one night during the first month of dating, we were out taking a drive like we usually do, just talking about life, what it meant, who we wanted to be and why.  As I explained to Emily the urgency to do something bigger and better with my life, I’ll never forget the look on her face.  She looked at me and simply said, “I have something to tell you.” I braced for the worst and I knew I couldn’t handle any more heartache.  My heart sank when she told me she had multiple sclerosis (MS) and I was briefly at a loss for words. I didn’t know much about MS, but knew it was a slow-progressing disease that affected the brain and spinal column.

After a lot of research and many conversations with Emily, I decided to devote myself to something that would make both Jimmy and Emily proud. I wanted to be a part of something that could hopefully save the lives of people who didn’t ask to have these incurable diseases and help them live the best way they knew how.  Emily is a perfect example of this – she struggles with MS every day, but she has not lost her passion for life. She doesn’t let her disease stand in the way of our full lives, and I wanted to contribute to the world in a much bigger way that would help the Jimmys and Emilys of the world.

In January of 2012, I accepted a position at a CRO after talking with a family member who recently started working there. At first, I was assigned basic tasks like cage washing and cleaning, but I was interested in the studies. I wanted to learn all I possibly could about biomedical research, and eventually be in the lab as a researcher who was saving lives! After three years of working my way up the ladder, I began job shadowing to get an idea of options I had in moving forward in my career. I decided to apply for a position in Small Animal Toxicology and I absolutely love my job.

While I know I want my career to progress further, I don’t see myself doing anything else for a while. I love that what I do can help families hold on to their loved ones a little bit longer. Together, with animals, we ARE saving lives! We ARE healing people! We ARE making a difference!

~by Heather Barnett, Laboratory Animal Researcher

Do you have a story to tell? Has animal research saved your life or the life of a loved one; or improved the life of your pet? If so, we want to hear about it. Share your story with us! Send an email to [email protected] or leave message in the “comments” section below.