What it's really like donating your plasma for rent money
As with anyone else stuck being in a new generation like mine, I don’t make much money. So when my buddy Jeremy talked about earning $300/month donating his plasma, I thought, Hell yeah! Easy money!
I asked him if there were any adverse effects. He shrugged, and displayed the crook of his elbow where a dozen needle-thin scabs peppered his bruised skin. I figured it didn’t look terrible, so I scheduled an appointment for the following day.
Before going in, I didn’t know what plasma was. It sounded like something Shredder desired in “The Secret of the Ooze.” My sole association was this Atlantic article I read years back about the twisted plasma business. And even though the article’s depiction of low-energy, desperate donors suffering chronic arm pain struck me as more legitimate than plasma center websites filled with smiling children, kind colors, and endless lineups of killer deals, I still thought, Well, Jeremy isn’t dead, is he?
Plasma apparently contains protein and comprises more than half of a human’s internal blood supply. After donating, it can usually replenish within a day. And apparently, it benefits burn victims below the age of 10. And a free physical comes with donating — a rad kickback considering I can’t afford Affordable Health Care.
Again, I reconciled and justified all of this despite the article. $300 a month, bro! The Atlantic is probably full of shit!
Within seconds of parking at the donation center, an isolated structure in the no-man’s-land between Fort Collins and Loveland, Colorado, I immediately felt sketched out. I can’t tell you precisely why. I was likely on edge from consuming excessive caffeine. Perhaps my memory of that Atlantic article had activated unconscious warning signals. Still, I reminded myself about the money, and I entered.
They almost didn’t let me in — “they” being a sad-looking Hispanic woman in a lab coat — because their laws regarding proper identification are ambiguous. And apparently quite fluid, too, because despite my 2014 W-2 being deemed “out of date,” they allowed my passage. Before they did, however, they took my fingerprint, and through the exchange, they scanned it about seven more times.
“Why are you taking my fingerprint?” I asked.
The woman helping me said, “So we can ID you without you having to remember your Driver’s License.”
“Ah,” I said. “Glad to avoid that hassle.”
“We’re doing this for you,” she added.
How kind of them to think of me.
Once through, I was moved to a station where they — now a husky twenty-something with a transparent visor shielding her face like a villain from Stranger Things — pricked my fingertip for protein analysis. Quickly I was deemed healthy enough to donate 825 mL of my plasma.
She scanned my fingerprint three times. I inquired into the motives behind the plasma collection. I was met with highly ambiguous responses such as, “It helps make solutions,” and, “It’s synthesized into medicines.” I was continually reassured I was helping people.
They directed me to a computer screen where, after scanning my fingerprint, I was prompted for 20 minutes to answer diverse phrasings of about four basic questions:
1) Do you have AIDS?
2) Have you had sexual relations with a male?
3) Are you a drug addict?
4) Are you truly choosing to do this?
Each time the fourth arose, a mental flare fired; each time, I thought about money and answered, “Yes”
I proceeded to receive a physical from a thin female in a lab coat. She was not a doctor. Scanning my fingerprint, she asked if I had any questions.
“Yes,” I replied. “Why are you taking my plasma?”
She handed me a pamphlet. She said plasma creates “life-saving products.” She mentioned burn victims and immune disorders. Each phrasing she used could be found on the pamphlet.
I said, “I don’t understand how my plasma is connected.”
“It can be confusing,” she said. “Would you like a snack? Granola bar or Goldfish?”
Was she preparing me for the truth? “Granola bar,” I replied.
She snatched a Nature Valley from an unseen drawer, which I promptly consumed. Then she laid me down and started collecting data from my body. She scanned my fingerprint on the way out, and she did not readdress my confusion.
At long last, I was directed to the posterior region of the center where my reclining donation chair awaited. They sat me down and laid my right arm on a rest. It felt like donating blood. But actually it didn’t at all. It lacked Red Cross’ volunteer-based lightness. The cash incentive hovered heavy over these several dozen donors, too many of whom appeared disturbingly pallid.
A smiling, ball-cap-wearing fellow across from me said, “First time?”
I nodded and told him it was weird so far.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said. “They’ve only messed up on me once. And it was this one, beware!” He pointed at the white-coated phlebotomist approaching me, a petite female of about 19. She laughed, and so did the guy. It was unclear whether they were kidding.
The phlebotomist scanned my fingerprint, rubbed a brown solution on the crook of my elbow, and inserted a needle into my vein.
“Your vein is thin,” she observed. “This might take a while.”
I was instructed to repeatedly tighten my fist. They extracted a vial of my blood — Why? — and then connected the needle’s tube to a large system of dials and lights and numbers beside me. My blood poured into a transparent container six inches from my face. Another tube ran from the container into the system. Soon, this tube streamed with a bubbly, piss-colored liquid. I was informed this was my plasma.
Once my blood filled the container and my plasma was extracted, the remaining blood cells were returned to my vein, yielding chilling sensations and an unpleasant coppery taste.
I liked nothing about what was happening. I envisioned ripping out the needle and fleeing the scene like some action movie badass. But I had come this far, and I wanted my money.
I asked a bearded phlebotomist where my plasma was going. He said it becomes property of a for-profit company called Shire (“The Leading Global Biotech Focused On Rare Diseases”). For a moment, thinking of Gandalf and Bilbo, I felt comforted.
Then I realized how fucking stupid this thought was. I was giving my plasma to a pharmaceutical company. How often had I vocalized vehement opposition to Big Pharma’s sketchy, money-grubbing tactics? Quite often indeed! I envisioned Shire as a gargantuan creature with many mouths sucking the life force from poor humans. With each fist flexion, my shame grew, for with each flexion, I was willingly offering my energy to a system I deplore. For what? Chump change? I was entirely full of shit.
It was taking too long to reach 825mL. I pumped harder. A deep, heavy pain burgeoned in the needle’s vicinity. I asked the phlebotomists how much longer it would take. A stout female in their ranks said, “Just a little bit more,” then turned to the sleepy donor beside her to rant about her stress surrounding finals at CSU.
Finals? College students jamming needles into veins? Who was orchestrating this madness?
Terrible fear permeated my consciousness. The fear created hideous possibilities. I thought of the crazed general from Dr. Strangelove who’s certain the Russians are contaminating his “precious bodily fluids”. Was this operation his reference point? Was Russia somehow involved? Paranoia grew at the sudden realization that my fluids were being processed and returned. Shit! What had they added? Sterilizing chemicals? Microscopic cameras? Fuck!
I pumped my forearm muscles like mad, feeling a spongy sensation in my vein and somehow hearing it too. I wanted out! Out of this insanity!
At last the meter reached 825mL. The system bleeped, and a saline solution funneled into my circulatory system. It felt like icy needles pricking my hypocritical organs.
They asked me how I was doing.
I told them, “Not well.”
They appeared confused.
I said, “There is something very unsettling about this place.”
They laughed, as if I was joking, or as if they already knew.
I was detained on a sofa for 15 minutes — protocol for first timers, ensuring no adverse reactions. Bandages wrapped my right elbow. I felt weak. Confused. Horribly ashamed.
A rotund female approached, joyously proclaiming, “We are running a special now! If you come back by the end of the week, you’ll get an extra 45 dollars. And if you come eight times this month, you’ll get an extra sixty dollars! Easy money, right?”
Despite everything I had just experienced, I thought, Well, I’m not dead, am I? An extra 45 bucks? That would make today worth it! Just one more time. Then I’ll call it quits.
I was seriously considering returning when, two hours later, I felt it: numbness coursing through my arm, as if it was deteriorating from within.
Was it the depletion the Atlantic article spoke of? Microscopic cameras operated by sadistic Russians? A fear-induced projection of my paranoid mind?
It didn’t fucking matter. I’d take my single prostitutional scab in contrast to Jeremy’s dozen. No way I was going deeper into that twisted shit.