Opinion | Extraordinary American Experience Selling My Plasma

After years of shunning, I first sold plasma in 2009. This is a temporary solution to the ongoing state of financial instability.

I’m 40 and can’t find a steady restaurant job in Portland, Oregon, where I live, because I can’t compete with the flexible hours of applicants without kids. After the 2008 crash, the number of server jobs plummeted and college graduates flooded the market. For me, it was a knockout blow.

I ended up on food stamps with a 7-year-old, worked two part-time minimum wage jobs, was in crisis every time a roommate left, and depended on a 27% APR CareCredit card to pay for my health care. I don’t remember the specific incitement to sell the plasma, whether it was an empty heating oil tank or a broken alternator, but one morning when my daughter was at her father’s house, I went out early to see what I could do.

Plasma donation centers tend to occupy the same real estate market as tanning and nail salons, dialysis clinics, goodwill stores, fast-food chains and car washes, meaning they are often found in moderate crime neighborhoods subdivided by main road or highway exchanges. The intake process for first-time donors can take most of the day. I arrived only a few minutes after it opened, but the place was already packed. A big man from a private security company stood in the corner with his arms crossed, gossiping about recent arrests and car accidents. I took a number and sat down.

People around me seem to be regulars trying to squeeze in donations before work. I know because I heard them lie on the phone to their employers about why they were late when the morning passed. More women came in after nine, presumably because their kids were in school now. There are men doing business with dirt on their Carhartts, young Russian-speaking women in scrubs, a spinner, and a freshly shaved man in a crisp white shirt trying to trade on the phone, I think he’s in church Or work for a cleaning supplies company for a church.

After a few hours in the waiting room, I was called into the back office, where I answered a series of questions ranging from “Have you ever been paid for sex?” “Have you had blood transfusions in the Falklands? “The screener asked me to open my hands so she could see my nails. “Great, they’re all there!” she said, dyeing one of my nails with yellow dye.

The dye is semi-permanent, visible only under black light, and is a tracking method used to make sure people don’t donate in multiple places at the same time. Desperate people sometimes file their entire nail off just to get around it, so screeners have to check.

The screener then took out a piece of paper with a payroll written on it. As a new client, I get $40 for my first “donation” and $60 for my second. After that, I won’t make more than $25 per visit. Each time, I’d be in the waiting room for an hour or two and then in bed for about 90 minutes while the company pumped about as much plasma as federal regulations allowed.

Plasma is a physical manifestation of the body’s ability to bounce back. Albumin, immunoglobulins, and fibrinogen are some of the key components of plasma that perform important functions, including transporting hormones, enzymes, and vitamins, protecting the body from infection, and controlling bleeding. Plasma therapy has many uses, including helping high-risk patients fend off diseases such as bird flu and Covid-19.

The problem is that while plasma does many wonders for those who receive it, its removal threatens the health of those who sell it. Repeated plasma donations can weaken the donor’s immune system and lead to other negative effects. Few countries allow payments for plasma, in part out of fears that financially vulnerable people will risk their health for the money.

Other developed countries have put stricter limits on the number of times a person can donate. In the UK, plasma can be provided every two weeks; in Germany, up to 60 per year. The United States allows a person to sell plasma 104 times a year. Of course, the word “sell” is rarely used in the United States. Instead, the word is “donation,” which allows companies to pretend they’re not in the business of finding biological treasures from the corpses of poor people.

Our “donation” system has been so successful that the US provides about two-thirds of the world’s plasma and 35% to 40% of the plasma used for medical use in Europe – most of which comes from the intravenous poor in the US.

The first time I heard that plasma could be sold was in the mid-1980s. I am 15 years old and live under a bridge. People around me call the plasma center a “thorn lab.” I’m too young to donate, but if I have a fake ID, I’ll sign up in a second.

Being on the street is tough, and donating plasma is far from the only way to put your health at risk. I remember Danny’s 18-year-old sex worker telling me what to do if I had to have oral sex for money and a man refused to wear hazmat suits. She snapped out a condom and quickly shoved it between her cheek and gum, barely grasping it, and rolled it over two of her fingers with my mouth. “Just in case you need to know,” she said.

There are worse things to sell than plasma. The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, which just came into effect, makes it illegal to pay for organs, but I remember meeting someone who sold a kidney. In a flash of bluff, he lifted his shirt and showed everyone the scar. Soon, as his shame became apparent, the conversation died down. Mathematics has not been written yet. His plan to get ahead failed. He appeared ill and returned to temporary accommodation.

To me, 1980s Thorn Lab was like a shooting range, inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” promotional stills.My own experience in 2009 was more like a long day at the DMV

After the paperwork was done, I was taken to a room of about 30 beds filled with people drawn to the apheresis machine, staring at an episode of Law & Order That was on a TV hanging from the ceiling. The bottles they fill are bigger than I thought. I’ve also never seen Plasma before and thought it would be red, but it’s a yellowish amber, a shade or two lighter than Lipton Iced Tea.

The phlebotomist punctured a vein in my arm with a 17-gauge needle and made me pump my fists until blood began to flow up the line into the machine, where it was separated into red and white blood cells, platelets and plasma . The plasma would go into the bottle and the rest would flow back into me along with the free saline solution. She adjusted the speed of the draw so as not to be too overwhelming for first-time donors, and said if I saw a bubble, I should have called it out right away.

My bottle takes at least an hour to fill up. I know because I’m halfway through the second episode of “Law & Order” before my machine stops. When the phlebotomists unhooked me, I asked them how much to take from my plasma. She shook her head and told me I didn’t want to know because it just made me angry.

I sold plasma twice a week for over a month. After donating, I usually want to sleep. Sometimes I just feel bad weather.

I’ve been told that to make the most money fast you have to visit all the major plasma centers in the area in a row. That way, you can earn bonus bonuses before becoming a regular anywhere, and permanently downgrade to about $25 in donations. I also learned that hydration makes donating faster if you drink a gallon of water the afternoon before.

I stopped doing this because $25 wasn’t worth it, and as a night worker, I didn’t need to feel any more tired than I am now. But the weird thing about Plasma, like many less-than-ideal ways to make money, is that once you know it’s an option, you can’t completely forget it’s there. Economic instability makes it difficult to get out of quick money.

Recently, I saw a flyer saying I could make $825 a month selling plasma. For most of my life, I’ve lived with the delusion that my problems can’t be solved without four to eight hundred dollars. I don’t believe this anymore, but I also don’t get beyond a world where such a hole doesn’t make a real difference. I decided to go see how plasma donations have changed in the ten years since I did it.

If my giving experience in 2009 was like a trip to the DMV, my 2022 experience is more like shopping at a small Target. There are cheerfully coloured check-in kiosks, regular donor lines, a rewards program, phlebotomists with preferred pronouns on nameplates, and pictures on the walls of people helping each other.

However, the customers are the same: poor people who need cash. During the pandemic, donations have fallen, forcing compensation to increase, especially for those with Covid antibodies. According to reports, some donors have started deliberately exposing themselves to the coronavirus to make more money.

During enrollment, my information appeared in the database along with my 2009 photo. Although it’s a different location, I’m obviously back in the same company. I asked the screeners if there was also a higher rate of new donations. He gave me a “you and me against this man” smile and promised to do it.

I was checked for marks, my liver was palpated and my eyelids were pulled down so they could check me for jaundice. I answered dozens of screening questions, including about visiting the Falkland Islands. The staff weighed me, pricked my finger, and checked my hematocrit level to make sure I could donate. Instead of dyeing my nails yellow, they took my fingerprints, which they told me could be shared with the government at their request. I downloaded the company’s app and got the debit card I needed to withdraw money and was warned about ATM fees.

After that, standing in the parking lot, surrounded by 20 year old cars and sunken minivans, holding a new debit card with a coupon notification that appeared on my new app, with the laundromat on my side , the liquor store on the other side, and I can’t help but think I’ve found my way into the extraordinary American experience. I am no longer fully part of it, but I am not separated from it either.

I have no problem with people paying for plasma. I just think companies should use less plasma and donors should be paid more. I have always found poor and working class people to be very selfless. They know what it’s like to work sick, depend on a car you can’t fix, and need help from family, friends, and even strangers. Such experiences generate empathy and, like all people, they want to be part of something larger and purposeful.

My most recent donation was $100. The next donation will pay me $125, plus $10 from the coupon I received, but only if I return it within 45 days. If I go back later, I’ll lose my new donor benefits and only make $40 to $60 like other regulars. Once or twice a week, it’s in my mind that I should make eight donations at a higher rate and then quit, and if not, at least do the next one. I could do an oil change, or reduce balance transfers before interest hits. After all, that $135 was just sitting there with the cash on the table.

Vanessa Veselka is a former labor organizer and author of the novels “The Great Offshore Grounds” and “Zazen.”

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