What did you say as a kid when someone asked what you wanted to be when you grew up?
If you were like me, the answer changed every year, evolving from an animal, to a dog trainer, to a pilot, to a computer engineer. Notice, I never looked forward to donating plasma. Granted, I didn’t know what plasmapheresis was until age 20; still, I have a haunch that younger me would be surprised to hear I’d later earn money by getting stuck with a needle.
Let’s back up a sec. Blood is composed of red and white blood cells, platelets, and a watery substance containing protein called plasma. Plasmapheresis is the process of separating plasma from the rest. The clinic has a machine that draws your blood, spins it, keeps the plasma, and sends your blood plus saline back into your body. The company freezes the plasma to later use in operations or to develop expensive medications. The clinic gives you the low-down before your donation, but truth be told, I don’t think anyone gives a shit what they do with the plasma. I’d guess less than 1% donate out of the goodness in their heart, and rather do it for the lack of cash in their wallet. That’s the real picture. A new donor can sometimes make 75 dollars in 3 hours: Orientation, screening, physical, and donation. Boom, cash.
In fourth grade, there was a celebration at the end of the year that kids called “Hawaii Day.” We heard about it in third grade at the other school because it was so famous. It’s exactly like it sounds. Everything was Hawaii themed. There were cheaply made paper mache palm trees, umbrellas, and brightly colored floral arrangements for decoration. As part of the learning portion, teachers gave us tickets for activities sort of like the fair. Each room had different games that cost a designated amount of tickets. We also had an auction. Each student received imaginary money. You had to keep track of your expenses throughout the auction. The purpose was to teach students how to budget their money. Some kids bid high right out of the gate. They were sorely disappointed when the better items came out toward the end and they didn’t have much money to bid. Looking back, I see it was a crash course in Capitalism masked by the smell of pineapple. I think most of the students were simply happy we didn’t have class, but I wonder how they’d feel if they knew their teachers were making subtle judgments. Here are a few I came up with, but feel free to substitute your own hypotheticals: This kid is gonna save money, but be depressed when it can’t buy happiness. Guess who’s gonna have a gambling problem. She’ll probably spend a lot of time in real Hawaii, but if he’s on the beach, it’ll be as a bum.
I was reminded of that end-of-the-year party when I entered the clinic two weeks ago. There was a beach themed bulletin board with this month’s specials and a notice saying police will ticket cars facing East on 8th street. Hanging from the ceiling next to it was a palm tree made of long streamers. I guess it was to bring a bit of summer cheer into the drab, depressing plasma prison. The only thing cheerful about this place is the latest donor walking out, latex bandage wrapped securely around the elbow, signifying they are two hours closer to happiness than you are. I apologize. It’s not all depressing. If you’re donating plasma then it means you don’t have AIDS. It also means you don’t have HIV, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or Ebola. They don’t let you donate don’t if you do. Well, I suppose you could unknowingly have it and donate, only to find out by getting a letter in the mail saying you’re banned from all plasma centers nation-wide.
In case this post immediately makes you want to donate plasma, here’s some inside information. The clinic I go to has a small lobby and can get confusing with all the lines. There is a line for new donors waiting for orientation. You must watch a video that tells you how you might save a life by donating, but also informs you of a bajillion risks, kind of like a tv advertisement for headache medicine. Then you have a physical. I forget what all they’re check for, but they want to make sure you don’t have track marks or other signs that suggest you might make decisions at the expense of your health. Pick your nose and trim your toenails before you leave your house to minimize embarrassment during the physical. Now you get to answer questions at a kiosk. This is where returning donors start. The kiosk gives a reminder of all the risks and potential disqualifiers. For first-time readers, you’ll likely read intently and question whether your current circumstance necessitates a donation. Like I said, Ebola will grab your attention. See also, Ebola-like symptoms. See also, destinations where you might be exposed to Ebola. But even as soon as your second donation, you’ll be anticipating the next answer, repeatedly tapping the screen, trying to get in line as quick as possible. They occasionally create a new question or tweak the wording of an old question to discourage this behavior, but repeat donors have already decided they’re going to donate and just want to get it over with. Then you get in a line for screening. The screening process is arguably the worst part. They prick the tip of your finger, which hurts worse than getting stuck for the donation. My grandfather was diabetic and had to use a similar device to test his blood sugar levels before each meal. I have so much more respect for his unfazed expression because it renders your finger useless for a couple hours; choose a finger wisely. Finally, you’re assigned a plasmapheresis machine. You get to pick which arm to use. You lie down on an “s” shaped bed, feet elevated. Your torso is propped up so you can make awkward eye contact with your plasma comrades. Bring your phone for social media and headphones for music. Otherwise, you’ll have to read subtitles as they play Jurassic Park or some other action-packed movie on the dozen 32” tvs around the room.
Sometimes, sitting in the chair, I wonder what Mrs. M or Mr. U thought of me during the auction. If they had brought out a bottle of my plasma and time spent donating, would I bid on it or would I keep the money? I wasn’t the kid who over bid at the beginning. I’ve always been good at saving. I’m resourceful. Where did Mrs. M or Mr. U think I’d be at 24? Probably not avoiding tickets on 8th street.
I remember one time when I walked out of the clinic, there was a man near the entrance. He had a yellow bag with him. I don’t know definitively that he was homeless, but it seemed like he was carrying most of his belongings in the bag. He noticed my elbow and smiled a toothless grin. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” he advised. It was one of those moments you feel perfectly and simultaneously captures the beauty and sadness in life. Some people are donating to pay for child support. Some people want a new car stereo. Some people are donating to pay for student loans. Some are donating to buy alcohol, groceries, or gas. I was donating to pay for skydiving. No matter. You better believe we all spent it in one place.