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Blood Money
May 23, 2024

Blood Money

Reading Time: 7 minutes

When I Tell People What I’m Doing to Make Ends Meet as an Grad Student, Their Reactions Are Something Else, My experience as a plasma donor hasn’t been what I expected., I sell my plasma for money. It’s not the worst gig I’ve ever had.

I got a job, I texted my friend Maggie. The gray iPhone dots wiggled, and before she’d finished typing, I added: I started selling my plasma. The dots disappeared.

Summer in Las Vegas makes everything feel cruel and impossible. I was broke and 35, two years into a graduate program that paid $15,000 annually. (That sum has since been raised to $21,000, which is still $48,810 less than what an individual needs to earn to comfortably afford rent in Las Vegas.) In exchange for this stipend, I taught undergraduates and worked for an arts organization.

By the end of the first year of my program, I’d drained my savings. By the end of the second year, I found myself choking on air every time I looked at my credit card statement, the interest growing like black mold.

At the beginning of the summer, I applied for gig jobs—delivering food, delivering groceries—and was placed on a waitlist for every one. My car was rattling and my bathroom faucet was leaking and my husband and I had been arguing about money—arguing regularly for the first time in our marriage. Every disagreement felt as heavy as the storm clouds that gathered above the city without ever delivering rain. When I saw the ad promising that I could get up to $900 giving plasma, signing up wasn’t a choice so much as an inevitability.

The plasma donation center was located a block from an apartment I had previously lived in for six years. During that time, the rent had increased from $850 to $1,200. With each lease renewal, I had felt myself getting priced out of the neighborhood, and eventually I was. Driving there again felt like going home, but I wasn’t. I passed by the movie theater I used to go to, which had gone out of business and was now empty, a big, vacant anchor tenant reigning over a plaza I didn’t recognize anymore. I fantasized about air-conditioned darkness as I pulled into the plasma donation center parking lot.

Inside, it was sterile and bright. Surprisingly nice, I thought. Then I felt like a judgmental asshole for being surprised, as if I was above this thing I was doing for money, as if my blazers and literature classes made me so much better than everyone else in line. (Months later, at a university event, I’d mention I regularly sold my plasma, and I would gather from the horrified expressions that it was the kind of thing I was supposed to be ashamed of or not do at all, and I’d return to this moment.)

That first day, I found myself surprised by how young and casual and happy the employees at the plasma center appeared. ‘What’s the move this weekend?’ they asked each other as they blithely inserted needles into arms, flicked at air bubbles in tubes of blood, transported cups of pale yellow liquid into back rooms.

They beamed as they handed me a red card with the words New Lifesaver written at the top, as they fingerprinted me, pricked my finger for a blood sample, asked me questions about my sexual history, my medical history, my surgical history. ‘I’m a nurse,’ one of them said brightly. ‘And that’s awesome.’ He had the jocular demeanor of a college tour guide, an energy I hadn’t expected.

Because it was my first time donating, I was escorted to the front of the line. I thought of my early 20s in so many Las Vegas nightclubs: a velvet rope, a promoter hustling me to the front, grinning and telling the bouncer, ‘She’s on my list.’ I’d been living paycheck to paycheck then too, working at restaurants. But it had been acceptable to be precarious at that age, a time that I knew I’d look back on as an adventure. Now in my 30s, I drove to campus on empty, praying I’d make it all the way. There was no whimsy to this lifestyle, just overdrawn accounts and the creeping realization that I might live this way forever.

At the plasma center, I was led to a chaise longue–style chair. A technician with heavy eyelashes handed me a tiny purple squishy ball, the kind people use for stress relief, and instructed me to pump it when the blue light on the machine turned on. The needle was bigger than the one used for drawing blood. I asked her if it would hurt. ‘No,’ the technician said. ‘You’re just going to get cold.’

A little yellow antiseptic, a quick pinch, and the needle was in my arm. I watched the machine draw out the blood, separate the plasma—the pale yellow liquid I’d seen earlier in cups—then return my blood cells to me along with a saline solution. I did get cold. But on that 110 degree day, it wasn’t uncomfortable; it was a relief, a mercy. I closed my eyes and opened them. I listened to my breath, to the 1980s playlist I would come to learn that the technicians favored. I squeezed the purple toy like a child. I read from the book in my lap. I looked at pictures of Bora Bora on my phone.

After another 20 minutes of watching my blood get whipped up into a pink foam, a technician led me to an observation center. ‘Good job,’ she said. She gave me a chocolate protein shake and told me to drink. She gave me a packet of cheddar Goldfish and told me to eat. I did.

The money, $90, appeared that same day on a prepaid Discover card. You can donate only twice a week, they told me. You can’t donate twice within a 24-hour period. I made another donation appointment for Saturday.

That word. Donation. They kept using it. I thought about before the pandemic, when I was in the early stages of donating a kidney to a stranger. As COVID spread, elective surgeries shut down, and the process of kidney donation stopped. Before that, I’d applied to be an egg donor—not for the money but to give someone a child, since I wasn’t planning on having one myself—and been rejected. For so long, I’d been trying to give away a part of my body, and now that I was finally doing it, it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. I just needed $90.

I kept needing those payments. Over the next few months, I came to see it as a ritual. Driving west, toward the sandstone mountains. The hot parking lot. The air-conditioned donation center. The questionnaire that began with: Are you feeling well today? The line for the finger prick to check my iron levels, the line for the chair. The machine drawing my blood out, separating the plasma, then returning everything else to me.

Plasma is the liquid part of blood, which accounts for 55 percent of its total volume. Hospitals use it in transfusions. Pharmaceutical companies use it to make lifesaving drugs. It’s important. People with autoimmune diseases rely on it. Burn victims survive because of it.

About twice a week, I’ll receive a text reminding me to donate. (A recent Easter text: Do somebunny some good! Donate life-saving plasma and get extra funds you can use to fill those Easter baskets! Schedule today.) These texts are cheerful and frequently desperate. The demand for plasma outpaces the supply.

Two-thirds of the world’s plasma comes from the United States, one of the only countries that allows for paid donations. The U.S. also has some of the most relaxed laws around how often you can donate. Plasma is supplied by paid and unpaid donors, but the majority are paid. And of course, if you are a paid donor and you do the math, you can tell you’re being exploited. You’re paid about $50 for one donation (slightly more if you’re donating during a promotional period) of a substance used to make medications that cost thousands of dollars a dose. The plasma market is worth billions of dollars. Higher compensation to ‘donors’ is nothing compared with that.

‘You shouldn’t have to do that,’ people often say to me when I tell them where a portion of my income comes from. ‘It’s gross.’

But then I think of other things I’ve done for money, other people I’ve worked for. A restaurant where a manager would say ‘I like seeing you on your knees’ each time he made me scrub the floor by hand. An artist who offered me $14 an hour to be her assistant, then forgot to pay me when I invoiced. A startup funded partially by a donor to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. All of these places where I did a lot more for a lot less, where I found myself physically ill over who my boss was, what my labor meant.

Of course you should be paid more to donate your plasma. Of course you’re getting the bad end of the deal. But isn’t that true of a lot of jobs?

One day, on my way to my regular appointment, I got stuck in traffic, arriving nine minutes late and finding myself locked out of the kiosk where returning donors answer screening questions (have you been arrested since your last appointment, have you exchanged sex for money, etc.). Thirty-five years old, with no career to speak of, in a marriage that felt as if it was failing, and now I couldn’t even do this.

I explained the situation to the woman at the front desk. She had graying blond hair and wore a face shield and she was kind. She called a supervisor, who was also very kind, and they overrode the lock screen on the kiosk and I was able to answer the questions. After that, I waited in line to get my finger pricked, my temperature taken, my arms checked. The girl who took the blood sample told me she liked my dress. ‘It’s OK,’ they all said when I apologized for being late, for being flustered.

Their kindness that day—their kindness every day—surprised me. I guess I’d expected to be treated like shit.

In the line, there were people in casino uniforms. There was a teacher. There was a man who greeted every nurse, every technician, by name. There were people doing it for money, people doing it to be nice, people doing it for both reasons. We carried books, headphones, tablets, blankets. All of us in our sweatpants and our sweatshirts, dressed as if we were waiting for a red-eye flight that would take us somewhere beautiful.

In our chairs, we relaxed, staring off dreamily. The woman directly across from me had a fleece blanket draped over her. I opened a book.

The technicians came to check on us periodically, whispering, ‘Doing OK?’ For the first time in years, I got the sense there was someone in charge who cared about me, who was looking over me. It was not perfect, but it was more tender than the world outside.

‘Breathe out,’ the technician said when she put in the needle. ‘I think that always helps.’

It didn’t hurt.


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