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One of the Most Hilarious Sh*t Poor Stories of My Youth, and the Fascinating Process Involved in Plasma Donation

By Dustin Rowles | Pajiba Love | February 6, 2014 | Comments ()


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In writing about some of my experiences growing up in poverty in my Shameless review the other day, I spoke of donating plasma two or three times a week to earn extra money. When the post was picked up by Reddit, there were several comments doubting the veracity of my account based on their belief that you could only give plasma 13 times a year, according to the American Red Cross.

The confusion lies in the difference between donating blood and the liquid portion of blood, which is the plasma. It’s that liquid that carries around all the good stuff in blood, and the plasma itself is typically used to treat burn victims. During the two-to-three year period in which I was donating plasma, you could donate I believe five times within a two week period (it had to be two days between each visit), and for every third donation, you received a bonus of $5 or $10, and the amount of the payment depended on your weight.

You’re not allowed to give until you’re 18. My birthday is in November, so in order to get an 11 month jump on plasma donations, I created a terrible fake ID. I simply took my driver’s license and some white-out, blotted out a digit on it to change my birthday from 11/15 to 1/15, made a photocopy, and used the photocopy as my ID, saying that I’d lost the hard copy (plasma donation centers were clearly lax in who they accepted; as long as you weren’t an IV drug user or had AIDs (which they did test for), it was not a difficult process manipulate).

For a kid with a strong stomach, and no squeamishness around needles, it’s actually one of the best first jobs you can get. Consider that, 20 years ago, I could earn $75 a week for about four hours of “work,” when to earn the same amount at a fast-food restaurant, or in a retail store, or waiting tables, it might take 10 to 12 hours to earn $75. Plus, the hours are flexible, they don’t have to interfere with your school work (in fact, you can read during the donation), and you’re actually helping others out. It’s a win all around, except for the fact that — after six months of donating plasma — you’re left with some nasty track marks that make you look like a heroin junkie.

The process itself is not particularly pleasant, either. You’re put into a room full of reclining chairs with similarly destitute people, where a nurse comes around and sticks a needle in your arm. The needle used for plasma donations is much larger than those used for blood donations, and it’s kept in your arm for about 45 minutes to an hour. The process involves pumping the blood out of your body and into a machine which separates the blood from the plasma. Then, the sludgier portion of the blood is pumped back into your body. After a pint (or a quart? I don’t remember) of liquid is removed, they pump saline solution back into your body. That was the only part I strongly disliked about the process. The saline was cold, it left a metallic taste in your mouth, and it made me queasy. But honestly, it was a small price to pay for a $25 to $30 check at the end of the visit.

Like I said, however, you meet a lot of interesting characters in a plasma donation center. Typically, I kept my head down, but it was easy to eavesdrop on other conversations, and there’s one in particular that I will never forget.

I was sitting across from two guys who looked like they’d seen better times. They were strangers to one another, but at some point, they struck up a lively conversation. As they continued their talk, they realized that they had a lot of things in common, and that they knew some of the same people. The conversation went something like this (and because I didn’t know their names, I’ll make them up):

Ralph: “So you live over there on Roosevelt Road?”

Henry: “Yeah, it’s a rough neighborhood.”

Ralph: “I know some people in that neighborhood, spent quite a bit of time there, lost some good friends from over there.”

Henry: “Oh yeah? Who do you know?

Ralph: “Gotta friend named Mike Anderson out there.”

Henry: “Uh huh. Yeah, I know Mike Anderson. You know his cousin, Shorty?”

Ralph: “Oh, I know Shorty.! Shorty’s a funny guy.”

Henry: “Yup. What about Yolanda Jackson?”

Ralph: “Yolanda? Yeah, I know Yolanda. You know Yolanda?”

Henry: “Oh yeah, Yolanda and me go way back. I gotta kid with Yolanda?

Ralph: “NO WAY! I gotta kid with Yolanda, too! THAT’S AWESOME.”

*high fives* *laughs*

Henry: “Small world, ain’t it?”

Ralph: “Oh, it sure is.”

[End Scene.]




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  • psykins

    I've never donated blood or plasma (although I did consider it when I was really poor, but the place seemed way sketchy and not at all like the kind of place I'd like to be in when getting poked with a needle). It is REALLY hard for nurses to find my veins - these days, I just tell them to go straight for my hand because it's been years since they've been able to find a suitable vein in my arm. Last time they barely got enough blood out for a whole vial, so I don't think sitting there for several hours is going to happen...

  • Haystacks

    You are not allowed to donate blood in California if you have gotten a tattoo in the last 7 years or are gay. This eliminates a lot of San Francisco, where I live. That this is still the case in 2014 is seriously depressing.

  • e jerry powell

    ME HATE NEEDLES.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    Now I'm trying to remember if it was plasma or platelets that I donated. For some reason, I think it must have been platelets because I don't remember the cold sensation. If anything, the stuff going back in was warm, warmer than I was. Paid pretty well either way.

  • Frankc

    I did this in between pay periods, as a Private in the Army for beer money. Talk about getting drunk cheap. I was given an extra $10 for every referral. It looked like basic training in there at times !

  • selucius

    Damn, I was getting screwed. My plasma donation years range from 1991 - 1995. The pay varied depending on how often you went during a two-week schedule... first one was $10, second one was $15, and the third was $10. If your fourth donation was within two weeks of the first, then you'd hit the big payday... $25. Two weeks and one day... $10.

    If you happened to try and donate the day after a night of heavy drinking, then get ready to sit in that chair for 2-3 more cycles longer to wring out whatever little moisture was left in those dehydrated veins.

  • pajiba

    Those days were the WORST.

  • Genevieve Burgess

    My dad sold plasma to earn money while he was in college instead of asking his parents for money. Then, because he didn't have a car and didn't want to spend his new plasma money on bus fare, he'd walk a few miles in the New Mexico sun back to his apartment. Stubbornness is not a virtue.

    I donate blood pretty regularly and for a while they were bugging me to donate plasma, because my blood type is more useful as plasma than as whole blood. I am... delicately built and asked if that would be a problem. They assured me it wouldn't be. My vein failed on the second return cycle. I got these really weird stripey bruises up and down my arm and it hurt like a bitch for about a day. I'm actually rubbing my arm now remembering. Buh. Props to you people who can manage it.

  • I sold plasma in college to pay bills or buy groceries. I've never forgotten that damned cold saline.

    Or I should say, I hadn't thought about it in a long time. It's been damned cold here, but now I'm remembering what it's like to be cold from the inside, then stepping out into summer heat.

  • J4Sho

    Am I the only one wondering how long it took to dawn on Ralph and Henry that Yolanda only had 1 kid?

  • TacoBellRey

    I wrote for the College newspaper and had to do an article on one of the blood drives. People were surprisingly okay with me awkwardly shouting questions at them while they had a needle in their arm.

  • BWeaves


    Dustin, when is your autobiography coming out? Or the "based on a true story" novel?

  • Uriah_Creep

    Movie! Movie! Movie!

  • I'm a college graduate with a full time job and I donate plasma. Fortunately, that money is usually just my "fun" money and not money that I need to live but sitting in a chair with a needle in my arm a couple of times a week is a pretty easy way to earn some money. Sometimes I need to use plasma money to put gas in my car if things are a little tight and it's two days until pay day but it's not often and I have other ways I could buy that gas.

  • Dumily

    1.) I love everything about this story.
    2.) I distinctly remember donating plasma in college to pay for a drinking ticket when I was unable to pick up additional hours at work.
    3.) We've got the same birthday.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    that is an awesome story, and as someone who passes out just from having blood drawn for tests (not during, but always after) and is otherwise very squeamish/anxious around needles, this is making me pace and experience phantom feels all over my inner elbow. it's like i can feel my blood vessels in there now ahhhhh

  • chanohack

    I've never passed out, but I always feel like I'm going to die. I know, in my brain, that I'm not going to die, that it'll only hurt for a minute, that I'm doing this for medical reasons that make a lot of sense, but the rest of my entire body JUST KNOWS I'm going to die, that this little beige room is the last place I'll ever be, that this nurse who thinks I am wasting his time is the last person I'll ever see, that I'm in mortal danger and no one knows or cares but me.

    It's equal parts horrifying and humiliating. Thank Godtopus I don't need to donate to survive.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    there was one time i was having blood drawn, and it was via a vial with a needle (it looked more like a gouge to me) that the nurse stuck in my arm and it filled by itself. she got distracted, and the vial filled up and started to BACK UP.

    which hurts, needless to say. and i was almost literally like in cartoons when a character sees danger just out of someone's view and can't spit it out. my whole body is squirming except the arm with the needle, and somehow i can't say anything. the nurse finally notices and is like, 'oh sorry my bad" and removes the vial.

    and of course, as i said in my previous post, i take a couple steps out of the door and pass out.

    ahhhhhhh, thanks a lot Dustin

  • Dumily

    AHHHHH! AHHHHHH! AHHHHHHH!

  • Daniel Lewis

    I used to do this also. I believe 3 times a week was allowed. I would listen to podcasts while squeezing a rubber ball.

  • Dean

    Looked into this a while back, but sadly NYC doesn't allow people to get paid for donating. Instead it's just home depot gift cards.

  • JBGrenouille

    I can vouch, I did the same thing. I was allowed to donate twice a week, each time taking 45 minutes. There was a detailed physical when I started, then a quick check-up prior to each donation. They paid $20, and if you came back in the same week, they would pay $30.

  • This reminds me I need to donate platelets. Surprised you get paid for it though. It's all voluntary in the UK.

    It's an almost identical procedure for platelets. Do you get that issue where the blood pressure drops on the switch between return and draw? The pressure drops and the needle vibrates in your arm. It's like mobile phone going off inside your forearm.

  • jptaylorsg

    I have never received a cash payment for platelets, but they typically do have some sort of reward, like a voucher for a movie ticket, which is nice. I would do it anyway, of course. The only part of donating platelets I hate is the lying perfectly still and remnembering not to scratch my nose when it inevitably begins to itch constantly 5 minutes into the 2-hour procedure.
    Also, when I give platelets, they pierce both my arms and do the return just about concurrently, so no blood pressure issue.

  • Mrs. Julien

    You can't get paid for it in Canada either.

  • competitivenonfiction

    Yeah, my understanding is that you can't sell bodily fluids or parts here, though they're looking at changing some of the legislation to better account for egg donation. It makes things like being a surrogate weird. I think you pay for the person's time somehow?

  • grr arrgh

    They keep doing blood drives at my school. Don't think you get paid, but last time they were giving out t-shirts if you donated. I'd love to know if it said "I donated blood and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" .

  • Mrs. Julien

    When I was a university (Go Marauders!) there was a guy they paid to dress up as "Buddy Blooddrop" and walk around encouraging people to donate. We decided his girlfriend should be Paula Platelet.

  • grr arrgh

    LOL. Good lord. Did that look as weird and disturbing as I'm picturing it did?

  • Mrs. Julien

    It certainly got our attention. I remember going to give blood with a friend and saying to him, "Well, Derek, you finally go me prone."

  • grr arrgh

    My school just sends out a couple emails before a drive. This time the Computer Club sent out an email of why you should donate which included "They'll give you free cookies and juice" and "No one can ask you to lift things afterwards." Why the Computer Club sent the email I've yet to figure out.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    But they give you cookies. COOKIES.

  • Mrs. Julien

    They won't give me anything. Nobody wants my luscious O- as I have a non-communicable medical condition.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    Can you still give to science? I used to do that when I was under the "possible mad cow" restrictions.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Is that a thing?

  • Lauren_Lauren

    Yes! I did it at the university. They use your "bad" blood for testing, so "good" blood doesn't have to be wasted and can go to people. I'm sure there's a list of who can and cannot be accepted - if what you have would affect testing, obviously you can't donate. Look into it! GET DEM COOKIES.

  • Oh they bring food and drink to my bedside. I'm there for almost an hour and a half.

    Mostly do it for the buzz and the possibility of talking about it to women in the pub after. Shame more women don't donate platelets. Almost 90 percent old, fat blokes.

  • seaturtles

    I did this all through college. I joke that it was my beer money but really I was a poor kid paying for college myself and it was my everything money. I did it before they had the little centrifuge machines that sat beside you. They would take the blood out - tape a picture of me to the bags - take the bags back to the centrifuge and then come back with my red blood cells. I would have to verify the picture and then they would put them back it me. It was fairly bizarre but it gave me some cash at a time I really needed it.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    blurgh. that flips my stomach. The creepiest thing about giving blood to me was always feeling how warm the tube is on my arm, so I can't imagine there being warm little bags of the stuff going back in. Or maybe worse, cold bags.

  • abell

    Whenever I've had it done, the saline they add back is cold. Not my favorite feeling.

  • pajiba

    That is INSANE. Woah!

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