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.”