Fluids for Funds: The Process of Donating Plasma

It’s 4 p.m. Friday and you’ve just spent your last dollar. Literally. No more cash to buy a new outfit for the bars, a few Cosmo cocktails, or hell, even a late night trip to Canyon Pizza. You’ve exhausted every option short of stealing from the donation jar at the local supermarket, and your parents have absolutely refused to help. You can hear them now:

“You should have been more careful,” your mother whines on the phone.

“It’s time you learned some responsibility. What are you going to do in the real world?” your father asks impatiently.

It’s hard enough for some college students to pay their tuition fees or housing bills, but add bar tabs and grocery bills and you’ll find it’s near impossible to keep your bottom line in the black. So what can the average college student do to keep ahead of the game without sacrificing too many hours pushing papers behind a desk or slaving over a restaurant stove?

Returning to reality and feeling defeated, you walk home from class and pause at the corner, waiting for the obnoxious white man to light up across the street, giving you permission (as if you needed it; you’re a college student, after all) to cross the road. And that’s when you notice the sign.

Big blue letters beckoning you inside.

Biolife Plasma Services,” it says.

An alarm goes off somewhere in the back of your mind, and you recall a conversation you overhead between friends – friends, who if you remember correctly, were adamant that donating plasma for money was both immoral and unhealthy.

“How could you do it?”

“Is it healthy? What are the risks?”

“Don’t you think its wrong to sell your body?”

“What makes you different from a prostitute?”

But as you stand there watching college students stroll in through the door empty handed and emerge later with $20 more on their debit cards and sporting a hot pink bandage on their arm, you think to yourself: “How bad could it be? I like pink.”

Taking a deep breath, you walk purposefully to the front door and whip it open, almost knocking down another student on his way out. Whoops.

“Maybe I am a little nervous,” you think to yourself.

If only you knew that dozens — if not hundreds — of Penn State students choose to donate plasma, the yellow liquid found in blood used to treat hemophiliacs, immune deficiency disorders, and burn victims. It’s extracted through a needle similar to the one used when donating blood, but the process has one important difference: When donating plasma, you get your blood back. Thousands of dollars worth of equipment pumps your blood out of you, separates the plasma from the blood, and returns the red stuff back to your body.

Because the process is more involved than donating blood, it usually takes an hour, but lucky for you, you’re compensated for the time spent there.

Did we mention you could make almost $200 a month?

Students, who make up between 15 to 60 percent of any given center’s donor base according to Biolife’s official figures, can visit the clinic twice a week so long as they take a day off in between, which adds up pretty quickly.

Walking through the entrance, you’re surprised at what you find…or don’t find for that matter. No drug addicts with heroin scars protruding from their forearms, desperate for money so they can buy their next hit. No dingy, dimly lit rooms with sketchy nurses lurking around, needles in hand. Granted, you are in a college town, so this is a bit extreme. Still, you have to admit you’re slightly surprised to see that the Biolife clinic is extremely well lit, plays host to a few soda and snack machines in the corner, and houses dozens of reclining donation chairs (where you get stuck with the needle) that look tempting enough to fall asleep in.

Smiling faces greet you from behind every desk, and one of the workers, Jesse, beckons you toward him.

“Is this your first time?” he asks you. You nod, meekly.

Jesse runs through a list of questions and asks you for a social security card, proof of a local address, and a picture ID.

After about an hour of medical history questioning, a prick from a small needle to make sure your blood has enough iron and protein, and a weight check, another Biolife worker leads you into the back room and lays you down on the reclining chair.

The plasma technician, Lisa, spends a few minutes explaining the process of when to flex your muscles which will help your blood to flow more efficiently and when to relax. She points over your left shoulder to a vertical meter that flashes three different colored lights, measuring how much blood your arm is pumping out: two red on the bottom, one yellow in the middle and three green at the top.

“You want to keep it in the green,” Lisa says, wearing a facemask held in place by a rainbow-colored string. She encourages you to squeeze the exercise ball in your hand to get the blood flowing. When the lights go out is when you should stop pumping, she says, coming at you with the needle.

“Where do you think that’s going?” you demand as she’s about to insert what looks like a pen inside the crook of your left elbow. One, two, three. And it’s in.

For the next hour, you jealously look around at the experienced donors who were wise enough to bring their homework, their new touch iPod nanos, or their laptops which are connected to Biolife’s Wi-Fi.

Jeffrey Farkas, a Penn State senior majoring in computer science and an avid blood donor, tells you donating plasma is not really about the money.

“My dad said ‘I’ll give you the money if you need it,’” said Farkas, who adds he would still donate plasma even if he weren’t paid. “And I might not know my direct impact, but it’s nice to know it’s being used for medical research and put to good use.”

After more than 40 minutes, another technician comes back over to check on you.

“Is it time yet?” you ask, secretly hoping it is, because truth be told, it isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world having a needle stuck in your arm for almost an hour. She smiles knowingly and starts fiddling with the tubes and plastic cases (which, by the way, are all new and sterile, as well as disposed of after each use).

“We just need to add the saline wash now,” she responds.

Since 57 percent of blood is made up of plasma, and plasma is almost all water, Biolife restores the loss of liquid by injecting a saline solution into your body.

“Whoa. What is that?” you think, as a cool, stinging sensation rushes up your arm. It’s a combination of the refreshing, tingling menthal feeling that Burt’s Bees Wax gives your lips (only this time its in your arm) and the feeling that your arm is waking up after laying on it for too long, causing it to go to sleep.

The technician finally comes back over and removes the needle, dressing your arm in one of those cool hot pink bandages. Jumping out of the chair, you collect your new debit card (all compensation is loaded onto it and can be extracted from local ATMs) and exit the building, showing off your bandage as if it’s a badge of honor earned in a foreign war.

When you return home a few minutes later, you call your mom and a few friends to share with them what you just did. They. Are. Horrified.

Fortunately, you waited a few minutes to call them until after you researched more about donating plasma, and now you have some answers to fire back at them.

“First off,” you begin. “What is the big deal? Donating blood saves lives. Donating plasma saves lives. The only reason you don’t think it’s okay is because money is involved. The only reason they pay me is because it takes so much more time to do it.”

The manager at the center, a Mr. Benjamin Lentz, explained this to you when you were there, saying he’s not naïve enough to think people will come donate several hours of their week to give plasma to those in need. They therefore offer an incentive to keep people coming back.

“Did you know more than one million people worldwide receive plasma therapeutics every year? And that there is no equal substitute, no equal artificial substance, for human plasma?”

Before you hang up the phone, you challenge them to donate plasma too.

And then you go spend your $20 on beer.

So what do you think? Would you donate plasma? Why or why not?

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About the Author

Becky Perlow

Becky is a feature writer for Onward State. Currently on her victory lap (read: fifth-year senior), she studies both journalism and hotel/restaurant management at Penn State. She hails from Charm City, Maryland, and as a rabid Ravens fan, she isn't afraid to insult the Steelers QB ("No means no!"). She also loves to travel -- she's been to 26 countries and counting!

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