You are a walking plasma factory

Reclining in a chair with my feet up and my head back, I stare up at the shielded fluorescent lights, disinterestedly catching bits of forced dialogue and cheesy acting from some unknown 1980s movie playing on the television in the background. I rhythmically squeeze my hand, watching the blood pump away from my arm into a tube. Multitudes of people in chairs just like mine line both walls as the blood freely flows.
No, I’m not at a blood drive. I’m at Aventis Bio-Services, donating plasma. After you finish gasping with horror and disgust, let me explain a few things.
A lot of people I’ve met tend to attach some kind of stigma to plasma donation. Either they pity me for being so poor that I am forced to whore out my body, they recoil from me in fear that I’ve already caught AIDS or hepatitis B, or they stand in awe of my superhuman fortitude for withstanding what must be excruciating agony twice a week.
While I don’t mind being revered for having a presumably high pain threshold, let me inform you that none of these urban legends are true (except, perhaps, the part about my being poor). No doubt many of you have at least passed by the Aventis building a few times, perhaps even entertaining the idea of bravely entering that chillingly sterile environment some day. But so many myths and misconceptions circulate about plasma donation that many people are understandably freaked out by others’ fears without ever learning the facts for themselves.
I began donating plasma when I was a freshman. Somehow, I ran across an advertisement for what was then called Centeon Bio-Services and resolved to stop in to learn more. Although I first feared this was a coverup for some governmental conspiracy, testing drugs on the innocent populace — I suspect I might have been too attached to the X-files in those days — I became convinced otherwise after learning more about plasma and how it’s constantly replenished by the body.
Plasma, the watery portion of whole blood, is composed of 90 percent water and 10 percent enzymes, hormones, salts, sugars, amino acids and some dissolved gases. Because water is the main component, the body needs only 24 to 48 hours to easily replace both the plasma and its proteins, which is why people may donate up to twice a week.
After learning there were few, if any, health risks involved, that I could discontinue donating whenever I wanted and for my first four donations I would be handsomely compensated, I began the surprisingly rigorous screening process.
Contrary to popular belief, you needn’t worry about brushing elbows with a flea-bitten homeless person or a wild-eyed drug user. To donate plasma, you must live at a verifiable address and present a valid picture ID card. You’re not allowed to donate within a year of receiving a tattoo or a body piercing (ear piercings are allowed earlier under special conditions), you cannot have any genital piercings, and you must weigh at least 110 pounds. Obviously, you need to have eaten and drunk adequate food and water as well.
You receive a thorough medical history exam during your initial visit, and for each subsequent visit your finger is pricked for a blood sample, and your temperature, weight, respiration, hemoglobin count and blood pressure are all taken. If you fail to meet any of these requirements — even if your temperature is only two degrees below normal — you are turned away from donating.
During the screening process, you also must answer certain questions regarding your sexual and drug history. Admittedly, some of these questions border on the preposterous, and I doubt whether the screeners have ever had a donor answer yes to any of them.
“Have you ever given money or drugs in return for sex? Have you ever received money or drugs in return for sex?” As if anyone would voluntarily respond, “Oh, all the time! In fact, that’s my second part-time job!” I don’t think so.
After answering all their questions, you proceed to the actual donating process. The staff members assign you to a reclining chair, where you rest until the phlebotomist comes to insert the needle in your arm. This is probably the most suspenseful moment of the entire process for a first-time donor.
The sweat starts to bead on your brow as your heart beats a bruise on the inside of your chest. You lie there in anticipation, trying to distract yourself by watching the movie on the monitor.
Finally, the attendant comes, cleans your inner elbow with a stick of iodine and unwraps a brand new needle and a conglomeration of tubing that will somehow extend your circulatory system to the autopheresis machine — the machine that separates your blood components, eventually returning everything to your body but the plasma. As a side note, all materials that will be in contact with your blood are completely new and unwrapped for each and every donor. No risk of infectious diseases is ever involved.
If you’re brave, you watch as the skilled phlebotomist quickly and cleanly sticks your vein with a needle and gently tapes down the tubing to your arm. If you’re queasy and prone to nervousness, you don’t have to watch the merging of flesh with metal, even though I personally find it very cool.
Whew. It’s over before you can hold your breath, and, surprisingly, you realize the finger prick for your blood sample was more painful than the actual arm stick. All your tension and inner anxiety were wasted. How disappointing.
As you lie in the chair with your blood circulating into the machine, its plasma being taken out and the cells and platelets returned, you begin feeling almost part android. You are no longer wholly human; your blood, the essence of life, is exiting your body, and instead of nourishing your organs, it is feeding a machine. You watch as your plasma slowly drips into a bottle, its color ranging from a dingy yellowish brown to a grapefruit pinkish orange.
After you’ve given your share of plasma, a saline solution is finally added to prevent dehydration, and you’re released back into the world of the non-plasma donors.
Through the entire donating process, staff members escort you through the procedure — all you really need to do is show up. Since your job is so easy, why not make life a little easier for the hard-working employees? Sometimes they deal with hundreds of visitors per day; the least you can do is act politely and pleasantly. And they don’t bite, either. Granted, they do have needles in their hands, but if you attempt a friendly conversation, most people will probably smile and respond.
While plasma donation is never as altruistically perceived as the more highly promoted blood drive, you are, nevertheless, providing an invaluable human product that science is still incapable of creating synthetically. Plasma is used to treat patients with hemophilia, individuals who can’t produce antibodies of their own, and burn victims, who require large amounts of fluid for rehydration but cannot be given whole blood products. Considering how many people shy away from the idea of selling their body parts or are naturally excluded by the screening process, plasma is almost constantly in demand. In fact, 600 plasma donations are needed just to help one child with hemophilia.
Obviously, though, the monetary aspect cannot be ignored. For less than three hours of sitting in a waiting room, lying on a couch and watching television, you earn a minimum of $39 a week for merely sharing a truly natural and renewable resource. I can’t rationally argue against leaving work for a few hours twice a week to earn even more money doing nothing. I admit it — I’m a thrifty student looking to make an extra buck any way I can. Plus, I know I’m not alone! Aventis officials estimate that, of their donor pool of about 7,800 people, at least 25 percent of them are students.
So don’t feel embarrassed; join the rest of us and at least try donating plasma. Whether to help others or just your pocketbook, it’s worth your while. And if you see me there, feel free to say hi. Just don’t wave with the needle in your arm.
Samantha Pace’s column appears on alternate Fridays. She welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editors to [email protected]