Matthew Byers, senior editor
If you’ve ever been to a Greyhound station, you have an idea of what it’s like in the waiting room at the Plasma Biological Service (PBS) donation center. The hard plastic chairs, the vending machines, the amount of blood you’re liable to see – all identical (kidding about the blood). But mostly it’s the people who are the same crowd you might come across using inefficient cross-country transportation. That is, the thrifty and the humble of all ages and races.
There’s a sign in the waiting room thanking donors for taking time out of their busy schedules to donate their blood plasma, but the word “donate” is a little misleading. These people come to the donation center, located at 167 Merrimon Ave., not because they necessarily care about the medicines derived from plasma that help treat conditions such as hemophilia, burns, and immunodeficiency disorders, but because they want some quick cash.
I’ll back up a little. Plasma is the liquid component of blood and contains over 150 types of proteins from which medicines can be derived. The process of extracting plasma, known as plasmapheresis, is simple and safe. A needle is inserted into a donor’s arm, and a whirring automated plastic machine separates his or her whole blood from plasma, and then returns the red blood cells to the donor’s body. This takes about an hour, in which donors can watch cable (“Tommy Boy” was on the other day), read a book, or listen to the phlebotomists gossip about their boss.
Plasma is 90 percent water and is replenished in the body every 48 hours. Donors can give twice a week.
And the paycheck? $60 for two donations a week. Cash.
So I thought, me too. I’m not squeamish about blood, and with the economy how it is, why the hell not?
Some people, I guess, are adverse to the idea of selling their bodily fluids. There’s a stereotype that only drug addicts and the truly desperate need to sell their plasma. While I can’t speak for all the other donors, many of them are parents, students, or hardworking people just looking to supplement their income. And after all, there’s nothing demeaning or unethical about helping those in need.
Or so I thought, but this is no Red Cross blood drive. Plasma collection is big business in the United States. The Interstate Bloodbank, the parent company of PBS, is a for-profit corporation. The plasma collected is sold to pharmaceutical companies who in turn sell their drugs to hospitals who supply it only to patients with insurance or loads of money. In addition, because many other countries do not pay plasma donors, the United States has become the world’s plasma supplier. Also, there are certain cosmetic uses of plasma that have nothing to do with medicine.
Scary stuff. But then again, extracting plasma is a more time-intensive process than giving whole blood (as you would at a blood drive), and plasma is needed in greater quantities, making it extremely difficult if not impossible to meet demand if donors are not compensated. And although our medical system is privatized, that fact does not alter the need for treatments for tetnus and rabies.
Another interesting fact is that the Red Cross sells the blood and plasma it collects to hospitals too. Money is being exchanged one way or another, so I don’t see a problem with being on the receiving end every once in awhile.
As for the cosmetic uses of plasma, Brian Zick, an assistant manager at PBS, denied it.
“That’s completely untrue,” Zick said. “Plasma goes into injectable products. It goes directly from the donor’s veins right into someone elses veins.”
So, that’s good news. No real ethical dilemmas. $60 a week. Cute phlebotomists. Great people watching. I’d recommend it.
If you’re interested, remember to bring a social security card and a picture ID and set aside about five hours for your first visit. Subsequent visits will generally take between 2-3 hours.
Needless to say, if you’re squeamish about needles or blood, you will most likely find the process is not worth it, though probably still more enjoyable than a Greyhound.