Bleeding for dollars

Grifols Biomat USA is at 270 E. Sixth St. in Reno. More information is available at

I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.

—Hermann Hesse

A worker wraps a wide rubber band around my upper arm. I make a fist. She pats my inner arm, finding a fat juicy vein. She checks a vein-approval slip. I’m in.

I’ve already passed the more important test—paperwork. To sell blood plasma at Grifols Biomat USA, 270 E. Sixth St. in Reno, you need photo ID, Social Security or visa border crossing card and proof of address. A staffer checks my address against a list of Reno hotels, motels and homeless shelters. If I lived in any of those places, Biomat doesn’t want my plasma.

For Northern Nevadans with approved addresses, though, selling plasma regularly helps pay the bills. The knowledge that something of value to society pulses through every human (who isn’t homeless) comforts me. Unlike whole blood donations, a donor can sell plasma—the liquid part of blood—twice per week. New clients make $30 for the first donation, $40 for the second. Regulars donating twice a week receive $25, then $35, respectively.

Jennifer Meadows, 42, and her husband, Craig Meadows, 58, are electricians by trade. Together they make $480 monthly selling plasma. Jennifer, born at St. Mary’s and raised in Carson City, two years ago lost her job at Leviton Manufacturing, a wholesale manufacturer of wiring supplies. Craig’s been unemployed for three years.

Unemployment ran out long ago. The Meadows sell plasma twice a week, do odd jobs and salvage scrap metal. Today, they say they sold an aluminum ladder and some steel pipe for $20.

The frugal couple, married 23 years, owns their home on the outskirts of Reno.

“If we had to pay rent or a mortgage, we’d be in big trouble,” Jennifer says. “I pay car insurance, gas, electric and phone, when I can afford phone.”

Jennifer, it turns out, won’t be selling blood today. She didn’t pass a test that checks protein and cholesterol levels in her blood. She’s also getting a cold.

Craig brought an algebra textbook to read. I’m carrying Aldous Huxley’s Time Must Have a Stop, so we talk about Huxley’s Brave New World and debate Hermann Hesse’s best work. Steppenwolf fascinates me, but Craig’s vote goes to The Last Bead Game, Hesse’s magnum opus. Craig seems dismayed that I have not read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

“It describes everything that’s going on in America today,” he says.

One by one, donors are called into a room with rows of reclining chairs. Each spends about an hour, needle in arm, blood extracted into pooling bottles. The liquid portion spins off—plasma used to make medications—and red blood cells are returned via the same needle.

Agustin Garcia, 32, donates, then hangs out in the waiting room. He has an hour to kill. Dressed in a dark jacket and baggy pants, Garcia listens to music through purple earbuds.

Garcia moved to Reno from Modesto, Calif., and lives with his sister. “It’s hard to get a job over here,” says Garcia. He saw a Biomat ad on TV. “It’s easy. All you have to do is sit down and pump your hand.”

Rocky IV plays on a TV screen. In the ring, Sly Stallone sweats. His Russian boxing opponent, played by Dolph Lundgren, looks fake, a chiseled plastic Ken doll. Dizzying news alert: Sharron Angle’s running for Congress in 2012.

I feel anxious, impatient. First-timers can expect to spend four hours at Biomat. I opt to come back later. Craig and Jennifer try to reassure me.

“The first time you feel apprehensive,” Craig says. “But it’s healthy to do this.”