’Tis the season to make a bit of extra cash by selling blood plasma in Reno
I’m sitting in a reclined blue chair, on the first floor of a nondescript building on Second Street, next to the headquarters of the Reno Police Department. There are 30 chairs in the sterile room, but only about 10 of them are filled. Every chair has a medical-looking machine mounted alongside, with tubes running in and out of it. Technicians in white lab coats and protective glasses walk around pushing carts loaded with garbage cans marked “Caution Hazardous Waste.”
It’s 1 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and there’s a big needle stuck into a vein in the crook of my right arm. Why? Are tests being run? Am I receiving a transfusion? Nope. I’m selling my blood plasma for $15.
It had been about two or three months since I last sold blood plasma at the Biomat USA plasmapheresis center. That time, I had quit yet another job to go on a trip and arrived home broke with rent coming up and no cash. At the plasma center, the phlebotomist accidentally pushed the needle through my vein, causing me to bleed under my skin. Quick cash earned me a sore arm and a painful bruise.
This put me off donating for a while.
Truth be told, “donating” is a bit of a misnomer. When you go to the plasma center, they spin the plasma out and pump your red blood cells back into you. This leaves you dehydrated and weak but not as exhausted as when you donate whole blood. Your plasma is then used in the manufacture of medicines by Grifols, a Spanish pharmaceutical company. The company pays a sum of money per amount of blood collected, based on several factors, such as the cost of running the facility and the prevailing wage in the city. In Reno, they pay $15 for the first donation in a one week period, $20 for the second.
Early afternoon is a good time to sell plasma, as it’s the least busy. I lock up my bike and climb the stairs. Of the dozen people in the waiting room, about half are men, half women. Young couples my age (mid-20s) sit together holding hands alongside others who must be at least 50. The snack and soda machines hum and buzz, and everyone is glued to the television mounted on the wall.
After getting weighed, I sit down in the waiting room. Next to me is Paul Whitney, a donor in his 30s. Whitney says he’s been coming here twice a week for two years, initially because his child was born prematurely, and he wanted to have his plasma screened to see if it was suitable for transfusion to his child.
After the child was out of danger, he continued coming. He remembered how much plasma was needed and felt like helping out. Lately, Whitney’s been coming because he was laid off three weeks ago. The extra cash helps as he waits to begin a new job, working on the downtown trench project.
"[Giving plasma] is only a couple hours a week, no big deal,” he says. “The big needle in my arm doesn’t bother me as much as the little one they use to prick your finger. I’m just glad my blood goes to people who need it.”
Other donors I’ve met have jobs. Washoe County’s unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is the lowest in the region. But having a low-paying job doesn’t always guarantee making ends meet, and those who sell plasma say they need the money they make here each week.
No one really likes selling plasma, but sometimes you have little choice.
After 10 minutes, I’m called into a screening booth where a screener pricks my finger and checks the plasma content of my blood. (I made sure not to drink any alcohol the evening before, just a lot of water.) The screener takes my blood pressure and temperature, and I answer “no” to the rapid-fire list of questions.
“Have you ever participated in any of the at-risk behaviors outlined in the AIDS bulletin we gave you?”
“In the past 12 months have you been incarcerated?”
“Have you or anyone you are in contact with had symptoms of or been diagnosed with the SARS virus?”
“In the past two weeks have you been to mainland China or Hong Kong?”
After about 15 such questions, the screener gives me a plastic bottle that has my name and statistics printed on the side. I walk downstairs, where a technician hands me a plastic bag. Inside is a sterile 16-gauge needle attached to a plastic tube. I eye the needle, not afraid of it but not terribly excited to have it jabbed into my flesh. I’m directed to sit down. As the technician preps the machine, I notice signs on the walls: “No eating or drinking on the donor floor.” The room has a silent and palpable feeling of blood in the air, an electricity, and I gaze at the stark white walls and the tile floor, thinking of all the pints and gallons of blood that have flowed through here.
The technician puts a blood-pressure-style cuff around my arm and fills it with air. After disinfecting the vein in the crook of my arm with iodine, she instructs me to pump my hand and then make a fist. She lifts the needle and taps up the vein. I would like to say I watch as she sticks me, but the truth is I turn away at the last second, right before the metal pierces the skin. I wait a second, teeth clenched, and then exhale and adjust to the uncomfortable feeling.
She has done a good job. The needle doesn’t hurt that much, and I watch as she releases a plastic tube clip. Blood flows swiftly down the tube, and she switches the machine on. I keep my arm stock still while firmly flexing my hand, and the flow increases up the line.
The whole blood is pumped into a centrifuge. After a few minutes, plasma begins to trickle into my bottle. My plasma is a yellow, murky color. Everyone’s plasma has a slightly different shade.
After about eight minutes, the machine beeps, and the centrifuge slows. The red blood cells begin coursing back into my body through the same needle, and I relax my hand. The expressions of the other folks in the room are all similar. Most seem patient, resigned. Those near to filling up a bottle look a little pale, drained.
The pump-and-return cycle repeats a few more times, and my mouth starts to feel parched. The first time I donated, I hadn’t eaten or drunk any fluids. When I walked out the door that time, a headache struck me, and I retreated back inside to gulp water. This time, I am well hydrated and have recently snacked on some high-protein food. Still, as I try to continue reading my book, I can’t concentrate on the story.
About 45 minutes after I began, the machine beeps twice to signal that it has finished the final return. My bottle is nearly full, and I raise my hand. A technician comes over to disconnect me. She places a bandage and a piece of cotton gauze over the entry point. I tense my arm again, using my other hand to hold the gauze in place as she swiftly draws the needle out. It stings as it exits, and I push down hard to stop the flow. Other than a bit of deep red seeping through the cotton, clotting begins quickly. The technician cuts the needle into a hazardous-sharp-objects bag, wipes down the machine and begins prepping it for the next donor. Slowly I stand up, waiting for the head rush and the slight dizziness.
At a counter by the cooler unit where they freeze the blood for shipping, I turn in my bottle, then sign my name and collect my $15.
Heading to the water cooler, I fill my bottle and drink it quickly, twice, before I slowly ride home.