Blood Money

This is something you must remember: Giving plasma is a good thing. It helps people. If you are thinking of doing it, by all means, go ahead. Do not allow yourself to be dissuaded by anything that you might read in the following story, which does not stray from fact, but is designed for sheer entertainment.

I knew Reg and Chad to be smiling, jovial fellows of gainful employment: burrito maker and furniture mover, respectively. Every now and then, we'd get together to drink beer and chat about our common interests: haunted brothels, Merle Haggard, scrimshaw, the death of Herve Villechaize--pretty specific stuff.

So how we got on the topic of donating plasma, I don't remember, but we did. Maybe everybody out there has donated; maybe all of you have tasted the needle and walked out with the cash; maybe I'm just another sheltered pantywaist. But when I've needed extra dollars, I've always thought of other means--washing cars, mowing lawns, selling Grit--rather than giving up a precious bodily fluid.

Not so with these boys. Scoffing at my surprise, they both claimed to have given plasma some 30 times each. Frequently together, twice weekly, tag-team fashion, for beer and food money.

Now, for those of you who slept along with me through health and science classes, here's a heads-up on plasma from Your Blood and Its Cargo by Sigmund Kalina:

"The liquid part of your blood is known as plasma, which is mostly water. The blood plasma has many important jobs. . . . Just as sugar dissolves in milk, all the foods you eat--peanut butter and jelly, pizza, juicy hamburgers, ice cream--are digested into tiny molecules that dissolve in the blood plasma, which swiftly hustles this cargo of food elements to all the body cells. The moving plasma must unload its cargo of unwanted waste molecules without losing all the life-giving molecules."

Back to Reg and Chad. Knowing full well that "charity" is not either of their middle names, why, I asked, would they want to give up something that removes the waste molecules from all the juicy hamburgers and peanut butter they eat? They revealed the answer, and so much more.

Reg: I did it first when I was living in the dorms at ASU. I had no cash, no job, I had just burned my foot working at Ozzie's Warehouse and I was on workman's comp--which is nothing--and I had a hangover. So I went down there to the plasma center with a friend of mine.

Chad: Always a friend gets you in. It's like drugs.
Reg: You walk in and it's just the dregs of humanity, but you're there so you know you're one of the dregs also. Then there's the slacker college students, the middle-aged people and the really old senior citizens, who make you start to feel bad. Then there's the street bums.

Reg: Your first time it takes like four hours. They have horrible movies playing. You get to write down what you want to see, but nobody there is going to write down Cinema Paradiso or anything like that. I got to see Universal Soldier with Dolph Lundgren about 1,000 times.

Chad: And we saw Far and Away a lot of times too, but Universal Soldier was good because the action gets you all psyched to pump your blood out. (Makes excited pumping motion with hand to demonstrate process.)

Reg: So you sit down and wait for 45 minutes, then they call your name and you go to a little booth and they pinprick your finger, which is the worst part of the whole thing. For some reason, that hurts. And I have no idea what they check with that, maybe your pain threshold. "Can you take this? You're in."

Then they ask you a quick succession of questions--have you ever slept with a man? Taken intravenous drugs? Taken money for sex? And they do it so fast, it's like an auctioneer. Eventually you get it memorized. So you sit down again with your little Band-Aid on your finger, waiting to get hooked up to the machine and give plasma, and everybody next to you has a Band-Aid on their finger. But you don't look at anybody. You don't make eye contact. Everybody's like, "I'm not really here. This is my first and only time." It's best to just sit and watch the movie.

Chad: I passed out once 'cause I was a big Taoist at the time. I felt like, I'm going to be the best Taoist of all time, I'm going to eat melon for breakfast and fast for 24 hours here and there, and give myself colonic irrigations and the whole thing.

So this one time I ate all this cantaloupe for breakfast, then I went there and I had to wait forever. They said, "Did you eat breakfast?" And I'm like, "Sure I ate! I'm a Taoist, I ate cantaloupe for breakfast."

They say, "Okay, pump away." Of course, the movie choice was Far and Away, one of the most boring, slowest, stupidest movies of all time, so it took me forever to pump the stuff out. It's with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and he's an Irish immigrant and he boxes his way across the Midwest. At the end, he hits his head on a rock and dies. It's like three hours long.

I spent the whole fuckin' movie trying to pump out a pint of my plasma, and every time the nurse passed by I'm begging for another Gatorade shot because by now my melon was long gone. I knew I was going to pass out. I knew this was the day, I could feel it. They give you your plasma to carry up to the counter when you're done, and I knew I was a dead man so I wanted to get my cash and get out of there so I could go pass out in my car.

The lady says, "Oh, my cash drawer's empty, I've got to go back to the vault." I'm just hanging on to the counter, breaking out in this cold sweat, with a stomachache, feeling like I'm going to shit myself. Kind of an ecstasy/trauma thing--"Oh boy, this is good, but real bad."

Meanwhile, this woman comes up next to me, and she's in her late 40s, early 50s, and I'm thinking, "Oh, that's sad." And all of a sudden she just hits the floor, passes out, drops her bag and everything.

Now I'm holding on for dear life, and everybody comes over to help her and I'm thinking, "I guess I gotta try and help them help her." So I try to help pick her up, and I'm so limp, and the minute we get her in this chair I'm like, "Here we go." Everything was getting black and I remember saying, "I'm next," and I totally hit the floor.

Reg: Giving plasma, it's like being in a club; you know you've sunk as low as you can, but you can always come back. I've got a place where I belong! And you can justify it--I gave plasma! I saved lives, you son of a bitch--I'm a hero! But trust me, doing it is way different than hearing about it.

So I decided I'd better do it.
On a crisp Saturday morning, I arrive at the already-bustling Norman Biomedical Center--which is in a strip mall behind Kinko's in Tempe--write my name on the "New Donor" list and wait. I sit with folks who appear to be college students, college professors, young couples, retirees, the heavily tattooed and those who carry bedrolls (and not deodorant). What is the motivation for us to be here? Without being too presumptuous, I'd guess money. We all watch that Mel Gibson movie where half of his face has melted. We all seem to be into it.

But the place isn't bad, and when I get called up to sign some more papers and have a mug shot taken for the records, the lady is real friendly. Even the notorious finger prick--to test total protein and hematocrit--is virtually painless.

There is an old guy on the list before me. They call his name, but turn him down because he is over 69. He is miffed and walks out muttering, shoving his wallet into his lime-green polyester pants. It must be quite depressing when you reach the point where even your plasma is old and in the way.

Before I see couch and needle, I have to do things. Read and sign consent forms, take an HIV test, pee in a cup, answer questions, get my knees hit with a hammer. I pass all of this, then wait some more. They've got posters on the walls of Keane-eyed little kids, thanking me for saving their lives. People are chatting; regulars trade quips with the staff. Nobody is passing out. But of course, over beers, this sort of scenario doesn't make for enthralling storytelling.

And then I'm on the couch. They choose my left arm, swab me down with iodine, stick the thing in; I see dark-red blood course through a tube. I am immediately aroused.

Not really. I clench and unclench my fist and keep watching scarred-up Mel as the plasmapheresis machine begins its magical job of separating plasma from red blood cells and pumping the latter back into my veins.

On one side of me, there is a college-looking guy reading a manual on paramedic-lifesaving techniques; on the other side is a man clutching a lighter and unlit cigarette; and directly across there is a fellow with a Brian Jones haircut, who looks to be about my age, cradling a large teddy bear. The Mel Gibson thing ends and a movie called Mo' Money begins. I take out my copy of Netfa Enzig's excellent I Was Kidnaped by Idi Amin and settle back, pumping.

And that's it.
In about an hour, I've filled my bag with 850 milliliters of plasma the shade of washed-out Strega, and I still feel spry and chipper. No bad taste in my mouth, no dizziness. A lady in white removes my needle and wraps up the little hole in the crook of my elbow while telling me that I can donate no more than twice in any seven-day period, when my next day can be and how much I will get paid. I guess they expect you'll be coming back.

As I pocket the money, it begins to dawn on me that beyond the 25 bucks I made, beyond a couple free movies, beyond even the 40 column inches I'll milk from this experience, my plasma is going to do some good. Reg and Chad be damned. I walk out the door with my head held proud. I saved lives, you son of a bitch--I'm a hero!

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