Blood Runner

This center is different from the others. It’s a lot larger. Two of the other centers could probably fit into this one. There is always a line here, which I hate. When I am finished at this center I will not be coming back. But I’m here now so I may as well just stay and get it over with. The people who come to this center look the same as at the other centers - lots of tattoos, low class, maybe a little desperate. I have yet to see someone wearing a business suit or even business casual attire - lots of sweat pants, jeans, ball caps. But I shouldn’t judge. I always show up in yoga pants and a t-shirt, un-showered, hair a curly mess, and I am here for the exact same reason as everyone else. 

The walls are a Dijon mustard yellow, one of the grossest, most unflattering colors on the spectrum. They should at least paint the walls a nice shade of green or a soothing blue, but “baby diarrhea yellow” as my brother would call it, makes for a most unflattering, depressing hue. What we are doing here is unpleasant enough. It would be nice to be surrounded by colors and decor a little more welcoming. The technicians here look the same as at the other centers - white lab coats, face shields, and masks. I wonder if they had to wear all this garbage before COVID. Everything is busier and more tedious here. There is a line to check in at the front desk, a line to see a technician, then another line to enter whichever colored section I am assigned. People are walking hither and tither and everyone seems rushed. One aspect I do like about this place is that I am allowed to sit wherever I want and don't have to wait for a technician to seat me like at the other centers. I have been going right lately. I have had bad experiences going left in the past.

Since I started, I have acquired some tricks of the trade. One of the most important is to be well hydrated, like, really well hydrated. It makes the process go by much faster. My record time is thirty-two minutes, but I want to get down to twenty-six, which is the absolute fastest I could go based on the machine, my weight, and my vitals. Trying to beat my own record makes this routine a little more interesting. It once took me seventy-five minutes to complete a full cycle. I thought I was going to pee my pants and once you start you can’t stop unless something goes awry or you feel so unwell that you request to halt the process. To be fair, I was hungover and neglected to stop and buy a Gatorade along the way. I should have known better than to participate that day. But at that particular center, if you miss a day, your compensation decreases by quite a bit. I have thus learned to not imbibe the night before.

This isn’t considered a real job, however, I do get paid for it so I suppose you could call me a professional. I once asked a technician how much my product sells for. She told me three thousand to four thousand dollars per portion. Compared to the compensation, this is outrageous considering I am indirectly saving people’s lives while concurrently amassing tiny bits of scar tissue.

I had never considered this a way to make supplemental money. I had heard of it, of course, but I knew nothing about it until an acquaintance told me she was able to make enough extra money with which to buy a car - a used car, but still, that’s a lot of scratch for not doing a whole lot aside from lying on a chaise lounge playing on your phone while a machine sucks human juice out of you.

When I first started donating plasma, I didn’t do much research. I chose the center closest to me that seemed to pay a good rate even though I had no idea what to compare the rate to. At all the donation centers I have been to, new donors get a special promotional rate, which is usually very good, between eighty and (the best I’ve ever seen) one-hundred and seventy-five dollars per donation. The problem lies in the duration of this new promo period. A donor can donate a maximum of twice a week with five days in between the last donation and at least one day in between the first and second donation of the week. So, I can only donate eight times a month. I assume this is for our health. I have read that donating more is cause for concern, that the body really can only handle giving up so much plasma per week, which is too bad. If I were able to donate every day, that would be my full-time job for sure. However, death is a big enough motivator not to bypass this particular protocol.

After about six months of donating at my first center, I discovered another center that pays better, so I switched and got their new donor rate, which again lasted four weeks. Then the rate went down just like at the other centers, and while it is still decent money for the time we are actually hooked up to the centrifuge, it isn’t that great if you figure in the drive time and the wait time to get into the donor room, which can be up to an hour depending on when you go. 

I soon realized that if you stop going to any center for six months, you are considered a new donor and can once again get the promotional rate. The centers often send emails and texts with bonuses begging donors to come back if they have been gone long enough. I searched Google for plasma donation centers somewhat near where I live and I found that there were enough centers in my area to be able to get the promotional rate all year long. A different center every month for six months would bring me around full circle to the first center whereby I would once again get the promotional rate. I wish I had known all of this when I began getting exsanguinated for money, but there is a learning curve for how to manipulate the system. 

I went to the same center for almost six months before catching on that I could hop from center to center, month after month, and make way more money. That’s five months of half-price plasma I’ll never get back. The first time I switched centers, I felt guilty, like I was cheating on my first center. During the initial physical, when the nurse asked if I had ever donated plasma at another center before, my heart rate increased and I had the sudden urge to reply, “Yes, but only a few times. It didn’t mean anything, I promise.” But when I told her which center I had frequented, she replied with, “Oh yeah. I used to work there.” It was shortly after I realized not only do donors hop from center to center, the phlebotomists (or “phlebs” as they call themselves), nurses, and staff do as well - a pool of employees who have no loyalty to any one center, or in the immortal words of Naughty by Nature, albeit slightly altered, they too are “down with OPP” - Other People’s Plasma. 

The process is basically the same at all the centers I have been to. The first step after entering the building is to go straight to the kiosk and answer the medical questions. Most of the questions are pretty basic - Do you feel healthy and well today? Have you taken any of these medications in the last year? Have you had acupuncture or gotten a tattoo in the last month? But for some of the questions, I had to do some research. For example, one of the questions asks if from January 1, 1980, through December 31, 1996, you spent a cumulative time of three months or more in any country in the United Kingdom, and if so, you are not eligible to donate. Why? Because you may have been exposed to Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, which, unbeknownst to me until I started donating, is Mad Cow disease for humans. Mad Human Disease? Then the questions turn very personal, and I assume that most people are not completely honest when answering them. If everyone were honest, there would most definitely be a shortage of usable plasma in the world. Some include:

Male Donors: Have you had sexual contact with another male? Have you had sexual contact with a prostitute or anyone else who takes money or drugs or other payment for sex?

Female Donors: Have you had sexual contact with a male who had sexual contact with another male in the past 12 months?

All donors: Have you received money, drugs, or other payment for sex? 

“Other payment for sex” is rather ambiguous, especially for women. If a steak and lobster dinner or beach vacation counts as “other payment,” then I fall into that category, as do many women. But aside from a slight raise in my LDLs, I don’t think a filet, nor a sunburn in exchange for feigned intimacy would have much effect on my plasma. On my integrity, maybe.

I once asked a phleb if he thought people answered the questions honestly.

“People answer how they want to answer,” he said nonchalantly, which only strengthened my suspicion that most donors lie their asses off on their intake forms. For simplicity’s sake, I think all of the sex questions should also be phrased in the immortal words of Naughty by Nature but with the actual meaning - Are you or have you ever been down with OPP?

The next question is, “Have you been in juvenile detention, lockup, jail, or prison for more than 72 consecutive hours?” What’s interesting about this question at every center I have been to is the accompanying photo, the only photo in the questionnaire. It’s a little different at each center but disturbing nonetheless - a decrepit-looking jail cell with rusty bars, an unmade cot, and dirty, dank walls, like something out of a snuff film. I suppose I’d rather see that than a vignette of a prostitute with Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease disease shooting up heroin, which would probably be more effective at keeping those kinds of people from sharing their bodily fluids. Perhaps the photo is there to remind those donors who have been to prison not to do anything that may lead them back there, and I suspect that many a plasma donor has spent some time in the pen. If you work the system as I do, you can make $12,000 a year or more, no background check, no boss, no taxes. Just cold hard cash and a puncture wound. That’s a pretty sweet deal for ex-convicts who would otherwise find it difficult to secure employment

After answering the questions and getting my vitals taken, I enter the donor station, which is a large room bordered by chaise lounges. Next to every lounge is a centrifuge machine. Beeps, clicks, and whirring noises from the machines fill the room - a cacophony of humans releasing “liquid gold” from their bodies. I lie down on the dark green Naugahyde chaise and place my right arm on the provided bolster. I used to alternate my left and right arms, but now I only go right. Once or twice, a newly minted phleb neglected to locate my left vein once she had stuck me. She had to wiggle the needle around inside my arm hoping to catch the vein and initiate blood flow. Having a sharp needle poking at your subcutaneous tissue is a most unpleasant sensation. It feels like bees stinging you from the inside. After this happened, the concerned phlebotomist said to me, “Well, we can’t use this arm. Do you have another arm we can use?” Why yes, as a matter of fact, I conveniently do have another arm you can use. I’m sure she just misspoke out of nervousness, but it was humorous nonetheless. I have yet to see a three-armed donor at any of the centers I have been to. 

After the phleb locates the vein with her finger, she uses a large swab covered in iodine and swirls it around the crease of my arm for thirty seconds. It is wet and cool on my skin and gives me tingles. Then she wraps a blood pressure cuff around my upper arm, gets all the tubes hooked up to the centrifuge and rips open the long, narrow package containing the needle. I like to watch as she pushes it in. Most phlebotomists are pretty skilled at locating the vein and get a good stick on the first try. It goes in smooth, like a hot knife through butter. When all is stuck and connected, the only thing left to do is wait and squeeze the wadded up paper towel, like a cow milking its own udder. Squeeze during the draw, relax during the return. Those are the two cycles - the draw and return. Donating plasma is different from donating whole blood because your red blood cells are returned to you after each draw. That’s why you can donate plasma more often than you can whole blood, and also why you would die if a vampire feasted on you. They crave whole blood. If vampires only drank plasma, Dracula and the Twilight movies would be rather boring. Gruesome bloody deaths after a bite would be replaced by still alive albeit slightly dehydrated mortals walking around as usual. 

I watch the digital dial on the side of the centrifuge, waiting for it to reach the magical number of 690 milliliters, which is the maximum amount of plasma that can be drained from my body per session. Gradually, the dark red blood in the tube fades into a light pink reminiscent of the pus-colored milk that remains after eating a bowl of Lucky Charms. Finally, it turns clear as a dose of saline is pumped into my veins. It feels cold going into my body and sends a calm shiver over my skin. The ding dong sounds on the centrifuge signaling the conclusion of the process. I wait for a phleb to come over and set me free. I press the piece of gauze she hands me on top of the needle and she pulls it out, assuaging the mild yet still uncomfortable sting from the needle that has been burrowed in my vein for the past thirty to forty minutes. I bend my arm up like heroin addicts in movies after a fix.

“How many minutes was it?” I ask. She looks at the small monitor on the centrifuge.

“Thirty-four,” she says. I am disappointed. I have yet to beat my thirty-two-minute record. More Gatorade next time, perhaps. 

“Straight or criss-cross?” she asks.  

“Criss-cross,” I say, and she wraps the bandage around my arm in such a way that the skin above and below my elbow bulges out, like sausage too big for its casing. 

“OK, you’re all set,” she says. I get off the chaise, grab my purse from the cubby underneath, and exit the mustard-colored building a little light-headed and a hundred dollars richer. This will go on twice a week at six different centers yearly until I choose to find a real job, or turn 66, when I will be deemed ineligible to donate. Whichever comes first. 

This is by far the most unintentional act of humanitarianism I have ever engaged in, however, I am solaced that my pursuit of easy money is at least aiding in saving people’s lives, which is more than I can say for doing singing telegrams or exotic dancing, both of which I have done. And while those short-lived gigs may have brought people temporary joy, neither singing happy birthday in a gorilla suit nor plucking dollar bills off of dudes’ faces at bachelor parties with my butt cheeks ever contributed to developing a cure for hepatitis. If anything, the latter may have been cause for contracting it. 

Sometimes, right before a donation, before the phlebotomist comes over to start the process, I look around the big, sterile room full of donors patiently lying in wait as whirring machines drink the warm golden broth from their bodies. They resemble androids hooked up to their power sources, like something out of the original Blade Runner. Then I wonder what other uncomfortable endeavors these people have voluntarily suffered through for money, which let’s face it, is the prime motivator for donating plasma. Have they done anything nearly as bizarre or risky as I? It makes me think of the famous scene at the end of the film when Roy Batty, in his dying moments, so eloquently recites the experiences he has had during his short, fabricated life. And then I, as Batty does, recite (to myself) some of the crazy shit I have done in the name of making a quick buck or two:

I’ve seen and done things you people wouldn’t believe. I have been a gynecological test subject for medical students, a nude art model, dressed up as a banana and sung at an 80-year-old’s birthday party, played live music for two prostitutes fighting over a John, given a lap dance to a quadriplegic with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis… But then my internal litany of odd jobs is abruptly halted by the phleb who has finally come over to initiate my plasmapheresis. She slides the clear protective shield down over her face like a welder ready to fuse two pieces of metal together and locates my brachial vein.

“You ready?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say and make a tight fist as she gently introduces the gauged needle into my delicate flesh.

… time to bleed.