Like millions of people across the U.S., my work has been affected due to COVID-19. As a writer, work is feast or famine even in normal times, though mine has been more famine than feast since I was forced into freelance life back in 2017. It’s now completely ground to a halt.
Although my clients are happy with my work, budgets have been slashed and work for freelancers has been frozen as companies to try to stay afloat during the pandemic. I’ve been ghosted by at least five clients. I was barely able to keep up with my expenses before the pandemic hit, but now it’s become nearly impossible.
While I’ve made reductions in personal expenses, including reducing car insurance to “storage” level (better for your future rates than stopping coverage), cutting back on meat consumption, and making bread from scratch, it hasn’t helped much. So, I decided to look into plasma donation in hopes of earning whatever extra money I can.
I have been a blood donor for decades but have never been paid to donate plasma. Though I am more susceptible to dehydration because I have an abbreviated gastrointestinal system (I no longer have my large intestine), if I hydrate well before and after, it usually goes fine. I also donated platelets for a time, a process called apherisis. This required a two-hour time commitment during which I was stuck in a bed with needles in both arms, unable to move. Once I had my kid, I no longer had that kind of free time, so I stopped apherisis, but still participated in blood drives. I imagined donating plasma (plasmapheresis) would be similar to apherisis, except you get paid.
I’ve seen people lined up at these centers waiting for them to open. I admit, I thought it was the ultimate in desperation — selling your own bodily issuances for money. But I am now desperate. And, given the nature of donating, I was sure the center would be one of the cleanest and safest facilities operating during this pandemic. So, earlier this month, I had a big breakfast, gathered my required documents and headed to the nearest facility.
I’ve seen people lined up at these centers waiting for them to open. I admit, I thought it was the ultimate in desperation — selling your own bodily issuances for money. I am now desperate.
Four hours later, feeling sick and worried I may have put my life at risk, I finally left. Here’s what happened.
The registration process is rigorous. People in poor health aren’t accepted and, as an added measure of precaution during COVID-19, you have to wait in the vestibule of the donation center for a nurse to come out, take your temperature and answer questions before entering. The nurse wore a face shield and gloves.
Unfortunately, the level of safety I thought would exist inside the center was, instead, acutely absent.
Basically, very little appeared to have changed from how the clinic was operating before the coronavirus except that in the two places you have to wait in line (vitals and donations), tape was on the floor to keep donors six feet apart. That’s it.
After being cleared to enter, I gave my papers to a gloved staff member for approval. I was then given a packet of papers clipped together, along with a laminated piece of paper with stuff written on it in dry erase marker that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in forever. I was directed to the tiny waiting area — six blue chairs in maybe a 10 sq. ft. area, total, two rows facing each other. There were already two people waiting (men — 99% of the donors I saw were men), so instead I chose to remain standing several feet away.
One man was given a big plastic binder with laminated pages to read. He paged through it with his bare hands. When he was done, he gave it back to the gloved worker, who handed it directly to the other guy in the waiting area. After it was my turn to read it, I handed it back and then went directly to the bathroom and washed hands.
Then I went to a private room to answer more than 60 questions about my health and travel history. The first thing the worker did was push another dirty, laminated piece of paper toward me with a dry erase marker and asked me to circle my answers and “sign” the paper. I asked for hand sanitizer before touching it. The employee got up and looked for some, returning with a nearly empty bottle. I had to unscrew the top and turn it over to get a small amount out. After I filled out the paper with the marker, I used more sanitizer. The worker didn’t clean the paper or the marker.
He asked me the questions and then asked me to sign a plastic signature pad with a stylus. The pad and stylus weren’t cleaned before or after my use. I washed my hands again when I was done with questions.
The cubicle had two computers and a guy was already sitting in one of the two chairs, only inches away from the other chair. I told the employee I would wait until he was done. Nobody cleaned desks, chairs, computer, mouse, etc., before or after anyone’s use.
I was then given disposable earbuds and directed to a kiosk to watch an orientation video. The cubicle had two computers and a guy was already sitting in one of the two chairs, only inches away from the other chair. I told the employee I would wait until he was done. Nobody cleaned desks, chairs, computer, mouse, etc., before or after anyone’s use. I washed my hands again after the video.
I passed many people in the hall going to and from the bathroom. Nobody made any attempt to keep away from anyone else.
Finally, I visited a nurse. She assured me she sanitized every single surface and changed gloves between each patient. I was glad. She wore a face shield, asked me another long list of questions and did a physical exam. She walked me to where vitals were taken, and I washed my hands again on the way. She made a point of staying away from the entrance to the bathroom, and from me, while we walked — nurses know what’s up.
I got in line. Mostly, others were staying on the red tape on the floor. They were only taking vitals at every other cubicle, and hand sanitizer was available there, at least. But again I was asked to sign a signature pad with a stylus/pad that weren’t cleaned before or after my use, and to take and read a laminated sheet of paper that wasn’t cleaned.
On the plus side, “Vitals” is where I learned that because I am fat, I get more money. Finally, a financial benefit to being overweight! There are three classes of weight, and if you’re in the highest tier like I am, you get the most money if you donate twice a week. You have to continue regular, twice-weekly donations (with at least 48 hours in between) to get the most money per month.
At this center, everyone gets the same amount the first time — $60. It comes on a debit card that charges you a fee every time you use it, because of course it does. It’s reloaded on subsequent visits. There is a reward program, and you can get points that can earn money if you refer other people like some kind of human fluids pyramid scheme.
By the time I got to vitals, where they weighed me and told me how much money I’d be getting, it had been more than three hours since I had arrived. I was getting hungry again, and thirsty. They gave me a styrofoam cup to use at the drinking fountain (I turned the fountain on with my hip and didn’t touch anything else), and though I had a couple of cups of water, I have to drink a lot of liquid regularly to stay hydrated because I poop multiple times a day since I don’t have a colon.
At this center, everyone gets the same amount the first time — $60. It comes on a debit card that charges you a fee every time you use it, because of course it does.
In addition to feeling hungry and thirsty, I was increasingly anxious about my physical safety throughout the process. I kept trying not to panic ― to just see it through. But the more they tell you about how donating works and its potential side effects ― combined with how potentially contaminated everything was ― I had some serious anxiety by the time I got to the donation bed. By then, it had been four hours since my breakfast of eggs (apparently bad to eat before donating), feta cheese (cheese is also bad), kalamata olives and tomatoes. This did not bode well.
The beds were less than two feet apart. A girl next to me arrived at the same time — we could have reached out and held hands. It was a big, open area with beds on either side of two aisles. If anyone coughed or sneezed into the air, we would all be breathing it in.
I tamped down my anxiety as much as I could and explained to the phlebotomist that it was my first time and how nervous I was. He said women typically donate faster than men ― I would be done in 45 minutes to an hour ― and told me not to worry. He said I would be cut off at 75 minutes whether I was done or not ― that’s the max. I nodded and we proceeded.
The plasmapheresis part was, initially, the easiest part of the visit. Just lie there and squeeze your fist when the centrifuge machine you’re hooked up to is taking plasma, then relax your arm when it indicates it is returning red blood cells to you. It cycles through this process several times during the donation. I hoped the 45 minutes would pass quickly.
After about a half-hour, I got incredibly thirsty, and I had to use the bathroom, but I was stuck in the bed.
An hour after my process had begun, the girl next to me ― who had started donating after me ― was long gone. My container was only half-full and my bladder was screaming. I was so thirsty, and I had a horrible headache. I waved someone over and asked how much longer, and she said I wasn’t squeezing enough. I squeezed like crazy during the next cycle, and the plasma container started filling up. I squeezed as much as I could, and then the plasma appeared to reach the stop line.
Unfortunately, so had I. I felt like I was going to puke and pass out simultaneously. I wasn’t panicked, as this has happened on rare occasions when donating blood. I put my hand up to signify I needed help, but nobody noticed. I started seeing stars and knew pretty soon I would vomit or conk out. I tried to yell out to an employee, but it came out as a whisper ― “I need help,” I said. My voice sounded dry and thin.
I felt like I was going to puke and pass out simultaneously. I wasn’t panicked, as this has happened on rare occasions when donating blood. I put my hand up to signify I needed help, but nobody noticed. I started seeing stars and knew pretty soon I would vomit or conk out completely.
The attendant came over right away and said I had just reached my donation limit and to relax. She started running a line of saline into my arm and said I should feel better soon. Once the saline started working I immediately improved.
“It’s a good thing you got to your donation amount,” she said, “Or they don’t let you keep all the money.” I was exhausted and sweaty.
Another employee got me a bottle of Powerade and I sipped on it. They took out the needle and the Powerade worked magic. Still, I was wiped.
I went to the bathroom, washed my hands again, used my coat sleeve to open the doors on the way out, used the hand sanitizer in my car and drove home. I was worthless the rest of the day.
I used the money on the card to order supplies to build my 10-year-old son an Easter basket. I know it’s a “non-essential” item, but he asked for one and never has before (we are not religious). He is starting to have some real issues with all the isolation and loss of normal life. I was happy to give my plasma so I could buy him this one special thing.
Plasma donation is also seriously helpful to many people, including research scientists who develop medications. The need for plasma donation is heightened now, as it can help with many health challenges, including respiratory disorders — key during COVID-19 ― so I feel good about what I did.
However, I was appalled at the lack of protection, cleaning and thought in regards to donor safety. I understand the center is not set up for “social distancing,” but there are many steps the clinic could take to clean items every step of the way, in between each donor and every hour on the hour, regardless of usage. Those things are not being done and it’s putting everyone who walks into that clinic at risk.
I will return — because I need the money and because I want to help however I can — but not for a long time. Here in Ohio, we are in the midst of the most intense time of the virus potentially spreading, so I won’t go back until it feels somewhat safer.
For now, I find myself lying in bed each night hoping that I didn’t just give myself a death sentence by trying to make enough money to buy my kid an Easter basket.
Nina McCollum is a writer living in Cleveland. Her work has appeared online at sites including Good Housekeeping, Scary Mommy, The Financial Diet, BELT Magazine, and Café Mom. You can read her blog about life as a Midwest mom at https://www.patreon.com/
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