“I’ll shoot him.” A wiry laugh came out from behind her nicotine stained teeth. She looked down at the yellow form sitting at the edge of the laboratory bed. “Michelle come over here and and sign this for me.”
Michelle, a large African American woman, sauntered over. She earlier had distinguished herself by snorting her nose and launching a massive spitball into the trashcan seconds before taking my blood.
“Don’t I need to check as well,” Michelle asked, without conviction. Her eyes firmly planted on one of the TV screens that hung on the wall.
The woman with the stained teeth had a name tag on her white overcoat. It said Lori. Lori felt the veins, first on my left arm and then gently rubbing her forefinger across my right arm.
“Honey I have been doing this for years and they’re both good,” Lori reaffirmed.
It took me a minute to realize she was talking to me. She turned her head and nodded at Michelle.
Michelle dutifully signed the yellow forms next to the words BOTH.
“See you in a minute, honey.”
I did my best to look straight into her eyes. “Thanks Lori,” I stammered. “I trust you.”
“How would you know to trust her,” Michelle asked incredulously, her voice rising to reach me as she led me back to the waiting room.
“I guess I am a trusting guy.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I returned to the waiting room of the Plasma Biological Service. With my back to a yellow sign reading CASH DONORS NEEDED, I felt my feet were firmly planted back in my hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky. In exchange for two hours of mild discomfort and some needle pricks and 880mL of plasma, I was about to be fifty dollars richer.
Giving plasma, to me, is as Kentuckian as watching rednecks wave the flag, eating junk food and hating on Democrats. Whether it is the poor university student looking for beer money, or an addict looking for a fix, or just a wandering traveler looking to save his beans for a future trip, the lure of free money pulls us in.
Throughout towns in the USA there are plasma clinics, or plasma services, where you can sit in air-conditioned comfort with piles of ESPN and Town and Country magazines, and TV screens on the wall. In exchange for these creature comforts you recline on a leather couch for roughly an hour and your blood is filtered through a machine, where it is drained of its plasma and put back in your body.
“Don’t go there,” my mom had groaned. “It’s not clean.”
My father, on the other hand, admired my spunk and go-getter attitude.
“Why not?” he said. “You aren’t doing anything else and it’s free money”
America, despite what politicians and pundits say, still bears all the hallmarks of a place far too concerned with class. This manifests itself with incessant worrying about how your behavior will be perceived. Giving plasma falls on that loosely-defined wrong side of the line. The place for derelicts and unemployed and the evil ones on welfare. The genetically shallow, as someone told me.
Upon entering, clients are given a brief physical and forced to read a list of requirements to be donors. These can range from saying that you are barred from donating if you injected drugs in the last 12 months or you have had unprotected sex in a male homosexual relationship. Spending 72 hours jail is also grounds for disqualification.
On the TV was a Jerry Springer-like chat show, with a thin white guy encouraging two obese black women to fight while the crowd jeered on. To my right was a heavily tattooed skinny man with a Grateful Dead t-shirt who would occasionally shuffle around the room, weaving incoherently through the blue plastic chairs. For a moment I joined him to look out the window at the condemned hotel that sat to the right of the parking lot.
“I told you not to drop your crackers!” a woman screamed and breaking our silent reverie. I looked back to see a couple handing their four children packets of crackers and meat. Like so many things in Owensboro, they were heavily packaged and processed, and a young girl scrambled to pick her crackers up off the floor.
“You still have to eat them,” the mother violently yelled. The girl started to scream, and on the TV the fight was in full swing. It seemed impossible to escape the shitstorm.
“154 pounds? It must have been that taco salad I ate last night,” a skinny man said to no one in particular. He laughed a deep laugh, the laugh of the man who was about to get 50 bucks without doing any work.
The place was frigid and my pulse quickened as charts were drawn and the screams of children echoed through the building.
“Lawrence, Booth 1,” a voice bellowed out from the reception desk.
Next to the reception were three booths that would not be out of place on the set of a daytime gameshow. In these booths you are, again, given a series of questions about your lifestyle which range from common sense “Have you ever tested positive for HIV?” to more complicated “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone who was an injecting drug user?”
The staff could recite the 37 questions with the same ritual intensity of a Tibetan monk. I was fantasizing about adding a hip-hop beat to keep the rhythm under the voice, but I had to remain focus to keep up with Yes and No answers.
After the interrogation, my vitals were taken. Temperature normal.
“Your pulse is a little high,” Michelle told me.
Another nurse, nicotine-stained and with permed golden dyed hair, abruptly stepped in and grabbed my wrist and looked at her watch.
After a minute she said it was 120.
“What have you been doing today?”
I gave the rundown about visiting my brother’s house and an afternoon jog.
“No coffee, no nicotine…because your pulse would indicate that you had a smoke before coming in here.”
I remember a sign in the lobby saying you could not have a cigarette 30 minutes before giving plasma.
“Well, if I had a cigarette then you would be able to smell it on me.”
“You sure you didn’t smoke something?,” she continued the line of questioning.
Her eyes glared at me. She thought I was lying. For a moment I felt some empathy, one look at the lobby outside and the waiting crowd of degenerates had led her to be nobody’s fool.
“Nothing to smoke?”
Her eyes narrowed like a snake’s.
“I don’t believe you,” she snapped.
“Maybe I am nervous.”
“Your pulse indicates you’re petrified and you’ve been here before so you shouldn’t be nervous,” she replied with a dense Kentucky accent and the thick-headed logic of an inbred cop.
“Relax for ten minutes and come back.”
Now my pulse was racing.
After the next ten minutes my pulse hadn’t calmed down and I was sent away and told to try again tomorrow.
7.30 the following morning. The plasma center was booming with at least 8 people in the waiting room. The TV was set to Good Morning America.
After my high pulse the day before I was led through the same litany of questions and had to repeat my Social Security number again and again.
Today my pulse was a normal 81 and I after having a check of my reflexes I was led back to ‘the lab’ to have my plasma taken.
Back in the lab was two rows of blue leather couches, each situated next a large machine covered in various cylinders and plastic tubes.
“Right or left?” my nurse asked me.
I chose my left arm as she went about setting up the machinery.
While I was waiting, a male nurse dropped off an envelope along with a stack of instructions.
“Some things have changed,” he said. “We no longer give out cash. You get a debit card that gets refilled every time you come in. Do you still want to donate?”
“Yea, why not,” I said opening the envelope and pulling out a grey pre-paid Mastercard.
“Well, you’d be surprised how some people responded. We lost a lot of donors.”
After a few minutes of nervous anticipation, a rather large needle was plunged into my vein. I was instructed to watch the monitor on the machine and follow the instructions. When an image of a fist appeared, I needed to pump my hand, this would aide in getting the plasma out of the blood. After that you relax for a few minutes. The process is repeated until you get the required plasma.
An hour later I was shouting my sister and nephews coffee with my new found riches. I showed them my ‘valued donor’ Mastercard and explained how the system worked.
“Well, I guess it stops you from buying crack, ” my sister responded.