By Joseph Carpitella
Bleary-eyed and slightly dizzy, 18-year old Lindsay nevertheless managed
a smile as she held out her arm. Taped neatly just below the crux between
her pale forearm and bicep was a Band-Aid covered with a strip of pastel
gauze, emblazoned with a little red heart. She swayed like a new-age
messiah after a crusade, but she was happy. Lindsay had just sold her
plasma for a fix.
"It didn't hurt at all," her frail voice lied. "Really, it didn't!"
She then asked me for a cigarette as we walked out of the Yale Plasma
Center toward the University of New Mexico. She was only a freshman,
but like others before her, she was learning the short cuts. She hardly
spoke on the way back, but through her puffs of smoke I knew what she
was thinking. Her faded bell-bottom jeans swished against the thrift-shop
boots she wore, while tucked neatly inside her front pocket was the $28
she had just been handed for her first plasma donation. No, her mind
was not weighing the moral issue of whoring her blood for money -- she
was thinking about getting high.
Lindsay was one of several people I knew who had sold blood for money to
buy drugs. In what has become a quick means to fast cash, young college
students who have stumbled into the drug lifestyle, are giving blood
sometimes twice a week to support their habits.
Like prospectors surrounding a rich silver mine, plasma centers have been
tapping into one of the most valuable resources in the blood business -- the
young college donor. "We get a huge response from college kids," says
Jodi Mahnkey, manager of the Yale Plasma Center, "usually because many of
them are broke, but mostly it is to our benefit because they are young and
"We have 11 centers in our company and all are located near college campuses."
With the opportunity to donate twice a week and earn $150 a month, a close
capitalist relationship has developed between the center and the donor that
has helped dissolve the altruistic aura that once symbolized blood donations.
Now people are being lured by the money, with the most egotistical of donors
-- the drug user -- first in line.
But what about the donor screening process? "We make sure that the
donor is healthy and that their plasma will not be detrimental to anyone," says
Mahnkey. "Of course, we check for needle marks, but we have to rely on
At the NABI Biomedical Center, Assistant Manager John St. John claims that
the screening process is "very effective" and is consistent with
all FDA regulations. "We screen them and perhaps one or two donations
will be made by I.V. drug users before we catch them...but it doesn't get
farther than that."
Regardless, questions remain concerning non-I.V. drug users who infiltrate
plasma centers and those who slip by undetected.
Lindsay's friend L. confidently displayed his small pin cushion scar from
his sixth donation. He used the money he got from the center to buy three
tabs of acid. Just as he was being gripped by the warm sensation of the
psychedelic drug he told me: "That's the beauty of it, man. It takes
no work by me and they pay cash."
When I asked him if he was worried that they would find out what the money
was being used for, he just shrugged, "No, they can't test for acid or
Advertising by both the NABI and the Yale St. centers has been intensive,
especially during the last couple of years. Both centers habitually
advertise in the Daily Lobo, with NABI expanding its recruiting
force to include the Alibi (an alternative newspaper), Z-Rock (a
progressive rock station), and special bulletins to Kirtland Air Force Base.
With a shelf life of 10 years after it is frozen, plasma is especially
useful in fighting the Respiratory Sinflex Virus that commonly afflicts
young children. By replenishing the body's blood supply with plasma,
which increases red blood cell count, doctors have found a way to
naturally combat the symptoms of pneumonia that occur with the virus.
Giving plasma to hemophiliacs improves the body's clotting capability. Burn
victims also benefit from plasma transfusions because they dilute the blood,
causing it to flow at a more normal speed again. Its versatility explains
why advertisements and the promise of rewards have become so pervasive in
the plasma industry.
"People don't look at it as giving," says Mahnkey. "Usually they need
This prevailing consumerism has warped the very word "donation",
to the point that its definition has finally evolved to fit our user
mentality. If there were any doubts -- "plasma giving" has become
an oxymoron. But more important both the centers and their constituents
must take some of the blame for courting the strung-out college student
and providing an oasis for thirsty addictions. What kind of trade-off is
giving a junkie money in exchange for a potentially life-saving elixir?
Obviously one we are willing to make.
Lindsay didn't get past her third donation attempt. The Yale center detected
traces of meth-amphetamine in her blood stream and promptly cut off their
relationship. But Lindsay was undeterred. "There's always other places,"
That night L. came by with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a new scar from
giving plasma. We drank and laughed, knowing where the money for the
bottle had come from.