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The politics of selling plasma

Photo credit: Bobby Jones

Over break, I ran out of money while applying to graduate schools and started selling plasma to manage the costs. Once that was done—the application fees and the transcript fees and the postage fees as well as all my other bills—I kept selling, and I had to start asking what kinds of purchases were worth selling my body for.

It’s a dramatic question, but plasma donation is a dramatic procedure. The rows of beds extend deep into the building, and phlebotomists in full-face visors are often harvesting from as many as 50 people at a time. The people are stern. The room is sterile. No one is talking, so if I forget headphones, I can only hear the machines clicking and whirring as they separate plasma from red blood cells. Sometimes I think I can hear the liquid of my blood being pumped back into my arm.

When I enter the donation center, I’m required to be lectured on the most serious risks associated with the process. Your vein may collapse. You may suffer permanent nerve damage. If you have a bruise, the anticoagulant might dislodge some of that clotted blood and send it to your brain. A clot as small as a grain of sand might kill you. Do not donate if you have a bruise.

I kept going because I got used to having expendable income. I decided that Kaveh Akbar’s new poetry collection was worth an hour of my time and a liter of my protein—that maybe the backstory would even heighten the reading experience. I decided against a six-pack from Avery Brewing Co.

One evening I was waiting for intake when a frantic woman approached the front desk. “Is this healed enough yet?” she asked, offering her deeply bruised arm for inspection. She knew the answer was no, and she told the receptionist she was willing to take the risk. “Please,” she said. “I need to do this.”

I’ve known that need. It was a long time ago, but it never really feels that way, never feels like I can put it at a distance. I grew up sleeping on air mattresses and living in hotel rooms snug against interstates. Sometimes, we stayed in sprawling houses stacked three stories high; other times, my bedroom was the backseat of my mother’s car. 

We were somewhere in between those two scenarios—housed but depending on food banks and free lunch programs to get by—when I found myself on a yacht, an honest-to-god yacht with a kitchen and multiple staircases and a swimming pool. I wasn’t yet 10 years old. A teenager in khaki shorts and a polo shirt was pouring beer on the ground, laughed as his dog drank itself into a stupor and couldn’t keep its footing on the lurching floor. I was eating food I’d never seen before and couldn’t understand how the brine that coated so much of the yacht’s surface also coated our old pontoon boat—back when we had a boat, before my mom had to surrender my own dog to a no-kill shelter because she had to leave my father and couldn’t take care of all three of us. Before we lived at a women’s shelter for a month, where babies seemed to cry all the time. All that had happened, but somehow I was on a yacht, and the brine was the same.

To this day, when people ask about my family moving so much, I can’t give them the why they ask for. I barely understand the mechanics of the how. Getting to the yacht is a mystery I don’t quite want to know the answer to.

So I’m going to keep donating plasma, and I’m going to continue working as many jobs as I can manage at one time. I’ll do that because I don’t think the distance between then and now, between that woman and myself, will ever seem that distant at all.

Taylor Kirby
Taylor Kirby

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