Blood Money

tale of toil: selling blood, by faye manning

I AWOKE JUST AFTER sunrise in order to Present myself to J-Mar Biologicals the minute their doors opened at 7:30. By 8:45 I walkedout with $10.00 in my wallet and a hole in my arm inside my elbow. Having done my duty to my family, I stopped to have $3.00 of gas put in the car. I stared at the ten-dollar bill in my hand, as if my gaze could somehow penetrate its mysteries. The bill was soft, velvety and limp. I wanted to fathom its depths and capture some elusive meaning from its inscrutable surface, since I had so blatantly exchanged something of myself for it;so soon to be handed over and lesser change to replace its meager measure.

So here we are. Within the first day, Lindsay dubbed this town "Spring-aleak-field, Oregon" and I am not only inclined to agree, I have championed the name. Springfield is the poor, shirt-tail relation to its hip and educated older cousin, Eugene, just minutes away across the (what rhymes with dammit? Willamette!) river. Eugene is a college town full of lushly shaded streetslined with sleepy little woodframe houses. Springfield is an industrial bedroom, full of unemployed loggers on welfare; the dumping ground for those who couldn't cut higher education.

Your eyes and nose cannot help but notice the Weyerhauser factory as you pass directly by it on the road to our rented duplex. (Try to imagine what it would smell like if pine trees could fart.) Not to worry, this olfactory nuisance is only bothersome when the wind is blowing south, which so far seems to be a very equitable 25 percent of the time, or less. Sadly, I have to admit that I've become accustomed to it, to the point that I simply "notice" the smell, and then tune it out.

In spite of having been here for over a month, I seem to have a last, inner resistance to settling in this exact place. In spite of the 22-foot truck and its two-ton overweight load of our Accumulated Things being emptied completely at our doorstep (make no mistake: we and Our Stuff aren't going any place else anytime soon), I've been plagued by a feeling--a nagging, irrational, unnamed, quasi-anxiety-that our life here is somehow "temporary." In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, I have held out inside my innermost heart that this duplex (with its avocado appliances, matted carpet, pitted linoleum, bathroom door hung backwards, huge though harmless twoand a half spiders... I could go on), that this job of Lindsay's (my intelligent, witty, talented husband pumping gas), that this financial wreckis really our life. We are still living suitcase-style three months after abandoning our tenuous toe-hold on normality in Los Angeles.

"WE DON'T WANT YOU BACK. They didn't say this, exactly, but that's what they meant, and I don't stick around where I'm not wanted. They'd have one helluva lawsuit on their hands were it not for one very fatal mistakeI made just before leaving to give birth. Thus am I repaid for all my dedication, (forexample, staying on the phone long distance for two hours while enduring first stage labor up to just before transition) .

"THEY DID ME A FAVOR." I didn't honestly have the guts to leave a colicky 8-week old infant with Lindsay and try to keep up my supply of breast milk while working ten-hour days and attempting to do the work of two or three people and failing dismally. Still, when I turned on PBS that evening to watch "The Computer, the KGB, and Me" and saw all those ten-inch magnetic tape reels and printers and CRTs, I felt a hole in my soul; a cavernous maw opening wider and wider; an expanding, terrifying emptiness. I turned the TV and VCR off, unable to continue watching.

Today, after living in this duplex for six weeks, I promised Lindsay that while he is gone doing laundry and donating plasma on his day off that I would put all the clothes away, so that when he returns home with the piles of clean clothes we can put those away too. I promised, but it feels empty, like I'm trying to force myself into admitting something I haven't conceptually grasped, even now.

At first, I found I was reluctant to admit that Lindsay and I are donating plasma to put food on the table. This is something wines do to buy their next bottle, not middle-class Mormon princesses who grew up with a washerand dryer in the basement and shoes from J.C. Penney. Still, my mother didn't sound surprised or shocked at all when I mentioned this to her, although this could have been studied nonchalance on her part.

I expect I would feel insufferably noble about my bi-weekly donations, werethey not dictated by sheer financial necessity. My first year in collegeI participated in a Red Cross blood drive. The nurse had to wiggle thisHUGE needle around in my arm for a couple YEARS before my blood would flow. NO FUN. In spire of many opportunities over the years, particularly at science fiction conventions, I have never offered myself up for that sort of experience again. (Can anyone blame me?) Until now, that is. When I was pregnant withmy firstborn, the obstetrician's nurse could not get any sort of blood sample,let alone the three and a half vials they wanted. She stuck me at leastfive times with NO RESULTS before she gave up and called in the doctor,who stuck the side of my wrist, over my thumb. It was so sore that no onecould take even the slightest hold of that wrist for three weeks. (I havenever felt so completely manhandled and mistreated by the medical establishmentas I felt from that office visit. There's just nothing to equal the experienceof meeting for the first time the person in whose hands you will place yourlife and life of our baby after freezing your butt off for twenty minutescompletely naked under nothing but a crummy sheet.)

Since that time my experience has given me cause to believe those technicianswere simply somewhat inept and doubtless inexperienced. Lab technicianswho stick people all day long for a living generally know what they're doing.

Notwithstanding, on my first visit to J-Mar the guy next to me had a verybad experience (complete with several exclamations of pain and blood onthe armrest) and the technician had to call over the (obvious) expert oftheir group. She had gone too far and had punctured his muscle tissue. Ikept my eyes on her the first time she stuck me, but it was prest-bingoand she said "Good Flow." So far I've had no repeat of my collegefreshman experience. Luckily, on my first visit I had the "expert,"and the man next to me went through this trauma after I was already hookedand going (not that even what I saw and heard would have deterred me thatfirst time). Just yesterday Lindsay had a painful experience similar tomy unfortunate first-time neighbor. He really earned that bonus, as I supposeI will take my lumps too, at some point.

Let no one mistake: there is not the slightest thing generous about this.It is a purely selfish act and my conscience is assuaged only by the knowledge that J-Mar is obviously making money off my body's ability to reproduce plasma, and the plasma I "donate" is clean and untainted by HIV or other infections. I'm sure they lose a lot of money from first-time donorswho are dishonest and subsequently rejected, not to mention those donors who are initially false negative and who are--eventually (we hope!)-caught through random testing. So at the very least I do get to be unabashedly honest as I respond to the same old questions every time, again and again.And it's not such a god-awful way to spend an hour or so. The techniciansare very friendly and I get to read without interruption.

I must confess the first several visits I found the sight of multiple reclining bodies hooked up to machines somewhat comical, reminding me of the movie A Boy and His Dog ("What God has joined let no man put asunder"). But just like the acrid stench from the local paper factory, I've become accustomed to the sight and now I don't find anything particularly odd, ironical, or otherwise notable about it, though I keep looking for the hidden meaning, as if it has only temporarily gone undercover and will re-emergeif I just stare long enough without blinking.

So here we are. We are surviving (just barely) and my self-esteem is slowly on the mend. I still have mixed feelings about being a plasma donor. There'sa sense of helplessness that flows out from my soul like water when I lookat a Pile of laundry in the corner. At $1.50 a load, it piles up fasterthan J-Mar can pay for it. Spend an hour or so hooked up to a machine, put a few dollars of gas in the car, buy a couple cans of tuna, a couple gallons of milk, do a load of diapers, a load of jeans, and then you're broke again. Lindsay got paid, and I have a wish list that includes baby powder, light-bulbs,and shoelaces....

NEVERTHELESS: in spite of everything...or maybe because of everything...ohwhat the hell. I think I will put those clothes away into drawers today, after all.

POST SCRIPTUM

It started off badly. A painful stick and not a very good flow. Blood clots in the tubes. High pressure on the return cycle. Bruising of surrounding tissues. Burning sensation at the lightest touch. Bleeding under the skin:Hematoma. Give up on that one. Switch to other arm. More comfortable but needle clotted in short order. Try again a half-inch lower down on the vein. More bruising. Poor flow. Hematoma. If the red blood cells are not returned, donation is halted for eight weeks. I submit to one last stick, to get thered blood cells back. Manager uses smaller size vein on first arm. We mutually agree to a slow return due to the size of the vein. It works, with no damageto vein or surrounding tissues. Units donated equals 500 of 850.

I get paid, but I can't donate again until the bruise is three inches fromthe venal puncture site." Both my arms are screwed up. Lindsay still has one good arm. Tough times are ahead unless the computer support position from A-i Employment Service comes through.

I can't wait to get home and put ice on my wounds and generally fall apart. Both arms are VERY SORE. I am shaken by the experience. I feel small, vulnerable,fragile, and injured; betrayed by my own body. My confidence is quivering in the corner. I have curled up inside myself, and I long to curl up onmy bed and close my eyes and sleep.

-- Faye Manning