If you were a college student like me, then you were always short on cash.
At an early age, my parents told me if I wanted to go to college I would have to pay my own way, but I was going to college no matter what. That still doesn't make sense to me. They told me not going to college was not an option, yet I had to pay for it? Since I save money as quickly as this country gets out of debt, I had to apply for student loans and I get a full time job to supplement my income. Although my parents didn't pay tuition, they often paid for my books and sent me back from a home visit with a full tank of gas and a trunk full of groceries.
When the student loans, paychecks, and occasional help from my parents weren't enough to cover my bills and lifestyle, I had to look for alternate sources of income. I already had a full time job and a full class load. I barely had time to do homework, let alone party and have a social life. And let's be real; a college student's priorities aren't always homework and work.
Honestly, I needed the money to support my drinking habit and my parents, measly paychecks, or the leftover loan money could cover.
After I looked in the phone book (yes, this was before the days of smart phones) for local strip clubs to inquire about employment, I realized although I like to take off my clothes in front of some strangers, I couldn't see myself as a stripper. My boobs aren't that big, I am too short, and I knew I'd only look like a drag queen. Plus the first time some fat man put a dollar bill in my underwear with his grubby hands, I knew I would instantly become homicidal and end up in prison for shanking that pervert.
So stripping was not an option, although I do sometimes regret that KoCo Puff (my chosen stripper name) never got a chance to debut on stage.
I considered becoming an underground campus call girl, but then I realized there were many girls like me who were more than willing to sex up some horny college boys for nothing more than a few rum and cokes and sometimes for free, I knew I wouldn't get paid squat for squatting naked on someone's lap. If I couldn't even manage stripping, then certainly prostitution was out.
Then I thought about taking a road trip to Mexico and hooking up with some gangsters and offering them my spleen or appendix to sell on the black market. When one of my friends in the nursing program informed me that neither of those organs were vital organs, I realized that was a crapshoot. No one would pay for a spleen, but a chunk of liver or a kidney would make serious bank. So would a basket of my eggs. I was broke, not desperate. I needed my kidneys and all of my liver if I were to survive college. And I wasn't ready for a mini me to be roaming this planet without my knowledge. So the liver steak and eggs was officially off the table.
The only option I had left was to find a wealthy old man, seduce him, convince him to add me to his will, then fuck him so hard his heart exploded in his chest and I was left with all his riches. Then I remembered a) I lived in Wisconsin and the nearest extremely wealthy man was probably located in Chicago and b) the thought of old man balls gross me out and c) I was barely eighteen and I'm pretty sure in several states and possibly Puerto Rico, that was still considered statutory rape. So having a sugar daddy was out.
Short of selling my left kidney and my eggs, stripping, giving $10 hand jobs in the campus library, or finding a man as ugly and wealthy as Donald Trump, I was destined to be poor throughout my entire college career.
That is until my friend from the nursing program told me about plasma donation. We were at a house party one weekend and I had been complaining about spending $5 on a cup for beer at the door (years later, I realize how good of a deal that really was, considering I could drink a quarter barrel all on my own).
"You get paid how much?"
"$200 a month!"
I know it might not seem like much money to most of you, but you have to remember I was in college in a small town in Wisconsin, where beers, pizza, and girls were cheap.
$200 a month for me was striking it rich!
"But what do I have to do?" I asked her, slightly worried about the words "plasma" and "donation". First of all, I had no idea what plasma was. Was it similar to magma and did I even have magma in my body?
"You go to the Biolife center, they give you a physical, have you answer some questions, and then you sit with a needle in your arm for about an hour and get paid!"
"How much do you get paid?"
"Well, if you go twice a week, you get paid $50. If you only go once a week, it's $20. You can go twice a week, but not two days in a row," she explained.
"What's the catch?" I asked. "Getting $200 a month for donating magma seems a bit suspicious and there has to be some fine print."
"It's plasma, not magma, first of all. Second of all, there is no catch. Easy peasy!"
"Whatever. Where do I sign up? I'm not crazy about someone taking magma from my body, but I'm desperate."
"It's NOT magma! It's plasma!"
How was I to know that magma is a mixture of molten rock from a volcano and not something that could be found in a human body, or that plasma is the pale yellow liquid portion of your blood that can be easily replaced by the body, which is why you can sell it?
I said I was in college, not that I was smart.
The following week I made an appointment for a physical and was told I would be giving my first donation that day if I qualified. Apparently, to qualify you have to weigh at least 110 pounds (check), be in relatively good health (questionable), and not have HIV (check). Obviously, there are other qualifications but those are the ones that I have stuck in my mind.
When I walked into the Biolife Plasma Services building, I didn't know what to expect. I thought there would be private rooms and each room would come with a private nurse, but I was wrong. There was a waiting room, private booths for answering the questionnaire that was required at every visit, and a large room with at least 30 donation stations. I felt almost like they were aliens in a spaceship, giving our bodily fluids to the extra terrestrials, and I had willingly just jumped on-board their ship.
Every person was seated in a medical chair that looked more like a La-Z-Boy recliner and had needles in the fold in one of their arms. At the bottom of each person's machine there was a large, bulging bag of a yellowish liquid that was as dark and ominous as my urine after a night of drinking (I quickly learned if you drank enough water before donating, the entire process went more quickly and the plasma would come out clearer).
I passed the physical and the questionnaire and then I was called out to the floor. When I was first introduced to the term "phlebotomists", I was convinced my friend set me up and I was about to have my brain removed. Not that it would make much of a difference; hell, it might even be an improvement.
I asked for clarification.
"No, we don't remove brains. You're not getting a lobotomy; you're donating plasma. We only remove blood," my phlebotomist Sarah told me, putting on a blood pressure cuff and squeezing until my fingers turned blue.
"Like a vampire?"
"Sure," she said in the same tone of voice she would use on a small child or a special needs adult.
Sarah handed me a stress ball and told me squeeze it, as it keep blood pumping through my arm. I looked down at my arm and saw my vein was bulging and was threatening to poke through my arm.
"Wow. You have a fantastic vein in your right arm!" Sarah exclaimed with as much excitement as Dr. Frankenstein when he first created his monster.
I swear Sarah was on the verge of orgasm while she touched my vein. She motioned for her coworkers to come over and have a look.
Once she had an audience that stood two deep around my chair, she put the needle in the crook of my elbow and we all gasped in amazement at how fast the blood was flowing. I was more impressed that a machine could separate the plasma from my blood and return the blood back to my body! Even a vampire wasn't that talented, and if you've ever watched True Blood, you know how badass they really are!
At every visit, I was the test subject for interning phlebotomists. I was treated like a cadaver, being poked, prodded and used as a learning tool. Apparently, not everyone was as lucky in vein size as I was. The majority of people who donated plasma actually had small, jumpy veins in the arms. For those people, it was difficult to find the vein, hold it in place, and stick a needle inside and more often than not, resulted in large, yellow and purple bruises. My sister Kate also donated plasma with me and she often had difficulty and sometimes couldn't donate and wouldn't get paid, so I often shared my magma money with her.
Not for me though. I had a drug user vein in my right arm, and a needle hole to match it. At first I was proud of the small, crater like scar I had in my arm until the first time I went home after donating plasma around Thanksgiving and my parents suspected me of doing drugs.
"I swear I don't do drugs!" I said. "Well, except for smoking weed occasionally, but last time I checked you don't take that intravenously."
"Well then explain the hole in your arm then! And your bloodshot eyes! And your sudden weight loss! Last time you were here you were chunkier!"
"Thanks for the compliments. I'm hungover and my allergies are bad today, so that explains why I look like I have pink eye. I can't afford food, so that explains my shrinking waist. And since I can't afford alcohol I donate plasma so I can," I explained to them in a calm voice.
"What is plasma?" my dad asked, not bothering to look up from his crossword puzzle while his wife accused their daughter of being a druggie.
"I have no idea. All I know is that I have it, I give it away, and I get paid to do so."
"I'm glad you have your priorities, selling parts of your body for money to support your drinking habit. If you spent as much time studying as you do drinking, you could have gone to Northwestern! Or Harvard!" my mom lectured me, her voice dripping with disappointment.
"Harvard? Let's be real. And I'm a C and sometimes a B+ student! What more could you ask for? It's not like I sell my body for money; I just sell my bodily fluids for money," I defended myself.
After that holiday weekend back home, I started to feel guilty. Should I be selling plasma for selfish reasons like money? What about all those people who need blood too? Perhaps I should do something out of the kindness of my heart, not for the thickness of my wallet.
I don't know if it was the holiday season that inspired me, or my mother's disdain, but I decided to try this "being a good person" on and see how it made me look.
During a blood drive on campus two weeks before Christmas, I marched my jolly self into the giant RV and filled out the necessary paperwork to donate blood. I felt like I was taking a Scantron test for one of my classes with as many questions as they ask.
"What brought you in here today?" a person in a white coat asked me. I could only assume he was a phlebotomist, but what do I know?
"I wanted the free cookies and orange juice."
He laughed, but I was serious.
"Well, for whatever reason you came in, we certainly do appreciate it. You could save a life today, and just in time for Christmas!" he said excitedly.
"That's another reason I came in. Guilt, or as you may call it, holiday spirit."
He laughed again, but I was still serious.
Only twice before in my life had I donated blood, and that was back in high school just so I could get out of classes for the rest of the day. I didn't care about humanity or saving lives back then, just getting out of sociology was satisfying enough.
But as a college student and relatively shitty person who had just banked a grand from donating plasma, I was there donating blood strictly out of guilt.
About twenty minutes later after I had stepped foot on the blood mobile, I had made my pint sized donation, assured everyone I was fine, and stood up. The next thing I know I'm face down on the floor of the RV. Picture Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) from National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation, only a smidgeon more graceful.
The people in white coats had to pick me up off the ground, put me back in the chair, and hook me up to saline again. Instead of using smelling salt, they used a Snickerdoodle cookie to bring me back to consciousness. Which actually works by the way. Smelling almost any type of food will definitely arouse consciousness, or just simply arouse me.
After donating blood, I really did feel like I had made the right decision. My blood could soon be pumping through someone's heart and keeping them alive, and I felt like fucking Santa Claus! I was smitten with myself!
The feeling of selfless euphoria didn't last long. I went back to the Plasma center the next week to earn a few more bucks. Not for alcohol but for Christmas gifts. I'm not that selfish.
"Have you donated blood in the last 8 weeks?" they asked me during the mandatory questionnaire. This was a test; I could lie and get paid today. Or I could maintain my "good person" streak, be honest, and tell them the truth.
Sorry, I needed the money.
Besides the fact that I was dehydrated, I was also a pint of blood short. I passed out halfway through the process and the alarms on my machine blared louder than fire alarms in a public building. I could feel the color drain from my face, my blood sugar bottomed out, and I felt like death! I needed my blood back!
That plasma donation was the worst and last donation I would ever make. I was out of commission for two days, skipping classes and calling in sick to work. I probably needed dialysis or some sort of surgery to compensate for the fluid I had just drained from my body, but I figured orange juice and Ramen noodles would be enough for survival.
Both my arm and ego were bruised. I thought I could help save a life and make bank by donating my bodily fluids. I concluded that since trying to be a good person had made me physically ill, I should just stick to what I know, and what I know is that being a good person doesn't pay. Ever.
"I hate to say it, but I told you so. I knew donating your plasma was a bad idea, KC. It sounded dangerous from the beginning and I'm glad you're done with the whole thing. Now you can be done sticking needles in your arm like some drug addict," my mom said when I went home for Christmas that year.
"Well, those needles helped pay for that new digital camera you just opened," I said matter-of-factly. Mom's jaw dropped and she was speechless.
"That was bought with drug money?" my dad asked, not looking up from the crossword puzzle book I had bought for him.
"Sure," I answered him with the same tone of voice Sarah had used on me when I asked her if she was like a vampire. My father has never been a good listener and I know for a fact that he passed that valuable trait onto me. It wasn't worth explaining the difference between donating plasma and shooting heroin into my arm.
"You didn't have to sell your body to buy us a camera," Mom said. I love my parents dearly, but choosing the right words has never been their strong suit. They always mean well but sometimes the words that come out of their mouth have a completely different meaning than intended. This was one of those times. I also inherited this trait from them and am often misunderstood.
I was running out of ways to tell them that I was not selling my body nor was I doing drugs, simply because I had a needle scar in my arm. They were making it sound like I was a prostitute who makes money by lying on my back like a starfish for some guy in a dirty hotel room near the city dump.
"You're right Mom. I didn't have to but I wanted to sell my body to get you that camera."
My parents still use that Olympus digital camera I bought for them in 2002 by selling my body, according to my mom. According to my dad, I bought them a camera AND a DVD player with my "drug money". To me, it's "magma money".
Because my parents didn't (rather, couldn't afford to) pay my college tuition, I actually learned many valuable lessons from them. I learned the importance of money because I never had any and learned my limit as to how far I was willing to go to get it. I also appreciate my education and degree more because I paid for it (still am paying for it actually). It may not be a degree from Northwestern or Harvard, but it's a degree I paid for by working a legitimate job, using student loans, and selling my plasma.
After my last plasma donation, I went back to being broke and considered starting back at square one, but then I realized if my parents had so profoundly misunderstood my donating plasma, how would they react if they ever had to meet KoCo?