Blood Money

In lean times, people tap a renewable resource: their own plasma

About a half-dozen people are sitting on gray plastic chairs in the waiting room at CSL Plasma center in Spokane Valley. An American flag is on one wall. A DVD is starting to play on two TV sets. The people ignore the film that is showing — Intolerable Cruelty.

Clayton Lawrence is reading a book and waiting to sell plasma for cash.

“I’m between jobs,” says the 25-year-old father of three. “Things have been kinda rough.”

He is pretty upbeat. In addition to the $200 or so that he makes selling blood plasma twice a week, he supports his family working day labor, typically in construction. When times were better, he had a steady construction gig.

“I worked on the roof at the WinCo across the street,” he says.

His wife stays home with their three children: a 5-year-old and 7-month-old twins.

The amount of money he earns from plasma sales varies depending on how much he weighs. CSL pays according to weight, and the more you weigh, the more you get paid.

You have to weigh at least 110 pounds to sell plasma at CSL. You can give plasma twice in a seven-day period. CSL pays everyone $15 for the first donation in a week. For the second visit in a week, you get $25 if you weigh less than 150 pounds, $30 if you weigh 149 to 175 pounds and $35 if you weigh more than that.

Lawrence says he is between the lightest and second group. “I’m trying to put on weight,” he says, grinning.

There are three places to sell plasma in Spokane. CSL, a multi-national Australian company, owns two of them. In addition to the Valley location on Sprague, they own Spokane’s oldest plasma donation site at 104 W. Third Ave.

The third location, at 510 W. Francis St., is owned by International Bio Resources (IBR), a company with corporate offices in Louisiana and Georgia. Zach Blankenship is the manager of that plasma center, which opened Jan. 6. The Spokane location is one of more than 30 plasma centers IBR operates.

IBR pays more than CSL — $40 each for the first two times you donate, plus a $20 referral fee if you get someone else to donate. After the first two times, they pay $25 and $35, regardless of weight. You can only donate twice a week, as it takes a couple of days for your body to replenish plasma. Both CSL and IBR put a mark on a donor’s finger that is visible under black light to ensure people don’t donate too often.

Blankenship says there are about 900 donations a week at the IBR center. “The goal is to get to 1,000 by next month,” he says. He says they will top out at 1,500 a week. He says IBR makes about a 30 percent profit on selling plasma.

Petra Garza, 39, is waiting to donate for the second time at IBR. She is a single parent with three sons, 18, 16 and 4. She moved back with her parents because of the economy. She is a waitress but only works 20 hours a week. She is looking for more.

“The job market is hard right now,” she says. It’s been a year since she’s had a 40-hour job. “I’ve been a waitress a long time, and even the tips are down.”

Lynn Amsden, 57, has been selling plasma off and on since the 1980s. He says he has only come to the IBR center a couple of times.

“I don’t do it all the time,” he says. However, with winter coming, he wants to prepare his mobile home for the cold weather and donating plasma gives him some money to do it. He gets about $900 a month from Social Security. He says, for him, the economy has been down since 1995, when he broke his back. “It’s hard to make it on Social Security.”

The process of donating plasma involves being tested for several diseases, including HIV, hepatitis and syphilis.

The process takes about 45 minutes to an hour once it starts. A needle is put in your arm and blood withdrawn. The blood goes to a separator, where the plasma — the liquid portion of whole blood — is removed and stored. Then the blood is returned to your body. The process is repeated several times in order to get about two pints of plasma.

Christine Kuhinka, manager of corporate communications for CSL, says that people are compensated for their time, not the plasma. It takes more time for larger people to donate more plasma than smaller people, which is why they get more money, she says.

The price paid for people’s time at CSL dropped over the summer. Kuhinka says it had little to do with supply and demand or the weak economy.

“The rates vary for a variety of reasons,” she says, including infrastructure improvements. CSL operates 65 centers, with another eight opening soon.

Kuhinka wouldn’t say how many people donate at the Spokane locations. She says more people have been donating for several years.

“The industry has seen a steady increase in the number of people donating,” she says. That started in 2005, and she says it’s hard to correlate the increase in donors to the economy.

CSL manufactures a variety of products using plasma. The products are used in transplant medicine, critical care and immunology and for coagulation.

Kuhinka says 90 percent of the people donating are repeat donors. Many people donate plasma for altruistic reasons as much as for money. “They get that they are saving lives,” she says.

Altruistic or not, the drop in payment wasn’t appreciated by the donors. Eric Bretz, 43, was on his way to donate at the downtown CSL center.

“The rates suck, they really do,” he says. He says the price drop meant about $70 a month less for him. However, he’s unemployed and has little choice but to continue.

Outside of IBR on Francis, a group of men gather and chat. Andrew Pauley, 25, stands among of them. He says he can’t find work and donates plasma to make ends meet.

“It’s money,” he shrugs, adding, “still, it’s selling bits of myself.”

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