Plasma donations climb as economy weakens

Melissa Thomas calls it the “the easiest 90 minutes of my life.”

Sit in a recliner. Wrap up in a blanket. Watch a movie on a laptop or read a book. Get paid $100.

All this because she’s allergic — very allergic — to birch.

While sitting in the recliner, Thomas donates plasma, the liquid part of blood.

In addition to people with severe allergies, Everett’s PlasmaLab International Inc. also seeks donors who have autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The plasma is used in medical research. Donors are paid $50 to $100.

“Who can’t use an extra 100 bucks to help with gas?” she asked.

Thomas, who is 36 and a student at Edmonds Community College, estimates she’s made as much as $1,000 a year by making regular plasma donations.

As gas prices have spiked and the economy has soured, more people are calling about being a donor, PlasmaLab and other blood plasma donation centers say.

The calls started around the holidays and increased as the price of gas has topped $4 a gallon.

“Certainly we’ve seen people who have been laid off,” said Kay Hill, PlasmaLab’s chief executive. With increases in the cost of living, “some people who never thought about being a donor, think, ‘Well maybe I can make a little extra money.’”

Donating plasma is similar to donating blood. A needle is inserted into the arm, blood is withdrawn and a machine separates red blood cells from the golden-colored plasma. The final step is different from blood donation: the donor’s blood cells are dripped back into their arm, along with saline.

From start to finish, the process takes 90 minutes to two hours.

Nationally, the number of donations has increased from 10 million in 2005 to 15 million in 2007, said Joshua Penrod, of the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, based in Annapolis, Md. No figures are yet available for this year.

Much of the national rise in donations is because the number of plasma centers have increased or expanded their scope of operations, he said.

Ironically, the cost of gas has been something of a doubled-edged sword. While it has spurred some people to consider donating, some people “don’t even want to come from Seattle any more because of the cost of gas,” Hill said.

Retirees, needing to supplement their income, have also joined the donor pool.

Three women are such regulars at PlasmaLab that they’ve been tagged “The Ladies Blood Club.”

Janice Baker, of Edmonds, who is 64, now often donates twice a week. Her take-home pay can hit a tidy $800 a month.

She uses the money for gas and food, and sets some of the money aside to help out with winter energy bills. “I don’t get that much Social Security,” she said. “It makes a big difference. It’s really helpful.”

Baker, a long-time GTE employee, worked briefly for a storage business until the pain in her feet, wrists and hands from rheumatoid arthritis made it too uncomfortable to work.

While she said the donations often leave her feeling tired for the rest of the day, they’ve also had an unexpected benefit: Her arthritis pain has decreased.

“Since I started here, I hardly have any symptoms,” she said. “It could be all in my head, but whatever it is, it works.”

Retiree Susan Miller, of Monroe, began donating around the first of the year, making as much as $800 a month. “The extra money is very nice,” she said.

Like Baker, she, too, has rheumatoid arthritis — RA is the shorthand way she refers to it —and often donates twice a week.

“It’s almost like a job,” she said. “The only pain you have is the needle stick. The rest of it is painless.”

Sometimes she puts the extra money into savings or to help out with a car payment. And sometimes, the extra money helps pay for gas. Her motor home, she explained, only gets 7 miles to the gallon. “It would take a lot of donations to fill that,” she said with a chuckle.

Miller said she’s happy with being one of the plasma donor regulars. “Three of us come every Tuesday and Thursday. We’re getting new friends out of it.”

“We just yack,” Baker agreed. “I went into it saying, ‘Well, I’ll give it a try.’ Then I decided it was pretty good. I decided to go for the money.”

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