Chelsea Asplund/The AS Review

When graduate student Malorie Bolin was preparing to study abroad in Austria three years ago, she took the advice of a friend on how to get some extra cash. She didn’t penny pinch, pick up a second job or sell her things on eBay. She donated her plasma, an undertaking that more students have been turning to as a way to earn extra money.

In recent years, donating plasma has become a popular outlet for those who want to contribute to a good cause and earn some pocket money at the same time. Plasma is the translucent, straw-colored fluid comprising approximately 55 percent of our blood by volume. Plasma cannot be produced synthetically; therefore plasma programs are dependent on volunteer donors.

Bolin, who donated at the Bellingham branch of BioLife Plasma Services for several weeks, earned $300. She said she sometimes feels guilty because donating plasma isn’t what people would normally consider a “donation,” given that she was paid for it.

“I could also argue that there is always compensation,” Bolin said. “When you donate blood, you receive the feeling of appreciation and you wear your gauze with pride, most people don’t try to hide the gauze or Band-Aid after a donation. It may not be financial, but it is compensation.”

Similar to when a person gives blood, plasmapheresis extracts blood plasma through a needle placed in the vein of an arm. The red blood cells are separated from the other components, which are then recycled back into the donor’s bloodstream through a solution.

Depending on the visit and health of the donor, the first donation can take as long as two to three hours. By federal regulations, donors in the United States are only allowed to donate two times per week, with at least two days in between.

Bolin said if it wasn’t for the demands of her graduate program and job, she’d get right back into donating. The only drawback Bolin said she experienced was one instance when a technician accidently poked through both sides of her vein, causing a subdural hematoma (bleeding beneath the skin, more significant than bruising) in both arms.

Junior Jared Wartman has been donating plasma periodically over the course of the past year. He said he has had a generally positive experience and found the side effects to be minimal.

“I found that if I hadn’t eaten enough right before donating that I would sometimes get lightheaded,” Wartman said. “The only other side effect was that I would feel a little tired and worn out after donating.”

When a donor first arrives, he or she answers questions at an electronic kiosk regarding their recent health and activities, Wartman said. The donor’s temperature and blood are then tested by a technician, a check to see if they are in good shape to donate that day. For the next 45 minutes or so the patient is hooked up to a machine to draw the plasma, during which they can plug in their iPod or read a magazine to pass the time.

Currently Wartman is not giving plasma because he recently got a tattoo; BioLife restricts donors from participating for up to an entire year after getting a new tattoo.

He said he would recommend donating plasma to anyone who isn’t afraid of needles, and that while some may see the “donation” as more of a money gimmick, he said he felt the act was deserving of payment.

“The donor is taking their time to do it so it makes sense that they are compensated,” Wartman said. “It’s an incentive for people to do something beneficial and it helps college kids and others to get by.”

Student Health Center Director Dr. Emily Gibson said it is crucial that the center monitors blood components in all of their donors on a regular basis to make sure component and nutrient levels are not being depleted.

This, she said, is a significant reason why the approval process to become a donor is so extensive.

“We are regularly asked to screen potential donors due to concerns about their medical history or physical findings,” Gibson said. “We do our best to support ongoing plasma donations if it is safe for the student.”

She said some people are not approved for donation if they have a history of chronic diseases, blood-borne infections such as hepatitis or HIV, cardiac history or if they are on medications that are affected by the loss of plasma.

When Natalie Jones was a freshman three years ago, a friend asked her if she’d like to donate plasma with him. The incentive? If she came in and told them he recommended her, they would give her friend $10. After doing a quick physical and answering health questions, Jones was able to make an appointment to actually donate.

After her first visit, she received a debit card in the mail, which BioLife added money to for each session. Jones received $20 for her first visit and $30 for the second visit each week.

“Personally I donate plasma both because I believe it’s a good cause and it’s a way to get a little bit of extra cash,” she said. “I think it is a relatively harmless way to give low-income college students an added incentive to donate plasma.”

Requirements for plasma donation:

  • Be at least 18 years of age

  • Weigh at least 110 pounds

  • Complete a pre-donation physical

  • Pass two medical exams

  • Medical history screening