The scars on Samantha Hike’s arms are evidence of her economic struggle.
After a friend suggested she start donating plasma to earn a little extra money, Samantha, now a junior at Ball State, walked in the front doors of Biolife Plasma Services alone, nervous, and with no idea of what to expect.
I need money, but is this worth it? The then high school student asked herself.
Biolife Plasma Services is a facility with locations throughout the country that provides compensation for the donation of plasma. The donation process takes between 30 minutes to an hour and requires a series of blood withdrawals as well as blood replenishing. Once the blood is collected, the plasma is extracted. Then the machine returns the donor’s blood back through the same needle.
The plasma extracted from the donor can be used to remedy multiple rare illnesses and diseases, such as lung disease and bleeding disorders.
After a lengthy process of physicals, testing, and questioning, Samantha found herself sitting in a room waiting to be “stuck.” Her first experience in the chair filled her with terror that she still gets every time she donates. Samantha’s biggest fear? The needle. Which to this day still makes her uneasy.
She says that the needle is larger than the one used for normal blood donation because the blood must also be returned back into the bloodstream after it is collected.
Even after years of donating plasma, needles continue to be one of Samantha’s biggest fears. And yet she continues returning to donate.
The reason is simple: Samantha needs the money.
Because she is paying for college on her own, Samantha’s bi-weekly paycheck from her on-campus job, the $300 she receives every month from her father, and the presidential scholarship–which covers about half of Samantha’s burden of tuition–have not been enough to sustain her financially. The income she receives from Biolife is crucial to her financial independence, as if it were a second job.
Samantha’s stress is apparent, but felt by many. Seventy percent of college students are worried about their financial stability, according to the National Student Financial Wellness Study.
Samantha is not the only Ball State student who turns to plasma donations as a means of income. Looking around the plasma center, Samantha notices that many of the people sitting in the chairs around her are wearing Greek letters or doing their homework.
The financial struggle is felt by many college students and graduates nationwide. In 2014, 69 percent of graduating seniors in the U.S. had student debt that averaged at almost $30,000 per borrower, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
Once she graduates, Samantha will fall into this 69 percent, even though she continues to work and donate.
Her yearning to make more cash has taken priority over her physical well-being, which became apparent to her after a complicated donation.
In the first semester of her sophomore year, Samantha went into the plasma center as she did every week. To donate plasma, individuals must be well-hydrated, so she drank around six bottles of water that day to prepare for her donation. As she was sitting in the chair, the bottles caught up to her. She asked if she could go to the bathroom, even though she hadn’t received her saline solution, which helps replenish the patient’s plasma.
The staff hesitated but eventually unhooked her from the machine. She was told to drink a bottle of water and wait 15 minutes before she could leave.
After she was cleared, Samantha left the center and took a trip to Walmart. As she was standing in the aisle, Samantha began to feel dizzy and felt a sense of tunnel-vision.
“I remember gripping the aisle and getting down on my knees. I couldn’t see anything,” she said.
She doesn’t remember what happened next, but she awoke moments later to a fellow Walmart-shopper hovering over her.
I tried to catch you, he told her in a panic. Your head bounced; I couldn’t get to you in time, he said.
Samantha’s fainting spell put her in a daze as she called her boyfriend to pick her up from the store.
Fainting spells are not the only side-effect that occurs because of plasma donation. Although plasma donating is considered a safe, sterile, and life-saving procedure, there are many risks that donors may experience.
Samantha’s roommate Ashley, who is also a regular donor at Biolife, has had multiple hematomas after donating. A hematoma is an abnormal collection of blood outside of the blood vessel which can lead to bruising and swelling, according to MedicineNet.
A plasma donor may also experience a weakened immune system, scar tissues, and immediate dehydration which can lead to vomiting, dizziness or fainting, according to an article published by Health Research Funding. All of these risks can damage a donor’s long-term health.
Samantha even recalls a time when she felt sick in the middle of a donation. She was hooked up to the machine when she started to feel uneasy.
“My whole body went numb. I had never felt like that before,” she said. She remembers her pulse racing and her limbs tingling. She immediately became frightened and requested they turn off the machine.
These complications have not been enough to free her from her need to donate her plasma twice a week. Samantha says that if she weren’t struggling financially, she wouldn’t donate plasma. Since donors can make more than $200 a month, the compensation she gets for the seemingly little time she spends there is too great for her to ignore.
The National Student Financial Wellness study also found that over one-third of college students admit to neglecting their studies due to financial stress. Samantha admits that her financial stress is more prevalent than her academic stress and finds that it is easier for her to check her grades than it is for her to check her bank account.
Samantha will continue to work and donate plasma until she graduates, but will still face debt. She fears that her student loans will drive her into financial hole that she may never be able to dig herself out of. She continues to seek out ways to lift her financial burden, but until then, she will continue to return to the chair and the needle.