In this essay about her brother at Virginia Quarterly Review, Sarah Smarsh writes about how rich drug companies buy plasma from the poor and working poor, literally feeding their wealth with one of the few renewable resources the poor have to sell — their blood.
Your brother has a hole on the inside of each arm that never quite closes. A blood tap, really, like an oil well for drilling. He is a tall, strong man in his early thirties—an ideal source for plasma.
A woman calls his name. She takes his temperature and blood pressure. He gets to skip the full-blown health screening since he’s been coming here twice a week, off and on, for almost ten years. She pricks his finger to make sure his blood is okay today.
When your brother finally graduated, the economy was in the tank. As a first-generation college student he had no connections in the professional world, and no one to tell him that communications and history degrees were bad bets to begin with. A good job never turned up. For years he has worked at call centers, leasing agencies, shipping companies. Those paychecks don’t cover basic living costs, though. Thus, his face has aged a decade going in and out of this place by necessity.
The materials around the place tout the life-saving service he’s providing others; the plasma stripped from his blood will be turned into pharmaceuticals. Very expensive pharmaceuticals, ones he could never afford were he diagnosed with hemophilia or an immune disorder. He doesn’t have health insurance and could use a trip to the doctor himself. The promotional pamphlets and websites call what he’s doing a donation, but it’s really a sale.
The buyers are corporations with names like BioLife, Biotest, Octapharma. Plasma brings thirty, fifty bucks a pop depending on how often you go and how much you weigh. Your brother is in the highest weight class, which means he gets twenty dollars for the first donation of the week, forty-five dollars for the second.