Surviving inflation one plasma donation at a time

A Louisiana teacher is among millions of Americans forced to make hard choices because of rising prices

Christina Seal’s arm after donating plasma this month in Slidell, La. (Emily Kask for the Washington Post)
Christina Seal’s arm after donating plasma this month in Slidell, La. (Emily Kask for the Washington Post)

SLIDELL, La. — Tuesdays she asked for the needle in her left arm, and one afternoon in late April, Christina Seal, 41, arrived at the clinic after work. The parking lot was almost full, as usual.

She had been giving plasma for nearly six months, and she had a routine locked in place. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Two Sam’s Club protein shakes and an iron supplement a day to keep herself serviceable. Afterward, vitamin E oil on her skin to prevent needle scars. The routine had helped tame into normalcy what at first had felt so bizarre. “I never thought I would be in a position where I would have to sell my plasma to feed my children,” she would say later.

This was where inflation had driven Seal. A month earlier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics had announced that prices had risen 8.5 percent over the past year, the largest annual jump since December 1981. Fuel, food and housing costs are higher than they have been in years. The financial strain has forced millions of households to collide against new limits and harder choices. Inflation has bent a million routines into new shapes.

For Seal, it has meant that her 18-year teaching career alone can no longer provide for her two children, ages 15 and 12. It has meant feeding them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and explaining that she cannot afford the gas to drive both her son to boxing lessons and her daughter to volleyball. It has meant realizing there are few options for help.

“I’ve applied for every government program that I can think of,” she said. “I don’t qualify for food stamps, I don’t qualify for any programs. For middle-class people like me, there are no programs.”

Then, last fall, she found a possible solution. By donating plasma — the liquid element in human blood containing vital antibodies and proteins — twice a week each week, Seal could earn between $400 to $500 per month.

That Tuesday at the plasma clinic, the waiting room was also nearly full.

“$20 Fuel Bonus after every 4th Donation. Your wallet will love you and your car will ‘tank’ you,” read a poster on the wall.

“When you refer a friend you earn a $50 Buddy Bonus!” another said.

Seal had arrived with her boyfriend, Jason Boyer, 41. None of this was normal for him yet. It was only his second visit, and he mirrored her steps as she checked in at a video kiosk along the wall. Then they found seats, and bits of conversation drifted from the other rows.

“I was going to this other one; they give you a hundred for each visit,” one person said.

“I like here that the process is faster, the machine is quicker,” another explained.

“Some places, the heavier you are, the more money you get,” a woman said.

Seal left the center a few hours later with $50 added onto a debit card from the clinic. Thursday’s trip would add $80. Lately, she had started to experience excruciating stabs of pain in her abdomen. But her family needed those payments so badly that Seal forced herself to continue to those twice-weekly trips.

‘There is nothing left after I pay bills’

Around September, Seal noticed a spike in the cost of her weekly expenses. The $150 she spent on groceries was now $200. Filling the car’s gas tank went up from $40 to $70. Her utility bills also crept up from $150 to $200, then eventually to $300.

The rising costs jolted her life from what had felt like a steady course. She was a divorced mother of two who lived in a modest and tidy home in Slidell, a sprawling suburb across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Her position as a certified special-education teacher at a local public school paid $54,000 a year, which had always been enough for her monthly $1,050 rent and $250 car payment.

But going into the last holiday season, Seal found herself using her credit cards more often to pay bills, increasing her debt to about $10,000.

“My paycheck wasn’t enough really to keep us alive now, there is nothing left after I pay bills,” she said. “I’ve always had a little left over at the end of the month to use for clothes or if we wanted to go out to eat. Now, I don’t have anything left. I began sending my entire paycheck to the credit card.”

Seal was not alone. Friends and fellow teachers faced their own choices dealing with rising costs. Some decided to sell their cars for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Some sold homemade items online, like bows, for extra cash. Some found second jobs at day cares or as tutors.

As her financial concerns deepened, her children started picking up on her anxiety. Her son, Cullen, asked her why she didn’t just get a job that paid better.

The truth was, Seal loves being a teacher. She teaches special-needs children in a pre-K program at a school where 40 percent of the families live below the poverty line. Each child in her classroom has his or her own issues and diagnoses and triggers; each requires his or her own unique approach. Seal often returns home exhausted. She thought it would be unfair to her own kids to be away all day working a second job.

Then one day when she was driving last fall, she spotted the low-rise white building that houses ImmunoTek Bio Centers, a plasma donation clinic.

This could be the answer, she thought.

The needle used was bigger than she expected. The process pulls blood from the body, then a machine separates the plasma from red blood cells, white blood cells and the rest, which is then returned through an IV. Once the needle was in, the whole process usually took Seal about 45 minutes.

The only discomfort was when the saline started pumping into her body. That was when the cold began, a fast creep radiating from her arm. Afterward, she craved food but also found food nauseating. Depleted, she went home to sleep for a few hours. “Tuesday and Thursday nights are pretty much a wash for me,” she said.

But Seal didn’t mind the physical effort. She had had two C-sections. “I’ve been poked with so many needles and epidurals, this is not a big deal.”

What was a big deal was the money. Going into the holidays, the extra $400 or $500 a month from plasma was crucial for Seal. That money went toward everyday expenses, while her paycheck helped pay off debt.

Money seemed to be the main concern in the chatter that circulated in the waiting room at the plasma center. Each time she went, she listened to others talk about it, how to get more. Without realizing it, she had wandered into a corner of the economy where poverty, medical research and corporate profits intersect.

Plasma donation is the bedrock of lifesaving medical techniques and research. Two-thirds of the world’s plasma supply comes from the United States, in part because the country allows companies to pay for plasma. The U.S. donation industry, driven by global demand, has become a billion-dollar industry over the past decade. According to a University of Michigan study, donations have quadrupled since 2006, with 53.5 million paid donations in 2019. The industry is projected to be worth $48 billion by 2025 — more than double its worth in 2016.

In 2005, there were 300 plasma donation centers in the United States. By 2020, there were more than 900, concentrated in the South and the Midwest. Industry leaders have defended the practice of paying plasma donors, arguing that “incentivizing them is critical” and maintaining the plasma pipeline is a “life or death matter.”

But the infrastructure feeding that pipeline appears to rely on people facing economic hardship. A 2021 analysis by the University of Michigan found “a clear linkage between the location of a plasma center” and “the presence of disadvantage,” with “census tracts with the deepest poverty” being “most likely to have a plasma center.”

As Seal continued making her twice-weekly visits last fall and winter, she picked up on the center’s tempo. It was money — debt, rent payments, school clothes and more — that seemed to drive the crowd, not humanitarian interest. The waiting room filled up before the holidays. Some donors mentioned crossing the nearby Mississippi state line and donating there to get around the twice-a-week limit.

Seal got the sense that this source of income had become essential for many of those familiar faces, as it had for her, and would be for the future.

The reliability of that vital income source, however, rested on her health — which she potentially risked with the frequency of her donations.

Every person regularly donating at the clinic went through a four-month checkup. When her test results came back in February, Seal was told her protein levels were too low to donate. She would need to come back to be cleared by a doctor.

A trip to the emergency room

On that Tuesday afternoon in April, Seal sat in a back row of the waiting room, watching her boyfriend Boyer chat with an older woman in the seats ahead.

“I do a lot of ginger,” the woman explained to Boyer, coaching a new donor on her usual approach. “You try to coat your stomach. Always have crackers, too. They have crackers here, too, you can ask for them.”

Boyer nodded politely, flashing a boyish grin as the woman continued to talk. Today would be his second time donating. The payment was $200 for both the first and second visit. Boyer had decided to start following Seal to the plasma center, partly to protect against the day when her health forced her to stop.

“I wanted to save mine in case she has to go into the hospital again,” he would say later.

When Seal was told her protein levels were too low, she drank a few protein drinks, ate a large meal and returned to the center the next day. Although her levels had returned to normal, the center’s doctor needed to sign off on her return. The wait for the signature took three weeks.

Friends at work told her to stop, that giving plasma was stealing from her body and going to make her ill. “I do what I need to do for my family,” she said later. “I would give my life for my children, so having to give plasma to give them extra, that’s fine.”

Once Seal was cleared to donate, she hit another medical roadblock. In early April, she was rushed to the emergency room. Pain was tearing through her stomach. Doctors told her it could be her gallbladder or an ulcer, but surgery was needed determine the problem. With Seal’s insurance, the procedure would cost close to $1,000, money she didn’t have even with the plasma donations.

So, she decided to press on, even though she was struck regularly by pain after meals.

Boyer watched this with frustration. A Navy veteran, he had been injured years before on a construction job, herniating a disk in his back. He was still recovering from surgery. The workers’ compensation payments he got helped some but did little to soften the feeling that Seal was carrying the burden.

“I should be working,” he said. “But I can’t right now because I’ve got to finish healing first. But she shouldn’t have to deal with all this on her own.”

Still, Boyer wouldn’t let himself get swamped by the frustration.

“I’m going to get that job, and I’m going to be able to take care of the family,” he said. “Once my injuries are done, I’ll be able to provide better.”

In the meantime, he went with Seal to the plasma center. On a later visit, he was told that because of his veins, he wasn’t a good match for regular donation.

‘This should not be my life’

Seal and Boyer were sitting in her living room on a Wednesday afternoon. She was curled in a recliner. CNBC’s “Mad Money” was blaring on the television.

“Sales Were Undeterred By Inflation and The Threat of a Recession,” a ticker on the screen read.

“With the Fed Making Efforts to Tamp Down, Has Inflation Finally Peaked?” another read a moment later.

“An End to Inflation In Sight?” the screen flashed.

Seal sighed. Most days, she did not feel bitter or frustrated. Giving plasma was what she had to do to help her family. The money was good. But there were other moments, in the late afternoons, after a long day of work, when she was exhausted and her stomach hurt and she knew there would be no money for the surgery anytime soon. In those moments, her mood dimmed.

“There are times I feel like this should not be my life,” she said while the television droned on about the impact of inflation on the markets. “I went to college to get a degree that isn’t even paying me what I deserve. I just get frustrated that I shouldn’t have to be doing this.”

The moment passed. In a few weeks, Seal would still be afflicted by stomach pain. One day, she would be turned away from the plasma center because her blood pressure was too high. Not long after that, she would realize it was now taking about $80 to fill up her gas tank instead of $70.

But all that lay ahead, and for now she had her routine. Sitting in the recliner, she knew tomorrow was Thursday, and on Thursdays she asked for the needle in her right arm.

Story editing by Annys Shin. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Whitney Juckno. Design by J.C. Reed.

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