"I was out of gas and I, got there at five minutes to four, and they told me they were closed. And I told the lady I had to have the money.”
The San Diego Blood Bank is encased in a neatly rectangular concrete-and-glass building on a respectable street (Upas) in Hillcrest. Our Blood Bank gets 100 percent of its blood from volunteer donors, and with this meets virtually all the needs of the local hospitals themselves. This situation is rare, say the Bank’s publicists; only a few other cities—San Francisco and Seattle, to name a few others—can claim this 100 per cent advantage.
Advantage, say the publicists, because in hospitals in cities like Los Angeles and New York, the demand for blood is so great that patients must be transfused with “commercial” blood, blood that is bought in neighborhoods like lower Broadway in San Diego, or the Bowery in New York City. It was interesting to find out that Del Roberts, apparently a senior lady at the Blood Bank’s publicity department, had read the article in New York Magazine in May written by someone whose friend was a patient in a New York hospital and was given a transfusion of blood infected with hepatitis. The writer, mustering all the courage of a participatory journalist, did personal investigation and barely lived to tell the story, or so it seemed. (I turned white and nearly fainted after reading a couple of pages.) At least in her initial conversation, Del Roberts refrained from distinguishing between the ghoulish scene in the article and San Diego’s own blood and plasma centers below Broadway. She emphasized how lucky San Diego was, how one could get into the Blood Assurance Plan, the Blood Reserve Plan, the Stork Club, the Gallon Club. More to the issue, she said that up until last year the Blood Bank used to pay $7 a unit for specific blood types and $20 a unit for on—call donations from registered donors. New they don’t have to pay at all. The reasons she could point to for San Diego’s attainment of 100 per cent volunteers were the presence of the military (“During the summer, if we fall behind, we call the Marines and the Navy”)and the Pints of Life, a group of donors who remain on call for any emergency need for blood.
“What’s your name, your full name?”
“Thorn. Alan L. Thorn.”
“Thorn. Let’s see. I have two Thorns, an Alan and a Mary. You were ‘permanently rejected’ by Bio-Lab in National City, it says here.”
“Yes, that’s because ...”
(Alan’s wife steps over.) “Yes, let me explain. I got stuck down there in the middle of nowhere. I was out of gas and I, got there at five minutes to four, and they told me they were closed. And I told the lady I had to have the money.”
Then, Mary said, she demanded to see the boss and yelled at him, and the boss stamped “Permanently Rejected" on her yellow form.
The large lady who had been listening pretty patiently to Mary Thorn went to get Walt, the manager. Walt listened to Mary’s story and asked the large lady to call Bio-Lab while the Thorns took their seats and waited.
The rest of us in the Community Blood and Plasma Center’s waiting room were listening to the Thorns’ conversation and now returned to our own devices. The two guys in the row of chairs by the window were sharing a copy of the Union, the Mexican woman in the middle of the second row of chairs was writing on her jeans with a blue ball point pen. The plump blonde woman in all white pants-suit continued to take blood samples at the counter: Squeezing the fourth finger of her customer, then pricking it, then squeezing it to milk out the bright red bead of blood, letting the drop of blood run up into the vermicelli-thin glass tube, then eye-dropping a yellow drop and a blue drop separately on a glass slide.
“See, you can see if the blood clots. See, if it clots in both the blue and the yellow, you have blood type AB.” She swished the vermicelli tube in each drop and sure enough the blood resolved itself into tiny, tiny red dots.
The waiting room itself isn’t too tense. You might call some of the people scruffy. There’s this one guy, tall, shoulder-length sandy hair, and shirt unbuttoned, showing a semi-hairy but deeply tan chest and stomach. He just stands against the wall and stares around at the others, almost as if to keep the others from staring around. There’s a nice little man who could be anybody’s grandfather sitting down, deep into a paperback novel. Music—is it rock, is it muzak?— comes in spurts from the Bleeding Room.
Before you reach the Bleeding Room, there is the Physical Exam Room, with a doctor who takes a urine sample and plays a statement on a cassette recorder about what you are going to do in the Bleeding Room. After you have listened to the statement, he perfunctorily asks you to sign the statement you’ve just heard which is also printed on a piece of paper.
All three of the local blood and plasma centers in San Diego (Community Blood and Plasma near India and Broadway, Pacific Coast Plasma at 6th and E, and San Diego Plasma at 10th and F) pay S6-7 a unit for either blood or plasma. The reason plasma is what most regulars donate is that you can give it twice a week, and blood you can give only once every eight weeks. When they take your plasma, they draw your whole blood, centrifuge the red blood cells, and return them to you. (Plasma consists primarily of white blood cells.) The way I figure it, you can make roughly $700 a year giving plasma and only $42 giving blood.
At Community Blood and Plasma there is a Coffee Room between the waiting room in front and the large Bleeding Room. Here, where donors take coffee, tea, water, or soft drinks while waiting for a free bleeding station, is where people feel more at ease to socialize.
“Hey, man, what’s happening?”
“Hey, man, how’s it going?” “Where you staying?”
“Oh, at some little place in Ocean Beach. Just crashing with some people I met.”
The one guy dragging along his backpack on the floor has a definite Ocean Beach look about him—slightly disheveled, sleepy eyes, blissful expression. But as the conversation ensues, it turns out that the O.B. guy has spent most of his time scamming in front of the Spreckels Theatre, both guys are actually from Canada, and the other one is going back home soon but is staying for the Rod Stewart-Faces concert.
“Yeah, that’s going to be far out. I’m staying for that too.” What attracts most of the attention in the Coffee Room is this very skinny, pale girl with a pretty face who is making a big fuss about what sign everyone is. By now she has asked each person sitting down.
“A Cancer, Huh? Oh, we’d get along great. I’m Pisces, and Cancers and Pisces get along real well. What sign are you?” One of the Canadians walks over to the coffee machine.
“Oh, I knew it. I just knew it. That’s what he is. I can just tell Leo’s. They are so, so .. .inconsiderate.” She starts pounding on the arm and shoulder of this bulky, muscular guy in a halter-type undershirt sitting next to her (her boyfriend?). “He’s so inconsiderate, we’re always getting in fights. He never cares about me, he just thinks of himself, he’s so stuck up. And I’m stubborn. Pisces are stubborn, you know. That’s how come we’re always fighting.” “No, no. I’m just more easy going. I just know where I’m at. I’m not inconsiderate.”
An older Mexican guy wheels a new, full drinking water bottle into the little room and the girl apparently knows him.
“Jose, what sign are you? Sign. You know, the stars. What sign are you?”
Jose is a Cancer and everybody in the room seems to agree about Cancers. An extremely fat couple sitting next to the bulky boyfriend ate also two contrary signs, and they explain to the skinny girl how they manage to get along in spite of it. Then they start kissing each other on the mouth.
“Is they guy in that Physical Exam room really a doctor?” “Oh, yes,” affirms the astrology girl. “He isn’t the regular doctor. He’s just filling in for Dr. Harris who’s on vacation. They have to have him here in case something goes wrong.” “Wrong?”
“Oh, yeah. One time when they were taking blood, they jabbed a guy in the nerve and he went into a fit.”
My introduction to the Bleeding Room reminded me of the first time I went to a real dairy and saw how they milked cows. I was so disillusioned ; for some reason my suburban childhood naivete had led me to believe that all cows were milked by hand. And here in the Bleeding Room, what I thought would be a rather intimate operation turned out to be as impersonal as the modern dairy. There are six rows of six black easy chairs in the Bleeding Room. Each chair has one or two metal poles from which hang the plastic bags of blood and the tubes carrying blood from the bleeder to the bags.
“All the way to the back. There’s a station for you back there.”
Back there a pert fortyish red-haired nurse named Portia scurried from station to station with her metal cart, picking the arm with the healthiest vein, swabbing it, jabbing it, coming back later to take the full plastic bag of blood to the centrifuge, then returning with the bag half full of the darker blood (only the red cells), and turning on your tube again. Once she has filled the patient with the red cells, she starts the process again with another plastic bag. As a plasma donor, you give two bags of 500 cubic centimeters per visit if you weigh under 175 pounds, two 600 cc bags if you weigh 175 or more.
The pain of the initial jabbing seems like something you could get used to. But the psychological part, especially as the cold, red blood cells are put back, seems hard. They refrigerate the cells as they’re being centrifuged, and they’re oh so cold as they’re fed back into the veinous system.
The pain, whether physical or psychological, is mollified a little bit by the bright lighting and soft music of KEZL played incessantly in the Bleeding Room. And when Portia connects or disconnects the tubing she hums right along, “It was fasci-na-a-tion I know .. .la -da-da-da-duh ...”
The fat girl (of the Coffee Room fat couple), a couple of bleeding stations over, is engaged in a long and enthusiastic discussion about Jaws and how she wouldn’t let her four year-old daughter see it. “It was so gory.” Then the conversation turned to The Exorcist, and the guy in the station across from the girl started talking about guys who exposed themselves in Central Park in New York. The fat girl said she didn’t need the money the Plasma Center gave her, but came down each week to give because her blood was needed. She said to be sure to get the packet of hot chocolate they give away with the $7. Portia, the nurse, told a black guy who had just filled up his two bags and gotten his red cells back to put his arm up and not let it down or she’d be the one who’d have to clean up the blood. □