Raleigh, N.C. — Times are tough, unemployment's high and gas is expensive, but those willing to be poked and prodded for profit are finding alternative ways to make money – by selling parts of their body.
About 1,200 people donate plasma at Talecris Plasma Resources on New Bern Avenue in Raleigh each week in a 30- to 45-minute procedure that nets donors $50 for each of the first two donations, according to the company.
Every donation after that pays $25, but people who donate a second time within seven days get $30. Those who make six donations in a month get a $30 bonus.
The center has been seeing about 20 new donors a day, and some of them spend hours going through the process, which includes a 45-minute physical with a nurse on the first visit.
Participants sit in a recliner while a machine separates their red blood cells from the liquid part of their blood, the plasma, which Talecris uses to make life-saving medications. Since the recession began, there has rarely been an empty seat in the house, according to Talecris.
“Unfortunately, the worse the economy is doing, the better the plasma numbers are typically doing,” said Jeff Davis, manager of the Talecris plasma donation center.
Talecris’ center in Raleigh has seen its donor list jump by more than 400 people during the past year. That's when 50-year-old Randall Tasker started donating. He was out of work and says the money made all the difference.
“My lights are on. My bills are paid. Yes, it helps,” he said.
Once donors get the red blood cells dripped back into their arm, they walk to a nearby ATM to get paid. Aside from the prick, donors say it's painless. Talecris says their plasma replenishes in two days.
Donors must prove they have a permanent address and pass a physical and medical history analysis. On the day of donation, their blood pressure, protein levels, blood volume and temperature must be just right.
“If you’re not eating right and taking care of yourself, then you won’t make it through the process, and if you don’t make it through the process, you won’t get paid,” Davis said.
Tasker, who is now working as a contractor and housekeeper, says he has thought about donating blood to the Red Cross, even though he knows he won't get paid for it.
UNC student donates eggs after seeing woman's ad
Another way of getting paid is by donating eggs.
Duke Fertility Center on Fayetteville Road in Durham has seen egg donor applicants increase by a third to a half in the past two years. More than 1,500 women apply per year now, according to nursing manager Donna Nellis, who says that women who do it just for the money are weeded out.
A 21-year-old student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who asked that her name not be used, has had her eggs harvested twice at Carolina Conceptions on Lake Drive in Raleigh.
“It’s amazing. Like, it’s not like anything I thought it would be,” she said. “It didn’t hurt me. During the actual procedure, I didn’t even remember it.”
She had seen advertisements in her school newspaper for egg donation and thought nothing of it, but this past winter, she saw an ad featuring a woman who wanted an egg donor because she couldn't have children of her own.
"(The woman) listed characteristics similar to mine," the UNC student recalled. "I had never thought about (donating eggs) before ... but then I couldn't get her ad out of my head. I kept thinking about how similar I was to her. "
The UNC student eventually emailed the woman and later talked to her on the phone.
"I decided I wanted to do it, because I liked her so much. I couldn't imagine her, of all people, not being able to have kids," the student said. "She was just such a nice woman, so that's how I got into it."
The woman emailed to say she had gotten pregnant, but that was the last time the UNC student heard from her.
"We don't keep in touch ... which is fine, because we hadn't talked about talking or anything," the student said. "It's just really nice to know she got what she needed."
She decided to donate again, and a Carolina Conceptions nurse told her about some other people who needed help.
Fertility specialist Dr. John Park says that, in the past year, Carolina Conception's practice has gone from 25 to 30 donors to a pool of 30 to 40, which he says is high given that the majority of applicants are rejected. Egg donors must pass a series of medical and psychological tests and go under anesthesia to have the eggs removed with a needle.
“The donors also have to give themselves injections of fertility drugs, so there’s quite a bit they have to do on their part,” Park said.
The process isn't just clinical. Donors must deal with the knowledge that each of those tiny eggs in the lab could become someone's baby.
“There are people who are like, ‘That’s your child,’ but I don’t see it that way at all. That’s not my kid,” said the UNC student donor. "I think it's more nurture over nature."
For the chance of having a child through egg donation, couples must pay an average of $18,000. Donors receive $3,000 of that.
“It was enough to help me pay off some loans and just get on my feet so I didn’t have to worry about being in debt after college,” the UNC student said.
As with any medical procedure, there are risks. Many egg donors say the drive is not the money, but the knowledge that they're helping another woman realize her dream of having a child.
“Yeah, the money helps. I mean, it’s definitely an incentive, but I don’t think that’s the only reason you should do it. I think that, if you want to do it just for the money, then that’s the wrong reason,” said the UNC student.
The downturn in the economy has also sparked an upturn in sperm donation. Some of the biggest national donor companies say they have seen an increase in applicants but aren't sure if it's due to the economy or their marketing efforts.
They also have an extensive screening process and pay around $100 per donation. About 700,000 men apply to be sperm donors each month at California Cryobank, but only 1 percent of the applicants are chosen.