I Sold My Bone Marrow for $300 and You Can Too

by Julia Sheng

Selling your plasma for money has always seemed to me to be the last refuge of the homeless or strungout gutter punk, so imagine my delight when I found out it was available for a normal broke person like me. A Google search for “selling plasma” revealed an official-looking research center just 20 minutes from my house. I checked their Yelp reviews and searched for any old news articles that might implicate this place in, say, black market kidney sales, and it seemed to be an up-and-up research facility. I called and made an appointment.

My first appointment was just an initial screening to see if I met the criteria for a donor — I had to weigh a certain amount, have a certain hematocrit, and be able to show up to appointments on time. I passed my initial test with flying colors, and was quickly booked into my first “donation” for the next week. The lab is interested in whole blood (your run of the mill blood donation, like a blood drive you might have done in college), white blood cells (where your blood is taken out of one arm, centrifuged in a process called apheresis to collect the white blood cells and plasma, and then returned to you through the other arm) and bone marrow. Bone marrow was to be my first real appointment — might as well jump right in.

The morning of my bone marrow appointment, I get up and eat a hearty breakfast as instructed and head out. Upon arrival, I’m seated in a little room off the waiting area and a woman in scrubs takes my vitals.

“Hmm … your blood pressure is a little low,” she says. I sneak a look at the machine. 98 over 75, pulse 53.

“Heh, yeah, that’s normal for me. I’m an athlete,” I offer lamely, while madly thinking, what the fuck, am I too healthy for this? Am I being punished for being in shape? Am I still going to get paid?

“Oh, it’s no problem. Let’s see … why don’t you get up and just jump around a little, see what that does.” Doing as instructed, I achieve what seems to be a satisfactory, if medically and ethically questionable, result. Onward.

We move next door into a room with a padded table in the middle and another woman in scrubs lining up some official looking vials on the side counter. The doctor, a man in his 60s, comes in and jovially introduces himself (“Call me Dr. Mark!”). He picks up a model of a pelvis and shows it to me.

“This is your pelvic bone, where we’ll be drawing the marrow from. Of course, you being a woman, yours looks a little different. You know, for pushing babies out!” He chuckles. Whoa, dude. We just met each other. Nobody’s pushing any babies anywhere.

As instructed, I lie facedown on the table and raise my shirt slightly. Dr. Mark locates the top of my iliac crest (one of those two little bumps on your back at the top of your pelvis. Go on, feel them, you’ve got them too!) and marks the spot.

“Now we’re just going to numb you up with some lidocaine, just like the dentist.” I’ve never had a cavity, but this doesn’t seem to be the time to brag about that. The lidocaine burns as it goes in, but not for long.

“Ok, now we’re going to see how that went. Can you feel this?” He pokes me with something. I can feel it.

“Yes! I felt that!” I’m trying not to seem too alarmed, but I really want everyone in the room to know that my back is not numb. Dr. Mark isn’t concerned.

“Oh, you must be a fast cycler,” he says. “Just working that lidocaine right out of there. That’s ok, we can give you some more. They ever tell you that at the dentist?”

The dentist again. Dr. Mark is obsessed with the dentist.

My back now being numbed up properly, Dr. Mark tells me that while my bone has no nerves, the membrane around it does, and thusly also needs to be numbed. While he is talking, he removes a sterile drape from its packaging and places it on my back. I’ve seen such things in the medical dramas I love to watch. They mean surgery. For the first time, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, and then wonder why it took me so long to wonder that.

The second bone-membrane-numbing shot goes in, which thanks to the additional lidocaine, I do not feel. It requires about five minutes to take effect, so I lie there quietly while Dr. Mark and his assistant gather the necessary tools for my donation. While I do not mind needles, I decline to look at the needle which will be piercing my pelvic bone.

“Let’s get started!” Dr. Mark is a cheerful one. “Now everyone tells me this is the weirdest part. It’s not going to hurt, but you will feel some pressure and some suction. Some women say it’s like a menstrual cramp. One guy told me it felt like leprechauns peeing on his back.” What the fuck? “Ok, here we go.”

Dr. Mark is wrong. It feels like neither of those things. I feel the pressure as the needle goes in and then a sensation like the insides of my femur and pelvis are seizing up. It doesn’t hurt but there is an overall feeling of wrongness, that whatever is happening is not supposed to happen to my body, that we as people are not meant to have needles inside our bones sucking out what’s in there. I concentrate on taking deep breaths and thinking to myself, “$300. $300. $300.”

It doesn’t take long — a minute at the most. Although I didn’t want to look at the needle, I do want to look at my bone marrow, so the assistant shows me. Four fat vials filled with what looks like dark blood. Dr. Mark repeats what he told me earlier, that it’s less than 1/100 of my total bone marrow volume, but I can’t help but think of my pelvis now as empty, crushable, hollow.

I ask Dr. Mark if I can skate that night and he recommends that I don’t, but then offers, “Ah, but youth is wasted on the young,” and briefly stares off into space. I wonder how old he thinks I am. Everyone I’ve talked to in the office so far has asked if I’m in school. I’m not in school.

A bandage is applied to my whole lower back that Dr. Mark admonishes me to keep dry. He tells me several times it’ll come off tomorrow “in the soapy shower”. I don’t ask what happens if I don’t take a shower tomorrow. A whole blood donation was also scheduled for today, which I’ve been assured goes “really well” with bone marrow donation. I move over to a recliner in the main room and offer my arm. It takes about three minutes, one little pouch of blood. On my way out the door, I schedule a white blood cell donation for two weeks from now.

Later that day, I go to work. My back hurts at the needle site. I don’t skate that night.

In the morning, without the soapy shower, I peel off the bandage and momentarily panic at the black circle on my back until I remember Dr. Mark marking me with a sharpie. I rub it off and all there is to see is a tiny needle mark. Ten days later, my check comes in the mail. I deposit it in the bank. My back is still sore.

Julia Sheng has donated three times and made $753.

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