May 5, 2009 at 1:00 am

Michiganians mine bodies for cash to make ends meet

Sellers offer everything from hair to blood to make a buck

Heidi Fetzner initially planned to donate her locks before seeing that someone was willing to pay $1,000 for them. (Velvet S. McNeil / The Detroit News)

Commerce Township -- Heidi Fetzner is unemployed and willing to be creative to make a few bucks.

So when the German and psychology student at Kalamazoo College realized someone was willing to pay her $1,000 for her long brunette locks, her attitude was: Break out the scissors.

"Most of it I'm going to put in my bank account and just save because school is expensive," said Fetzner, 20, of Commerce Township. "It's a lot of money. You gotta do what you gotta do."

Fetzner is among those realizing that, in these tough times, the body isn't just a temple. It can be a gold mine.

As Michigan's economy continues to suffer, people are offering themselves up as medical guinea pigs for a quick buck to make ends meet. Some are selling plasma, others their hair for hundreds on the Internet, while others take the more extreme road by wanting to sell their eggs or participate in medical studies in exchange for payment and free medical exams.

Web site facilitates sales

"Necessity is the mother of invention," said Charles Ballard, economics professor at Michigan State University. "People can get really creative if they're pushed to the limit. Even a few hundred to scrape together might make a difference."

Fetzner initially planned to donate her locks because she wanted a shorter hairstyle. But when she saw TheHairTrader.com, she went for the easy money instead.

"I was like, oh boy, I feel selfish, but $1,000 sounds too good," she said.

And that's exactly why the site was created, said Jacalyn Elise, who encouraged her friend, a single mother, to sell her hair nearly three years ago to help with finances. The site has seen more than a 40 percent increase in the past six months in the number of people -- more than 100 of whom are from Metro Detroit like Fetzner -- wanting to sell their untreated locks.

The buyers use the hair to make wigs and hair extensions and for antique dolls, said Elise, founder and executive partner of the Murrieta, Calif.-based company.

Meanwhile, donations of plasma -- the clear liquid portion of the blood used to treat conditions such as trauma and burns -- have also climbed from 10 million nationwide in 2005 to more than 17.5 million last year, said Kara Flynn, director of global communications with Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association in Annapolis, Md.

The increase is partially based on the opening of 60 plasma clinics in that time, but the economy is also a factor, she said. There are a dozen plasma centers throughout Michigan.

Keith Parker, 40, said the $50 he receives weekly at an Oak Park plasma center helps cover his daily necessities: bus fair, water at work and cigarettes. The extra cash has also allowed the Mount Clemens homeless man to save for a house. He makes $250 a week restoring Detroit homes damaged in fires.

"That plasma has really been helping out," said Parker, noting the additional money paid for his cell phone that enabled him to find a job. "With so many people losing work, I would be more surprised if they didn't donate plasma. It's like free money, and it's for a good cause."

While local plasma centers are hesitant to talk about the profit potential tied to giving plasma, it's clearly part of their marketing efforts. For example, IBR Plasma Center in Ypsilanti promotes plasma donation as an "excellent way to earn a little extra money. You could earn up to $200 a month helping to save someone's life every time you donate."

Helping each other out

While Kristine's efforts haven't saved a life, she has twice tried to help a couple get pregnant when she sold her eggs at Oakwood Center for Reproductive Medicine in Dearborn.

The 26-year-old, who declined to give her last name, was a physiology student at Michigan State University the first time she donated her eggs last year; the second time was in January. And each time she earned $4,000 -- money she used to pay down her student loans.

"That's a big thing," said Kristine, who is a lab aide at a hospital. "It's very helpful. I'm helping someone else out and they're helping me out."

Egg recipients pay for the eggs, as well as the medical procedures required to prepare a donor for the estimated two-month-long process that ends with egg retrieval, said Mitzi Heineman, licensed medical social worker and owner and founder of the Saginaw-based Egg Donor Program of Michigan.

In Michigan, egg donors weren't compensated until 1995, but the American Fertility Society caps compensation at $5,000 for their time and medical risk.

In the past eight months, Heineman said she went from receiving about two donor applications a week to 20 -- forcing her to hire someone to help review the applications and explain the process and eligibility requirements. "I definitely feel it's the economy," she said. "The money is enticing. But if they're only doing it to make money, that saddens me because I have a relationship with the recipient."

The number of people registering for University of Michigan Health System's 400 or so clinical studies has jumped 50 percent, from 1,500 in early 2008 to more than 3,000 so far this year, said Molly White, manager of the community engagement program. "That's just typical when the economy is difficult," she said. "People are looking for other sources of income. There are bills to pay."

It pays the bills

Pittsville Township resident Vicki Fredette was thrilled to make about $3,000 after participating in about 10 trials -- including ones for hypertension and cholesterol -- in the past three years to pay for bills and put gas in her tank. She'll net another $80 after she completes another clinical trial that started last week.

"I started doing it for the extra money," said Fredette, 51, an administrative assistant in medical education at the University of Michigan. "At the time, we were just getting by, and I wanted to do a little better. They're interesting, and it's nice to have a little extra gas money and stuff to put in my nest for the future."

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