25-year old phlebotomist goes from taking blood to needing it

Through the lens of a health care worker, she thought she knew how important blood donation was. Now through the lens of a recipient whose life was saved by blood donors, it’s much more profound. 
June 18, 2021
Audrey Lopez with her cat, Calla, who she sometimes walks in the yard as a way for Audrey to help with her recovery of guillain barre. Blood donations saved her life from the effects of the rare immune disorder. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Audrey Lopez with her cat, Calla, who Audrey sometimes walks in the yard as a way to help with her recovery of Guillain-Barre. Blood donations saved her life from the effects of the rare immune disorder. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Audrey Lopez’s bicycle sits inside the front door of her apartment, a reminder of a different life she was living just weeks before. The rest of her house is filled with boxes. She’s in the process of moving to a ground-level apartment with more ‘accessibility,” a rushed necessity for the 25-year-old.

Blood drives near you:

Click on the links for more information and to sign up.

10 a.m.-2 p.m., June 25 at Wellington Fitness 1 Clubs.

Noon-3:30 p.m., June 27 at Timnath Beerwerks.

10 a.m.-3 p.m., June 30 in Denver, sponsored by Dohn Construction.

9:30 a.m.-2 p.m., July 2 at The Cycle Apartments in Fort Collins.

“I was ordering things on Amazon I never thought I’d be ordering: a walker and shower bar, non-slip mats and canes,” Lopez said.

Despite her new handicaps, Lopez, a phlebotomist, is grateful she’s alive — and she’s grateful for the blood donors who made that possible.

From taking blood to needing blood

In April, Lopez was infected by the Epstein-Barr virus, one of the most common human viruses, which then lead to infectious mononucleosis, also called mono.

“That lasted all of April and into May,” said Lopez. “It gave me multiple complications and several severe diseases, but this one was the worst.”

On Friday, May 21, 2021, Lopez woke up early in the morning and attempted to get out of bed, but she struggled to move her legs.

“I knew immediately something was wrong,” she said. “I shuffled to the bathroom to figure out what was going on. I then got back into bed, laid there, I realized I couldn’t move my arms or turn my neck.”

Audrey Lopez talks about her experience with Guillain-Barre and the treatment, which was made possible through blood donations, at her apartment in Fort Collins, Colorado. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Audrey Lopez talks about her experience with Guillain-Barre and the treatment, which was made possible through blood donations, at her apartment in Fort Collins, Colorado. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

She had movement in her fingers, so she dialed her parents and then her boyfriend, who immediately arrived to take her to the emergency department at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.

“In the (emergency department) they told me that I might have Guillain-Barre syndrome,” Lopez said.

Audrey Lopez, with help from her cat, Calla, waters her plants at her Fort Collins, Colorado, apartment recently. Lopez was in the process of moving to a place that's more accessible for her to get around with her cane. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
Audrey Lopez, with help from her cat, Calla, waters her plants at her Fort Collins, Colorado, apartment recently. Lopez was in the process of moving to a place that’s more accessible for her to get around with her cane. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Guillain-Barre is a rare neurological disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy nerves located outside the brain and spinal cord. The first symptoms are weakness and tingling in the extremities, but it can spread quickly, paralyzing the whole body, and if it gets to the diaphragm, it can be deadly.

Lopez was immediate admitted to the hospital’s neurology unit.

How blood donors saved her life

Although Guillain-Barre cannot be cured, the first line of treatment is called immunoglobulin infusions (IVIg), which is derived from plasma from thousands of whole blood donors.

“I always thought I knew how important blood donation was because I saw it through the lenses of a health care worker, through helping others. Now, seeing it through the lens of being helped, it feels so much more profound. … This is the one thing you can do that I promise will save lives.” – Audrey Lopez

Immunoglobulins are proteins that the immune system naturally makes to attack infecting organisms. The therapy injects these immunoglobulins, which can lessen the immune attack on the nervous system.

“This is why whole blood donors are just as important as plasma donors,” Lopez said. “Everyone together is part of a functioning whole.”

Lopez had a severe reaction to the treatment the next day. Doctors needed to try another option: plasmapheresis, a plasma exchange. A catheter was inserted into her neck, where some blood was removed and replaced by good plasma from blood donors in the hopes that the bad antibodies that had been damaging the nerves are also replaced.

“I immediately turned a corner at that point,” she said.

Audrey Lopez at her apartment two weeks after getting out of the hospital.
Audrey Lopez at her apartment two weeks after getting out of the hospital. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Blood transfusion treatments

Even before she got five plasma transfusions over the course of a week, Lopez understood the importance of blood donors. As a phlebotomist at UCHealth Garth Englund Blood Donation Center, it’s her job to draw blood from donors. She loves what she does.

“Every donor has a different reason why they come in,” she said. “Sometimes they are donating because someone they loved had a blood transfusion, or themselves. They wanted to do something good, and donating blood is one of the most altruistic things you can do.”

Donors are also needed at the Garth Englund Donation Centers in Fort Collins and Loveland. And UCHealth Garth Englund at Fort Collins is now open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Garth Englund Blood Center- Fort Collins,1025 Pennock Place, Suite 105.

Call 970.495.8965 to schedule an appointment or fill out this form.

Garth Englund Blood Center- Medical Center of the Rockies, 2500 Rocky Mountain Ave.

Call 970.624.1510 to schedule an appointment or fill out this form.

At the blood donation center, she monitors patients and gets to know them.

“They all have stories and life outside of their donation. It’s like making a million friends, and it’s my favorite part about the job. The second favorite part is the team — being part of a productive environment that’s making a difference.”

Profound appreciation for blood donors

Lopez is now on leave from her job to focus on her rehabilitation.

She was released from the hospital about a week after being admitted, but before she left, she talked to her neurologist about the possibility of Guillain-Barre reoccurring.

“It’s less than 20%, but there is always a chance it will start all over again. It could start right away or in 30 years. I have to be realistic about things, like fatigue, weakness — I have to be cognitive of my strength,” she said.

After being home a week, she’s able to get around the house without a cane, shuffling boxes out of her way with a stiff humpback-like posture. She still uses a cane when she goes outside, and once she gets the OK from her neurologist, she will begin outpatient rehabilitation therapy.

She plans to return to her job at the blood donation center, though when that will happen is still uncertain.

As a phlebotomist at UCHealth Garth Englund Blood Donation Center, it’s Audrey Lopez's job to draw blood from donors. She loves what she does, and the significance of blood donations became even more evident when Audrey needed a blood transfusion to save her life. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.
As a phlebotomist at UCHealth Garth Englund Blood Donation Center, it’s Audrey Lopez’s job to draw blood from donors. She loves what she does, and the significance of blood donations became even more evident when Audrey needed a blood transfusion to save her life. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“When I’m stable enough,” she said. “I can’t walk more than a few steps without getting tired and my hips hurting, and my arm is sore after using the cane. Luckily, that’s all that’s going on, and I’m incredibly grateful I’m where I’m at. Learning to walk was a journey for me, and I won’t take that for granted.

“I don’t want to put my coworkers at risk because I’m too excited to get back to the job I love,” she continued. “I need to be able to carry my supplies, be steady with a needle, and be able to react to my donors.

“I need to focus on myself right now, but I’ll show up (to work) as soon as I can.”

And when she does return, it will be with a much greater appreciation for her donors and a much stronger message.

“As a phlebotomist, we get into a rhythm and let people know that, ‘Every pint of blood you give saves up to three lives.’ It becomes a thing we say to our donors and it is the same for everyone.

“But now that I’ve gone through it and someone’s plasma saved my life, it’s not just ‘your blood will save three lives,’ it’s, ‘your blood saved my life.’ I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it in person.

“I always thought I knew how important blood donation was because I saw it through the lenses of a health care worker, through helping others. Now, seeing it through the lens of being helped, it feels so much more profound. … This is the one thing you can do that I promise will save lives.”

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.

ADVERTISEMENT