SAVANNAH, Ga. — A week ago, doctors gave her little chance of survival. Now a Georgia grad student who is battling a rare flesh-eating infection is alert and bored enough to ask for a book, her father told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Aimee Copeland remained in critical condition at an Augusta hospital, unable to speak because of a breathing tube in her throat as she continued to fight the life-threatening disease that took hold after she gashed her leg in a fall from a broken zip line.
Doctors had to amputate most of the 24-year-old woman’s left leg to save her life, and her father says she’ll likely lose her fingers too. But he told AP that doctors now believe they’ll be able to save not only the palms of his daughter’s hands but her right foot as well.
Days ago she faced losing both of her hands and feet.
“This doctor can’t fathom a reason for why she’s improved the way she has,” Andy Copeland said in a telephone interview. “Her spirits are extraordinarily high. I am absolutely amazed.”
Copeland’s father said his daughter seems aware that she’s in the hospital after an accident. But for now, they’re sparing her the details of her condition until after she has been removed from a respirator and is breathing on her own. That could come any day now.
“I’m not sure how much (she knows) as far as the leg and the hand amputations. I don’t have those discussions with her,” Copeland’s father said. “… But if she asks we will tell her.”
He said the family also wants to make sure a hospital counselor is available to help Copeland once she is informed of her condition.
Losing a limb is extremely difficult emotionally, and can be particularly difficult for young people, said Dr. Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Hospital in Atlanta.
“There is a process that they go through, a grief process,” said Kaslow, who is not involved in Copeland’s care. “There is shock, disbelief, anger, sadness and then a period of reconciling one to the situation and healing and figuring out how they are going to move forward in their life.”
A graduate student in psychology at the University of West Georgia, Copeland contracted the rare infection called necrotizing fasciitis. It happened days after she suffered the deep cut May 1 when the zip line snapped over rocks in the Little Tallapoosa River.
Doctors at the local emergency room in Carrollton closed the wound with nearly two dozen staples, but it became infected within days. On May 4, she was diagnosed with the rare infection and flown 200 miles to Augusta for treatment by specialists at Doctors Hospital.
Copeland’s father said she faces a long recovery not just from her amputation but also from kidney failure and other organ damage caused by the infection.
“She’s going to be here for months,” he said. “She’s going to need to regrow skin that was removed. She’s going to need to learn to use prosthetics. She’s going to still be on dialysis for a while.”
Infections by flesh-eating bacteria are rare but sometimes can run rampant after even minor cuts or scratches. The bacteria enter the body, quickly reproduce and emit toxins that cut off blood flow to parts of the body. The affliction can destroy muscle, fat and skin tissue. Affected areas may have to be surgically removed to save a patient’s life.
The bug that infected Copeland, called Aeromonas hydrophila, is found in warm and brackish waters. Many people exposed to these bacteria don’t get sick. When illnesses do occur, it’s often diarrhea from swallowing bacteria in the water. Flesh-eating Aeromonas cases are so rare that only a handful of infections have been reported in medical journals in recent decades.
Some news reports have said Copeland was recently diagnosed with lupus, a chronic disease that compromises the immune system, but her father told The AP that’s not true.
Andy Copeland said his daughter had sought treatment for a skin rash. Doctors initially feared it might be a symptom of lupus, but tests revealed Copeland had a food allergy.
“She was a vegetarian and she had a soy-based diet,” Copeland’s father said. “And it turned out she was allergic to soy.”
More than 50 people lined up in the first hour for a blood drive Tuesday at the gymnasium at the University of West Georgia, where Copeland attends school 200 miles from the Augusta hospital. Some students walked to the blood drive, while others drove from other parts of the state.
Kara Dermo, a chemistry student who worked with Copeland at the Sunnyside Cafe, was one of the first in line. She was among the friends invited to try the zip line that sent Copeland plunging to the rocky river, but declined.
Dermo said Copeland’s illness has been weighing on the minds of people on campus. Even the slightest amount of good news has been enough to raise the hopes of fellow students.
“It’s very close to home. It makes you realize anything could happen at any time,” Dermo said.