College Student Battles Flesh-Eating Bacteria

By: CNN (Posted by Kion Hudson)
By: CNN (Posted by Kion Hudson)

(CNN)-- "Fun" is not the word that one would expect to hear from a father as he watches a daughter's courageous struggle against flesh-eating bacteria -- a battle that has pushed her to the brink of death and back -- but Andy Copeland says he's trying to enjoy life with his family despite their trials.

"Today was a really huge day," Copeland wrote Monday evening in his blog that details his daughter's battle. "Let me just say that we had a lot of fun with Aimee today."

Aimee Copeland, 24, lies in a hospital bed, hooked to respirator which is helping her breathe. She has already lost a leg and part of her abdomen to the virulent bacteria and may lose more, including her fingers.

"We saw Aimee laugh and smile," Andy Copeland said. "She told us some things she wanted, we played games with her and she was very stimulated. It was an amazing time."

On a Facebook post, he wrote that doctors have used words like "astonishing," "confounding" and "mind-boggling" to describe the young woman's recovery.

"We really don't see the suffering side of it. We see the miraculous survival," Copeland said. "I think that's the story that's inspired us, that's the story that's inspired, I think, the nation at this point."

The master's student in psychology at the University of West Georgia was out with friends on May 1 near the Little Tallapoosa River, about 50 miles west of Atlanta, when she grabbed onto a homemade zip line. It snapped.

The accident left her with a gash in her left calf that took 22 staples to close.

Three days later, when the pain continued, a friend took her to an emergency room, where she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and flown to Augusta for surgery.

She had contracted the flesh-devouring Aeromonas hydrophila. The bacterium is "remarkably common in the water and in the environment," according to Dr. Buddy Creech, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

"When it gets into those deeper tissues, it has a remarkable ability to destroy the tissues that surround it in sort of this hunt for nutrition," he said. "When it does that, those tissues die, and you see the inflammation and the swelling and the destruction that can be very difficult to control."

In most cases, people contract the bacteria by swallowing them, resulting in diarrhea. Aimee Copeland's case was rarer. Her wound became infected, "and the infection (ran) wild," Creech said.

A blog set up by the University of West Georgia psychology department said Aimee Copeland will suffer the loss of her fingers.

"However, physicians have hope of bringing life back to the palms of her hands, which could allow her the muscle control to use helpful prosthetics," the blog said. "They are awaiting a safe time before embarking on surgery for this."

Students at the University of West Georgia are rallying to Copeland's aid. A blood drive to benefit Aimee will be held Tuesday at the student center. A second blood drive will be held next week in Gwinnett County, where the Copelands live

"The response has just been unbelievable," Gary Duke, owner of the Sunnyside Cafe where Copeland worked, told CNN affiliate WSB-TV.

Speaking to CNN on Monday, her father said doctors were assessing "day by day, or even hour by hour."

Andy Copeland has told his daughter that one day, the family will celebrate Aimee Day -- when she will be able to breathe on her own. "We're going to celebrate that day forever for the rest of your life," he told her. "It's the day that my daughter was delivered from this horrible, horrible disease."

Monday was a step in the right direction as the mood lightened and Aimee's condition improved.

"The nurses were even laughing and saying it sounded like a game show in Aimee's room," Copeland said.

It's a show the family hopes will go into reruns.

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