After 10 days in the hospital, a Georgia graduate student fighting a rare flesh-eating infection isn’t letting the breathing tube in her throat stop her from mouthing questions such as “Where am I?” and “How long have I been here?”
The parents of 24-year-old Aimee Copeland said Monday they know many more questions — and much tougher answers — will come as soon as doctors remove the respirator and allow her to breathe on her own.
Doctors have already amputated most of Copeland’s left leg to save her life after the infection spread rapidly from a nasty gash she suffered when she fell from a zip line May 1. Her parents said she’ll likely lose her fingers as well, though doctors hope to save the palms of her hands, which could allow her to one day use prosthetic fingers.
Andy Copeland told NBC’s “Today” show Monday his daughter remains unaware of any of this. It’s not clear exactly when her breathing tube could be taken out.
“Obviously she’s going to have a lot of questions and there will be a lot revealed to her that day, a lot of things that are going to generate some very emotional responses from Amy,” Copeland’s father said.
The woman, a graduate student in psychology, remained in critical condition Monday at Doctors Hospital in Augusta. Just over a week ago, her family was told her chances of survival were very slim.
Copeland contracted the rare infection, called necrotizing fasciitis, within a few days after suffering a deep cut when she fell from a zip line that snapped over rocks in the Little Tallapoosa River. She was on a kayaking trip with friends.
Doctors at the local emergency room in Carrollton closed the wound with nearly two dozen staples, but it became infected within a few days. On May 4, she was diagnosed with the rare infection and flown 200 miles to Augusta for treatment by specialists.
One expert — who is not involved in Copeland’s care — said Monday if surgeons have been able to get ahead of the spread of her infection, and if Copeland is on the right antibiotics, then the worst may have passed.
“Every hour that goes by, her prognosis improves,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. She probably still has months of care and rehabilitation ahead of her, he said.
Copeland’s family has remained at her side, playing her favorite music by Bob Marley and others to help her relax and heal. Doctors are using drugs to help keep her calm and sedate.
“They are giving her medication to help her forget the stress she’s under, so that explains her inability to recollect many things,” her father posted over the weekend on a blog he’s using to update friends and supporters. “This is good for her, but mildly frustrating for us. It frustrates me because I want her to be able to focus on what she can control, not on things she cannot control.”
Copeland’s parents did not immediately respond to interview requests from The Associated Press made through email, a hospital spokeswoman and a family friend. Her doctors were not commenting Monday, said hospital spokeswoman Barclay Bishop.
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 give off 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 bacteria that infected Copeland, a bug 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 over the last few decades.
At the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, where Copeland was preparing to dive into work on her master’s thesis, friends held a vigil last week and were organizing a blood drive Tuesday.
Friends describe her as positive and tenacious when it comes to tackling problems — attributes they say should help her in what’s sure to be a long recovery.
“We just pray that she gets through this,” said Richard LaFleur, a fellow graduate student who works with Copeland in the psychology department. “Life will not be the same, but I know that Aimee can adapt. And whatever we have to do to help, we will.”