A close call with death didn’t break Aimee Copeland. Her spirit barely bent.
One year after losing her left leg, right foot and both hands to a devastating bacterial infection, the Snellville, Ga., resident said her academic background in psychology and a strong spiritual grounding helped her face the infection that almost took her life.
“Having that confrontation with death was very important to me,” Copeland said last week by phone. “I have very few fears at this point.”
For nearly two months, Copeland was treated for necrotizing fasciitis, sometimes called flesh-eating bacteria, at Augusta’s Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital. Her story captured attention nationwide, as her father, Andy Copeland, chronicled her battle through Facebook and blog posts.
She contracted the disease May 1, 2012, when her leg was gashed as she fell from a zipline that broke over the Little Tallapoosa River. Doctors initially said Copeland had little to no chance of surviving.
Copeland is completing her master’s degree at the University of West Georgia this month. Her studies focus on humanistic psychology, or how the human experience is related to spiritual well-being.
“I had the philosophy that in life we can’t really say what’s good and what’s bad. You can’t place a value on it,” she said. “What seems terrible now could seem great later.”
Copeland’s positive attitude and enduring spirit made it easier to face challenges of the past year learning to live without her limbs, she said.
“Whatever test comes up, I feel like I’m doing pretty well,” Copeland said.
She uses an iPad Mini that rests in the elbow crook of her arm for daily tasks. Copeland can read books, highlight phrases, take notes and write five-page papers on the small device. The iPad also controls lights, fans and window shades in her bedroom.
Copeland’s memory of her hospital stay in Augusta is limited. Pain medications caused her to hallucinate, at one point mistaking her doctor for the father of her sorority sister.
She has a hazy memory of asking her parents where she was and why, and learning a lot at one time, including that her hands would be amputated.
“I was pretty doped up so I don’t feel like I had the emotional energy to respond,” Copeland said.
While she recovered at the hospital before leaving in July for an outpatient rehabilitation center in the Atlanta area, Copeland remembers the kindness of doctors and nurses. One nurse bought her a special water bottle to help with her dehydration.
Copeland said she has approached much of the past year with patience, but that there were low points in the journey. For two weeks in rehab, everything made her cry, she said.
She also went through natural stages of grief that she still experiences, Copeland said.
She has a difficult time looking at old photos of herself.
“It’s a big loss, almost like losing part of yourself,” she said about the amputations. “I almost feel like I did die a year ago and was reborn.”
When first beginning rehab, Copeland expected to walk within six months. This winter, she was fitted with a prosthetic left leg and walked for the first time again on two legs, but then found out that the cost was just past the limit of her health insurance coverage.
Copeland’s family is awaiting an appeal to the insurance company.
This week, Copeland reaches another big milestone. She flew to Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday to receive two bionic hands from Touch Bionics, a prosthetics company.
The new hands and fingers will be controlled by an iPhone app, or she can train her forearm muscles to tell her grip to open and close.
“It’s going to be amazing,” she said.
With the new prosthetics, Copeland wants to resume hobbies she enjoyed including knitting, sewing, jewelry-making and cooking. She also can’t wait to style her hair again.
“I’ve got to get myself together, back to previous functionality,” she said. “Once I get myself together, my mission is to help other people who are in this situation to do the same.”
This summer, Copeland hopes to work on a research project collecting data at an outdoor camp for disabled youth at Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. She wants to study the “wilderness effect,” or how a natural environment improves the well-being and self-esteem of the disabled.
In August, she’s planning to start another graduate program to earn a master’s degree in social work from Valdosta State University’s online program.