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Woman fights for life after losing leg to flesh-eating bacteria

family photo / aimeecopeland.com

Aimee Copeland has been clinging to life since contracting a bacterial infection last week.

Flesh-eating bacteria have cost a young woman her left leg and will result in more amputations, but she is defying the "slim to none" odds of survival that doctors gave her, more than a week after a gash to her calf sent her to the emergency room.

Aimee Copeland of Snellville, Ga., had her left leg amputated last week. On Thursday, doctors determined that the 24-year-old would need to have her remaining foot and her hands amputated, according to grad school classmates who created a website about her ordeal.

"She's in critical condition today," Barclay Bishop, public relations manager for the doctor's hospital at the Joseph. M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, told msnbc.com on Thursday.

Copeland's battle began last Tuesday, when she was kayaking on a river in Carrollton, Ga., her father, Andy Copeland, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She stopped to ride a homemade zip line, he said. The line snapped and she fell, splitting her leg open. She went to the emergency room at Carrollton's Tanner Medical Center, and was released with 22 staples in her calf and doctors' advice to take Motrin and Tylenol, he said.

The following day, in "severe pain," her father wrote on his blog, aimeecopeland.com, which he started after his daughter had her accident, she returned to Tanner Medical to get painkillers. Over the next several days, she received antibiotics as the pain increased and had an MRI, which he said came back clean, but by Friday, a concerned friend brought her back in.

By then, she was "pale and weak," her father wrote. That's when she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria, to her damaged leg.


 

Necrotizing fasciitis can destroy muscles, skin and tissue, according to the National Institute of Health. When the bacteria enter the body -- usually through a cut -- they spread and release toxins that affect blood flow to the area, killing tissue.

How she possibly contracted it
Doctors believe Copeland contracted the bacteria -- Aeromonas hydrophila -- last Tuesday in the incident along Georgia's Little Tallapoosa River. When the zip line broke, Copeland likely was exposed to the bacteria in the river through her open wound, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported

When her leg was stapled shut, the bacteria was closed inside, reported the paper.

Her case is extremely rare, medical professionals say. Most people who encounter the bacteria have minor stomach or skin irritation, according to the Atlantic Journal Constitution.

Copeland's classmates wrote on their Web page that she had been diagnosed with lupus several months ago, an autoimmune disorder. Compromised immune systems make it more difficult to fight off infections and may have contributed to Copeland's severe reaction.

To save her life, surgeons amputated Copeland's leg above her hip and removed tissue from her stomach as well. She was airlifted last Friday to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, the largest burn center in the Southeast.

During the surgery, Copeland briefly went into cardiac arrest, her dad wrote on his blog.

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Over the next several days, there were more hurdles: Copeland's fever spiked to 102, and she was placed on a ventilator. On Tuesday, her father wrote, "The doctor was careful to set expectations this morning: Aimee's survival chances are 'slim to none.' She continues to experience a major shutdown of all five major organs. The rate of survival when three organs shutdown is very poor."

By Thursday morning, Copeland had started to regain functions, including some of her ability to breathe.

"Aimee was a bit combative earlier. She started moving her arms last night and they have restrained her to prevent her from pulling out all her tubes," wrote Andy Copeland on his blog. "She wore a nasty frown on her reddened face and tears pooled around her eyes. I gently stroked her hair and explained the circumstances that brought her there. I also told her all the wonderful things that the community is doing in her honor."

And later Thursday, there was more good news from Copeland's sister, Paige, 25.

"Her eyes are wide open and she is nodding or shaking her head to the questions we ask. My hope for her recovery is stronger than ever!" wrote Paige Copeland. But the ventilator was still breathing for her, she added.

There isn't any indication of damage to Copeland's brain from the infection, and while she's still relying on a ventilator, her "cardiopulmonologist says that her lungs are slowly healing," said the update on her classmate's website Thursday afternoon.

But "her blood vessels in her hands and in her remaining foot have died, and thus they will have to be amputated too," the update said.

Town holding fundraisers, blood drives
Copeland is a graduate student studying psychology at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, which is 40 miles west of Atlanta and has about 24,000 residents. Her school is holding a blood drive for her next week, a co-worker told msnbc.com, and fundraisers to help her family with medical bills.

"Aimee's a very happy, bubbly, positive, person. She's got a great outlook on life," said Michelle Keller, 42, an assistant to the manager at Sunnyside Cafe in Carrollton, where Copeland had worked as a waitress for about six months. "She's doing better. There's improvement today ... She's definitely come a long way, that's for sure."

At Sunnyside Cafe, concerned customers have been checking in on Copeland "constantly," Keller said.

"The phone has been ringing all day, people wanting to know how she's doing," she said. "People will stop by just to see how she's doing. We've got donation jars out and we've got people who are coming in not even to eat, just to put money in the donation jar."

A prayer vigil for Copeland was planned in Carrolton on Thursday evening, Keller said.

Copeland's father has also set up a Facebook page, which had gotten more than 21,350 likes as of Thursday evening.

"I type this factual progression of Aimee’s condition as a way to better cope with what is without a doubt the most horrific situation that a parent can possibly imagine. We take so much for granted in life, but I never imagined that one of my daughters would face this most unlikely of situations," Andy Copeland wrote on his blog and Facebook page.

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