Free-spirited student battles for her life

Injury turns a day of fun into a harrowing nightmare for parents

Aimee Copeland was sitting in an emergency room nearly two weeks ago with a nasty crescent-shaped gash under her left knee.

It would take 20 staples to close the cut. But she was unfazed: She told her friend to shoot a picture of her “gnarly” injury and text it out to friends.

It was vintage Aimee, her friends said. The bubbly University of West Georgia psychology student was philosophical about things like that. Stuff happens, she likes to say, so smile, make the best of it and move on.

But there would be no moving on for Aimee.

The 24-year-old Snellville native is fighting for her life in an Augusta hospital with an aggressive bacterial infection that has left her in critical condition. Her leg has been amputated at the hip. She’s on a ventilator. Surgeons say she’s likely to lose her hands and remaining foot. Her devastated family has kept a bedside vigil.

Aimee contracted the bacteria – Aeromonas hydrophila – May 1 as she and friends zip-lined along the Little Tallapoosa River near Carrollton. When the homemade zip line broke, she fell six feet or so to the water and the rocks below, tearing open her calf on a stone.

At first, the story exploded through the Internet when it was reported that a “flesh-eating” bacteria was ravaging Aimee’s body.

But the bug, as it turns out, was not unusually toxic or even unusual. Aeromonas hydrophila often lives in water. Usually, it leads to a slight infection or a stomachache. This time, the bacteria went crazy inside the now-sutured wound. She increasingly felt ill over the next few days and sought medical help several times.

On May 4, she was life-flighted across the state.

Fun day gone wrong

Aimee Copeland is a flower child born a generation late. She blew through the University of Georgia with honors and settled comfortably in Carrollton, where the University of West Georgia has a graduate psychology program made to order for her.

The humanistic psychology program started in West Georgia in the 1960s, and she liked the idea of a master’s program that could couple her love of nature with her yearning to study human spirit.

She was interested in a brand of psychology in which troubled youths spend time in the woods communing with nature while receiving therapy.

Last month, Aimee put on a “Good Vibes Festival” at West Georgia, focusing on the healing power of nature, spiritualism and holistic medicine.

“She was all about the healing power of many minds thinking optimistic thoughts at one time,” said Jamie Gaddy, a fellow master’s student and friend. “I think that is happening right now, with so many people reaching out across the globe in her behalf.”

On May 1, Aimee just wanted to relax. Her finals were done and she was gearing up to start working on her thesis. She and a couple girlfriends spent that Tuesday afternoon outside and, according to friends, went to a buddy’s home near the Little Tallapoosa River.

The friend’s yard included a homemade zip line, common around the area. Each of the women made a run on the line, riding out to the middle of the stream and dropping to an area where the water is about six feet deep. The line was attached to a low bluff, rising perhaps six feet above the rocky bank.

Aimee grabbed hold for her second ride. About three feet out from the bank, the line snapped and she fell, hitting a rock on the bank of the stream below.

She suffered the gash but no other injuries and was taken to Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton.

The next day, a friend visited Aimee at home. She was in pain and couldn’t hold down food. She returned to the hospital and was given a prescription of Darvocet, her father, Andy Copeland, said.

Andy Copeland suggested she return to the family home in Snellville to heal up. But Aimee said she could not afford the time away from her studies. She did, however, call her boss at Sunnyside Cafe in Carrollton and tell her she would have to be off her feet for a few days.

The pain subsided but returned even worse the next day, so she went to her doctor. She was given a prescription for antibiotics, then returned to the hospital for an MRI, according to her father and a friend. “Again, she was treated and released,” her father said.

The next day, a friend found her at home, so weak that the friend had to carry Aimee to the car. They went back to Tanner Medical, where doctors diagnosed her with necrotizing fasciitis, a condition in which the bacterial infection was destroying the tissue in her leg. She was flown to the Joseph M. Still Burn Centers in Augusta. As her father rushed to the hospital, he received a call from surgeons: We have to amputate her leg to save her.

Andy Copeland has avoided publicly questioning his daughter’s treatment.

“If you go to the doctor, you’d at least want a doctor to identify it,” he said. “But that’s another issue and I don’t want to get into it.”

A Tanner spokeswoman said Friday that “our thoughts and prayers are most assuredly with the Copeland family,” but hospital officials would not comment on their handling of Aimee’s case, citing confidentiality.

Her father wonders what would have happened had he reacted differently. “I have regrets over the fact that I did not go get her right [away],” he said. “But I don’t know if it would have made a difference.”

An indomitable spirit

Andy, a financial adviser, clearly enjoys family life with his wife and two 20-something daughters. His Facebook page contains numerous shots of the family enjoying a trip to Europe.

In recent days, he has used that same forum to pump out the equivalent of six pages of prose describing the family’s ordeal. Deeply religious, Andy has encouraged the prayer chains that have multiplied through the ether.

“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,” he wrote.

He wrote about lactic acid levels and blood pressure, about how she seems to hear the family gathering beside her.

He wrote that Aimee’s fingers and toes were starved of oxygen. At first, he thought she would probably lose the tips of them. Then he wrote they would have to take her hands and remaining foot.

It’s been an emotional seesaw. Monday, she was easing off the ventilator. But, on Tuesday, her condition had grown dire.

His daughter’s chances, he said a doctor told him, were “slim to none.”

But the father’s indomitable spirit for his “baby girl,” coupled with a strong dose of faith, connected with people.

“She continues to experience a major shutdown of all five major organs,” he wrote. “The rate of survival when three organs shut down is very poor. Bad news never feels good, but I refuse to let it get me down.”

Later, “What troubles her mother and I is when Aimee regains her coherency and learns that she is missing her limb. Dear God, please give her the strength to understand that she can prevail over the mountainous obstacles ahead.”

A friend of Aimee’s from West Georgia started following the ordeal and putting information up on a university website. Soon, it crashed under the weight of the users.

“At first, it was a story of incredible sadness,” said Ken Lewis, a Ph.D. psychology candidate. “But then people saw her fighting and her family being hopeful and it caught on. And now, it’s if she survives, how will she live in this world.”

‘She never left’

Late in the week, Aimee’s condition had stabilized somewhat and her brain function still seemed good, her family said. She seemed to gesture to answer questions.

No, she did not want to hear the Rolling Stones. Yes, The Grateful Dead would be nice. The family played Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” for her. The rousing anthem seemed fitting.

By Friday, Andy was exhausted, a physical wreck still fueled by a pulsating current of hope.

In an interview, he recounted Aimee’s travels out West in the summer of 2007 to sell books.

The then-19-year-old Aimee didn’t have a car and thus sold books door-to-door, incurring soaked socks, uninterested homeowners and bloody blisters. She slept on the floor of a squalid apartment she found, calling her parents for support and to describe each day’s events. But she didn’t quit.

“She stuck it out to the end,” Andy Copeland said. “She never left. This is how strong my daughter is.”