Woman battling bizarre infection doesn't recall events

AUGUSTA -- Aimee Copeland, the Georgia woman receiving worldwide attention after a bizarre bacterial infection claimed her leg and threatens her life, appears to have no recollection of the events that brought her to an Augusta hospital, her family said Friday.

Copeland, 24, remains in critical condition at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center, but is alert and attempting to communicate with her family after doctors reoriented her breathing tube, her father said.

"She had no questions, only commands... ‘Take it out!'," Andy Copeland told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday. "Her personality is barreling through like a freight train."

Copeland also began mouthing the questions her family has most feared: "What happened?" and "Where am I?", her father said.

By Friday afternoon, her family began to give her answers, though stopping short of delivering the tragic news that she lost her left leg in the ordeal.

Aimee, who is on life support, frowned and raised her eyebrows as her father recounted the past two weeks, Andy Copeland said. "She isn't showing signs of remembering."

Aimee's oxygen levels improved overnight, moving her a step closer to hopefully and eventually removing her breathing tubes, he said.

It's the latest progress in what could become an extraordinarily long road to recovery. She also faces a strong possibility of more amputations as doctors continue to battle the bacterial infection she contracted in a May 1 zip-lining accident at the Little Tallapoosa River.

For most, the bacteria Aimee Copeland picked up is not life-threatening. But for Aimee, it created an infection that has been literally destroying her flesh. Her organs are still failing and it's likely she will lose more limbs -- her hands and right foot -- in coming days, said her father, Andy Copeland.

"Her fingers basically appear mummified and it makes me shake to think about it," said Copeland, flanked by wife Donna and Paige Thursday.

Her sister Paige told reporters of how she soothes her younger sister Aimee with visions of a more peaceful place than the hospital bed that has become her home.

Asking her sister to close her eyes, to breathe and not fight against the tubes that protrude from her body and down her throat, Paige, 25, paints a portrait of a mountain summit at dusk.

"...Imagine that we just climbed this awesome mountain and ... you see nothing but the beauty in nature," Paige Copeland recounted Thursday. " . . . Soak it all in and use that energy to heal your lungs."

The Snellville family is encouraged by the small things, such as Aimee -- a lover of music -- silently nodding her head in favor of the Grateful Dead, while shaking it disapprovingly when asked if she wants to hear the Rolling Stones. They take heart in that their daughter seems to hear them and responds, even if without words.

The Copelands are also rejoicing in what good news the doctors can share. A neurologist said there is no indication of brain damage, Andy Copeland said, while the cardiopulmonologist reported that her lungs are slowly healing.

"What we've got is nothing short of a miracle. My baby is alive and her mind is good," said Andy Copeland, a financial advisor who is deeply religious. "I know we have a difficult road ahead, but right now we're rejoicing."

Doctors say a perfect storm of bad circumstances landed Copeland -- who is set to finish her master's degree in psychology at the University of West Georgia -- in such a horrific state. She contracted the bacteria -- Aeromonas hydrophila -- last Tuesday as she and friends spent the day swimming and zip-lining along the Little Tallapoosa River. The home-made zip line broke. Copeland fell, causing a deep gash to her leg. Doctors believe the bacteria entered her body through the injury that required nearly two dozen staples to close.

Copeland sought medical treatment at the Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton, where she returned each following day as the pain worsened. By Friday, she was suffering from necrotizing fasciitis, a severe flesh-decaying infection that had advanced beyond her calf wound to her thigh. After she was airlifted to Augusta, doctors there called her parents -- who were still en route to the hospital -- with the heartbreaking question: would they give permission to remove her leg?

"It was not a difficult decision to make," her father said. "The choice is: we either take Aimee's leg or she loses her life."

Aimee Copeland's case has captured national attention for its bizarre and unnerving details. But medical professionals said her situation is so rare that the true numbers of people with a similar infection are unknown. Aeromonas hydrophila, a bacteria typically found in warm climates and waters, is "ubiquitous," said Dr. Jay Varkey, an epidemiologist in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Emory University School of Medicine. Most people will encounter the bacteria and suffer no illness, while others might contract a stomach bug or a minor skin infection, he said. The most serious side effects typically happen to people with weakened immune systems.

Her story has triggered an outpouring of support from people across the country who have experienced and survived necrotizing fasciitis, Andy Copeland said. At the Augusta hospital Thursday, the Copelands -- each wearing bandages and some bruises from blood donation -- asked the community to donate blood to help people like their daughter. A bus of more than 50 University of West Georgia students are planning a trip to Augusta for that very reason, he said.

University of West Georgia students gathered for a vigil Thursday night to pray for their friend, and it's that power of prayer that Andy Copeland believes helps keep Aimee alive.

"I know this country is a good place," he said. "But I didn't realize how good it is until you are actually suffering and in pain and ask for help and Americans come to the rescue."

-- Fran Jeffries contributed to this report.