AUGUSTA, Ga. – A Georgia graduate student fighting a rare flesh-eating infection has been looking at her ravaged hands and asking about the damage, all without tears, her father said Wednesday.
What Aimee Copeland still doesn't know is that doctors plan to amputate her all of her fingers, just as they had to remove most of her left leg in order to save her life.
"Her fingers are basically mummified. The flesh is dead," Andy Copeland said in a phone interview from Doctors Hospital in Augusta more than two weeks after a zip-lining accident left a gash in his daughter's leg that developed into the infection.
Copeland's father said she held one of her hands close to her face Wednesday and asked family members about it. He said they told her "your hands have been damaged ... and we're trying to bring back as much of the life into the hands as possible."
"She was well accepting," Andy Copeland said. "No tears or anything."
The 24-year-old student from an Atlanta suburb remains in critical condition as she battles an infection called necrotizing fasciitis. Doctors initially feared they might have to remove her remaining foot and both hands. But her father said she now faces losing only her fingers after two days of treatment using a hyperbaric chamber, in which patients breathe pure oxygen to boost white blood cells and accelerate healing. Flesh on her palms that had been purple was turning pink again, he said.
Copeland's father said she was still unaware of plans to amputate her fingers, an emotional disclosure that will likely require a counselor's help.
"We don't know if she's aware of her (amputated) leg yet," he said. "We're in a don't ask, don't tell policy."
The flesh-eating bacteria, Aeromonas hydrophila, emit toxins that cut off blood flow to parts of the body. The affliction can destroy muscle, fat and skin tissue.
Copeland contracted the infection days after she suffered the deep cut May 1 when the zip line snapped over rocks in the Little Tallapoosa River near the University of West Georgia, where she studies psychology.
The bug 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 in recent decades.
In addition to the damage to her extremities, Copeland is on a respirator and a dialysis machine as her lungs and kidneys recover. Doctors also had to remove much of the skin from her torso to keep the infection from spreading, her father said.
Though still heavily medicated, Copeland has become more alert and communicates with her parents and older sister despite the breathing tube in her throat. Her father said Wednesday doctors were removing that tube and inserting another directly into her trachea to make her more comfortable.
"If they take the tube out, I believe reading her lips is going to be a lot easier," he said. "And she might be able to actually cover the tube up and be able to talk."
Andy Copeland said his daughter has been asking for her cell phone, her laptop and a book to read, but is still in no condition to use any of those things. He said her sister, Paige, has been reading to her from a book on meditation.