The Georgia psychology graduate student who fell when her zip line broke is achieving some medical stability after flesh-eating bacteria have ravaged her body; she may be facing more amputations.
Aimee Copeland continues to be in critical condition at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., but showing signs of marked improvement that doctors have variously called 'astonishing,' 'incredible,' 'confounding,' 'mind boggling' and 'unbelievable,’ according to Aimee’s father Andy Copeland.
The 24-year-student was kayaking the Little Tallapoosa River May 1 when she and friends rigged a home-made zip line – a contraption which essentially allows one to ‘zip’ down a rope using a small wheeled mechanism – for some daredevil fun. Unfortunately the zip line broke, causing Aimee to fall to the ground and sustaining a gash to her leg.
When doctors cleaned the wound and stitched it up, they had no reason to suspect anything more was amiss. Such accidents happen all the time, after all, and Aimee’s health was not compromised by an immune disease, diabetes or drug or alcohol addiction. She was the picture of a healthy, athletic all-American girl. They sent her home with some painkillers and later, a standard issue antibiotic.
By the weekend, however, Aimee was barely clinging to life as a raging case of necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease, took hold of her body. Flesh-eating disease develops when bacteria burrow into wounds and begin destroying the surrounding tissue. The process spreads throughout the body as the bacteria travel to distant sites through the vascular system. The bacteria don’t actually eat the flesh – rather, their toxic by-products as they die off cause surrounding tissue to dissolve.
Many types of bacteria can cause necrotizing fasciitis, and the usual culprits are common strains of strep or staphylococci, found on our own skins or in our throats. In Copeland’s case, however, the bacteria which caused the havoc was a bug called Aeromonas hydrophila, which makes its home in warm, brackish water. The germ usually does not cause trouble, but when flesh-eating disease sets in, fatality rates can be as high as 60 percent.
"This was a perfect storm," said ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. "She had an injury to her leg, she was exposed to water then had this germ, and she was one of those people where the germ just took off."
Copeland almost lost her life when she lost her pulse and the medical team had to resuscitate her by performing CPR. She has also been put on oxygen, as her lungs were too weakened by the stress of the disease to function on their own.
Doctors have had to amputate her left leg and part of her abdomen. They also expect to at least amputate the fingers of both hands, which are showing signs of mummification, as well as a part of her right foot. They are waiting for her to stabilize in order to make a medical decision on the operations.
Copeland is heavily sedated and, according to Andy Copeland’s website updating the condition of his daughter, does not know what happened to her. She also does not appear to remember how she got there. Because she has a breathing tube in her throat, she cannot ask lengthy questions, and at any rate, she seems to be sedated enough not to be able to sustain a long attention span.
Andy Copeland sees the time when his daughter will be taken off oxygen with a mixture of elation and dread.
"We have been trying to help Aimee by focusing her away from the negatives of her condition," Andy Copeland wrote in a blog post. "As wonderful as that moment will be for us, it will also be the time that Aimee receives all the answers about her condition. She will learn about the loss of her beautiful leg. She will discover that her hands lack the dexterity and tactile response she has known all her life. How would you respond in such a situation? I think that moment will be one of horror and depression for Aimee."
Image Source Wikimedia Commons
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