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Family watches 'miraculous survival' of woman fighting flesh-eating bacteria

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 6:16 PM EDT, Mon May 14, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The medication Aimee Copeland is given leads her to forget what has happened
  • She may lose her fingers
  • Doctors have already amputated one of her legs and part of her abdomen
  • Her father promises they will one day celebrate her ability to breathe on her own

(CNN) -- A 24-year-old woman in a hospital bed fighting off flesh-eating bacteria has to be told repeatedly -- each time she wakes up -- what has happened, her parents told CNN on Monday.

The medication Aimee Copeland is given leads her to forget each time she falls asleep.

"It's scary to her," said her mother, Donna Copeland. She asks where she is and "doesn't understand."

Yet Aimee Copeland -- who has lost a leg and part of her abdomen to the virulent bacteria and may lose more, including her fingers -- is keeping her spirits strong, her father said.

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"We really don't see the suffering side of it. We see the miraculous survival," Andy Copeland said. "I think that's the story that's inspired us, that's the story that's inspired, I think, the nation at this point."

On Facebook, he wrote that doctors have used words like "astonishing," "confounding" and "mind-boggling" to describe the young woman's recovery.

The master's student in psychology at the University of West Georgia was out with friends on May 1 near the Little Tallapoosa River, about 50 miles west of Atlanta, when she grabbed onto a homemade zip line. It snapped.

The accident left her with a gash in her left calf that took 22 staples to close.

Three days later, when the pain continued, a friend took her to an emergency room, where she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and flown to Augusta for surgery.

She had contracted the flesh-devouring Aeromonas hydrophila. The bacterium is "remarkably common in the water and in the environment," according to Dr. Buddy Creech, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

"When it gets into those deeper tissues, it has a remarkable ability to destroy the tissues that surround it in sort of this hunt for nutrition," he said. "When it does that, those tissues die, and you see the inflammation and the swelling and the destruction that can be very difficult to control."

In most cases, people contract the bacteria by swallowing them, resulting in diarrhea. Aimee Copeland's case was much more rare. Her wound became infected, "and the infection (ran) wild," Creech said.

A blog set up by the University of West Georgia psychology department said Aimee Copeland will suffer the loss of her fingers.

"However, physicians have hope of bringing life back to the palms of her hands, which could allow her the muscle control to use helpful prosthetics. They are awaiting a safe time before embarking on surgery for this."

Speaking to CNN on Monday, her father said doctors were assessing "day by day, or even hour by hour."

Copeland has told his daughter that one day, the family will celebrate Aimee Day -- when she will be able to breathe on her own. "We're going to celebrate that day forever for the rest of your life," he told her. "It's the day that my daughter was delivered from this horrible, horrible disease."

If there's anything to be learned, Andy Copeland said, it's not to use homemade zip lines.

Aimee Copeland's parents say that when she wakes up, she expresses concern about finishing her thesis.

In her studies, she has focused on eco-psychology -- the idea that harmonizing with nature can be a powerful tool in ensuring one's psychological health and vitality.

CNN's Josh Levs, Greg Botelho and Brooke Baldwin contributed to this report.

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