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Student infected with rare bacteria making progress

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Wed May 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "She appears to be remembering ... different conversations," father says
  • Blood drives are launched in several communities for Aimee Copeland
  • She has been on life support since May 4

(CNN) -- The West Georgia University graduate student infected two weeks ago with a rare "flesh-eating" bacteria was making progress, albeit slowly, her father said Tuesday.

"She was in high spirits," Andy Copeland told CNN about his daughter, Aimee Copeland, 24, who was on a ventilator in intensive care at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, Georgia.

"She appears to be remembering day-to-day different conversations we've had. We actually referred to some conversations she had yesterday, so her memory is -- short-term memory -- appears to be coming back, which is a very encouraging sign."

As a result of the damage done by the bacterial infection called necrotizing fasciitis, doctors have removed part of Copeland's abdomen, amputated a leg and expect to remove her fingers, her father said on a website run by the University of West Georgia Psychology Department.

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"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," he said. "They are awaiting a safe time before embarking on surgery for this."

Copeland, who has been on life support since May 4, regained consciousness a week later, according to the school's website.

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

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

Three days later, still in pain, she went to an emergency room, where doctors determined she had contracted the flesh-devouring bacteria Aeromonas hydrophila. She was taken to Augusta for surgery.

But, as of Tuesday night, she had not yet fully grasped the extent of her illness, her father said. "As far as all the specifics, we steered her away from the experience itself. To me, it probably does not good in her healing process to bring up any bad memories, at this point."

Bored with television, his daughter was reading and trying to communicate with her family, the father said on the website.

But the ventilator made talking difficult, he said. "Some of the simplest words can take minutes to decipher when you have a tube interfering with your lips and movement of your jaw."

For example, he added, "lamb chop" turned out to be "laptop."

Copeland has been infused with 177 units of blood since she contracted the infection. That's more than 168 pints; the average human body contains about 10 pints of blood, according to America's Blood Centers.

"You've got a lot of need," the father said. "We've got blood drives in Augusta, Carrollton, Winder, Lawrenceville, Snellville," he added, referring to communities in Georgia.

The bacteria are "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."

Her wound became infected, "and the infection (ran) wild," Creech said.

The infection is fatal in about one in four cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website.

Students at the school have rallied to Copeland's aid. A blood drive was to be held Tuesday at the student center. A second blood drive is planned next week in Gwinnett County, where the family lives.

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