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Georgia victim of flesh-eating bacteria breathing on her own again

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 3:11 AM EDT, Mon May 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aimee Copeland is off a ventilator, her father writes
  • Copeland has lost both hands, feet and part of her torso due to the infection
  • She has necrotizing fasciitis, caused by flesh-eating bacteria from a zip-lining accident
  • "I have never seen such a strong display of courage," he says of his daughter

(CNN) -- Aimee Copeland, the 24-year-old Georgia woman who lost both hands and feet to a bacterial infection, is now breathing on her own, her father said.

"Aimee is being Aimee. She's cracking jokes, speaking frankly, displaying her usual early morning grumpiness and she has been off of the ventilator for over 10 hours," Andy Copeland said in a blog post Sunday night.

Though the University of West Georgia student is still receiving an oxygen "mask," Andy Copeland wrote, "the important thing is that she is getting zero breath per minute (bpm) assists. In other words, she is breathing completely on her own! How cool is that?"

"Bottom line: Aimee is doing great today."

The progress came after a harrowing week, in which Copeland's remaining foot and both hands were amputated.

Prior to the surgery, a website posting by Copeland's friend and fellow psychology student Ken Lewis explained the reason: "Aimee's fingers and remaining foot will have to be amputated because of dead blood vessels, not because of necrotizing fasciitis," he wrote.

Surgeons had already amputated a leg and cut out soft tissue from her torso.

On a Facebook page dedicated to his daughter's recovery, Andy Copeland described speaking with the surgeons before the latest amputations.

"The hands were endangering Aimee's progress," he writes. "As always, my decision was simple. Do whatever it takes to give us the best chance to save Aimee's life."

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He then broke the news to his daughter.

"I took Aimee's hands and held them up to her face. She didn't draw back in horror. She knew the condition she was in," he writes.

She nodded as he explained the diagnosis given by her doctors.

Asked whether she had any questions, his daughter mouthed, "I'm a little confused, but I'll figure it out," he writes.

The patient then listened as her father, mother Donna and sister Paige explained how she would eventually be fitted with prosthetic limbs.

"She smiled and raised her hands up, carefully examining them. She then looked at us. We all understood her next three words," he writes. " 'Let's do this.' "

Andy Copeland then pays tribute to the strength of his daughter, who has spent days in intensive care at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, Georgia.

"A tear rolled down my face as I walked out of her room. I wasn't crying because Aimee was going to lose her hands and foot, I was crying because, in all my 53 years of existence, I have never seen such a strong display of courage. Aimee shed no tears, she never batted an eyelash. I was crying because I am a proud father of an incredibly courageous young lady."

Copeland's struggle has been followed by many Americans, as her family has shared the ups and downs of her battle against the "flesh-eating" bacteria.

She was with friends 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 necrotizing fasciitis caused by the flesh-devouring bacteria Aeromonas hydrophila. She was flown to Augusta for the first of what has turned into a series of surgical procedures.

Among them has been a tracheotomy.

Her father recounted how her loved ones saw the inevitability of the amputations in the changing color of her hands from day to day.

"Some people may criticize my decision and say we should have prayed over Aimee and asked God to heal her hands. Trust me, this we have done every day," he writes.

There is uncertainty about how common such infections are, since no clearinghouse compiles statistics on their incidence. But Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, estimates there are fewer than 250 cases every year in the United States. The reporting of such cases is not required by law.

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

The bacteria are "remarkably common in the water and in the environment," according to Dr. Buddy Creech, 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."

Meanwhile, a South Carolina woman undergoing treatment for the same condition continues to recover.

After seven surgeries, Lana Kuykendall's family realizes she "still has a long road ahead."

"We don't know what the next day is going to bring, so we're just trusting the Lord," her brother Brian Swaffer said Sunday. "We're taking it one day at a time."

Kuykendall was healthy when she gave birth to twins on May 7 in Atlanta but went to the hospital near her home in South Carolina a few days later after noticing a rapidly expanding bruise on her leg.

The twins are healthy, he said.

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