Aimee Copeland, left, poses with her mom, Donna; dad, Andy; and sister, Paige, in an undated family photo.

Story highlights

Aimee Copeland began speaking Sunday, her father says

She "continues to talk and joke" on Monday, he says

The 24-year-old Georgia woman is battling a flesh-eating bacteria

The infection has cost her her hands, a leg and her remaining foot

CNN  — 

For Andy Copeland, the “Aimee Day” event he’d been waiting for happened when he was in church.

Copeland was in the pews at a Baptist church in Augusta, Georgia, on Sunday morning when a text message notified him his 24-year-old daughter could not only breathe on her own, but also talk for the first time in weeks. It was a major milestone for Aimee, who is battling a flesh-eating bacteria that has already led surgeons to amputate her hands, part of her abdomen, one of her legs and her remaining foot in an effort to stay ahead of the disease.

Family counters flesh-eating bacteria with faith

“I was so excited I wanted to spring up out of the pew and into the aisle and do a dance,” Andy Copeland posted on the family’s website Monday. “My fellow Baptists probably would not have appreciated that, so I resisted the urge. Instead, my fingers danced across my phone.”

Two weeks ago, in a post on his Facebook page, Copeland wrote that the family would mark that milestone “forever for the rest of your life.”

It would be several hours before he was able to see his daughter – she had put off her family for much of the day after being given a drug that caused nausea and intestinal cramps, and Copeland said he was doing “emotional backflips” the entire time. But when he did see her Sunday evening, “Aimee was expressive and she clearly elucidated her thoughts,” he wrote.

“Her long-term memory was intact. We listened to the iPod Shuffle that Eddie Mattock of Pittsburgh had sent her, and she told me the story of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter,” Copeland wrote. “We discussed ideas of how to utilize wilderness therapy/eco-psychology for amputees. We talked about her current physical condition. We smiled and at times we said nothing. Just being there and seeing her happiness put a certain peace in my heart.”

And on Monday, “Aimee continues to talk and joke,” he added.

“Her nurse bumped her head and Aimee said, ‘Now my nurse needs a nurse!’ Then she winked at us and said, ‘I’ll take care of her.’ She then waved her arm in the air and said, ‘these fingers can work magic.’ She grinned at us. She knew she didn’t have any fingers, but she’s not worried about it either. She knows everything is going to be fine. We know everything is going to be fine. We all know it is going to be a long and challenging road, but we will handle it together.”

Father: ‘I have never seen such a strong display of courage’

AImee Copeland was taken off a ventilator May 20 and had been mouthing words without sound for several days before her voice was heard, her family said.

Her ordeal began May 1, when she was riding a makeshift zip line across the Little Tallapoosa River, about 50 miles west of Atlanta. The line snapped, and she fell and got a gash in her left calf that took 22 staples to close.

Three days later, still in pain, she went to an emergency room. Doctors eventually determined she had necrotizing fasciitis caused by the flesh-devouring bacteria Aeromonas hydrophila.

Her father has written regularly since about her situation, with over 72,500 “likes” on his Facebook blog devoted to Aimee’s fight. And the psychology department at the University of West Georgia – where Aimee has been pursuing her master’s degree in psychology – also posted regular updates online.

A number of bacteria that are common in the environment but rarely cause serious infections can lead to the disease. When it gets into the bloodstream – such as through a cut – doctors typically move aggressively to excise even healthy tissue near the infection site in hopes of ensuring none of the dangerous bacteria remain.

The disease attacks and destroys healthy tissue and is fatal about 20% of the time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, estimates that fewer than 250 such cases occur each year in the United States, though estimates are imprecise since doctors do not have to report the cases to health authorities.

Since Copeland’s struggle came to light, there have been reports of others fighting the same disease.

They include Lana Kuykendall, a South Carolina woman also diagnosed earlier this month, a few days after giving birth to twins. She has had at least 11 “debridement surgeries” but thus far no amputations, with her brother Brian Swaffer noting late last week that the condition is confined to his sister’s legs and she, too, is breathing on her own.