Flesh-Eating Disease: Student Shows Signs of Recovery After Zip Line Injury

Aimee Copeland, 24, lost her leg to the infection after a zip line injury.

ByABC News
May 10, 2012, 10:09 AM

May 10, 2012— -- Aimee Copeland, the Georgia student battling flesh-eating disease after a zip line injury, is showing signs of recovery, her family said today. But the 24-year-old is still fighting for her life, relying on a ventilator to breathe.

"Her condition is still critical," Copeland's father, Andy Copeland, told reporters at a press conference in Augusta, Ga. "If they were to unhook the ventilator, I don't know that she could breathe on her own."

Aimee Copeland was riding a homemade zip line near the Little Tallapoosa River May 1 when the line snapped, causing a gash in her left calf. Bacteria that burrowed deep into the wound caused necrotizing fasciitis, a rare but deadly infection that on Friday forced doctors to amputate her leg.

"It's a miracle she made it past Friday night," Andy Copeland told ABC affiliate WSBTV.

Copeland may also lose her hands and her right foot, her father said.

"I couldn't conceive of what it would be like for my daughter to lose her hands and the only other foot she has, as well, and that appears to be what is going to happen," he told WSBTV. "The most important thing is my daughter is still alive."

Although she's still on a ventilator, Copeland's is alert and able to nod and shake her head, according to a Facebook page dedicated to her recovery.

"Seeing Aimee this morning was so refreshing," wrote Copeland's sister, Paige. "My hope for her recovery is stronger than ever!"

The bacteria thought to have triggered the infection, Aeromonas hydrophila, thrives in warm climates and fresh water, like the river where Copeland was kayaking and zip lining with friends. But experts say it rarely causes flesh-eating disease.

"This bacteria is a common cause of diarrheal illness," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "For it to cause a deep wound infection that dissolves tissue, that's not common."

Although the infection is rare, it's extremely dangerous. Mortality rates for Aeromonas-related necrotizing fasciitis are upward of 60 percent, according to a 2010 report published in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews. The sooner the infection is diagnosed and treated, the better the prognosis.

After the accident, Copeland went to Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton, Ga., where doctors cleaned the gash and closed it with 22 staples. She returned to the hospital the next day complaining of severe pain and was sent home with a prescription for painkillers. She returned again and was given antibiotics. During her fourth visit Friday, she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and her leg was amputated.

After the amputation, Copeland was flown to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., where her recovery has been touch and go. Tuesday, one week after the accident, her heart stopped beating. Doctors were able to resuscitate her, but said her chance of surviving the infection was "bleak," according to the family's Facebook page.

But today, the family was optimistic.

"She looks so much better," said Paige Copeland, holding back tears of joy. "I just told her if she keeps improving like this, she'll be out of here in no time."