Whether she was hiking in the woods, growing organic vegetables or working on her master's degree in psychology, Aimee Copeland embraced her passions with determination and a constant smile that made friends wonder if she ever had bad days.
Now the Georgia graduate student, 24, is fighting to survive a flesh-eating bacterial infection that forced doctors to amputate most of her left leg. They warned she would likely lose her other foot and both hands.
Copeland contracted the rare infection, called necrotizing fasciitis, within a few days after suffering a deep cut May 1 when she fell from a broken zip line in an outdoor excursion.
Her parents and sister remain at her side after a week at an Augusta hospital, while friends 200 miles away at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton are holding vigils and organizing blood drives while praying for Copeland to recover.
"When she put her mind to a project, there was no letting go. She was relentless until it was completed," said Richard LaFleur, a fellow graduate student who enlisted Copeland to help recruit for the psychology department. "I don't expect anything less at this point because she's fighting for her life." Copeland had just finished her second year of graduate school and soon to begin work on her thesis when she was injured. It happened on a kayaking trip with friends when she tried to cross the Little Tallapoosa River on a homemade zip line. The line broke and Copeland fell onto the rocks below, suffering a nasty gash in her leg.
Doctors at the local emergency room closed the wound with nearly two dozen staples, but it became infected within a few days. On May 4 she was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis and flown to Augusta for treatment by specialists.
Infections by so-called flesh-eating bacteria are rare but sometimes can run rampant after even minor cuts or scratches. The bacteria enter the body, quickly reproduce and give off toxins that cut off blood flow to parts of the body. The affliction can destroy muscle, fat and skin tissue. Affected areas may have to be surgically removed to save a patient's life.
Flesh-eating Aeromonas cases, the kind Copeland contracted, are considered extremely rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not keep statistics and only a handful of infections have been reported in medical journals over the last few decades.
Copeland's family said she suffered cardiac arrest a week ago when her leg was amputated. She was transferred to Doctors Hospital in Augusta, where she remained in critical condition Friday. She was conscious after spending most of the week unconscious.
Those who know her say Copeland has the right mixture of tenacity and a positive attitude to overcome.