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Aimee’s odyssey

Part I: Infected by a flesh-eating bacteria,
Aimee Copeland fights for her life.

Aimee Copeland steers her wheelchair toward the sitting room in the house that gave her back her independence.

She stops at a small table where just hours before she and her roommate, Esther, had begun piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of a cat.

Esther offers to take it away to make room for a visitor, but it’s too late. Aimee has spotted a piece she hadn’t seen before. She licks the tip of her arm, lowers it to touch one of 500 jigsaw pieces, and drops it into place.

In the four years since the accident, that’s pretty much how Aimee Copeland has managed to rebuild her life. Piece by piece.

How she’s managed to maintain her optimism and her will to live in the face of such tragedy is hard to fathom.

The easy answer is, that’s just how Aimee Copeland does things. No looking back. Just moving forward.

But the truth is even simpler than that. Aimee had no other choice.

2

Day everything changed

In the wee hours of May 1, 2012, Aimee, 24, was waiting tables at the Sunny Side Café in Carrollton, one of three part-time jobs she held to help pay her way through graduate school at the University of West Georgia.

When she wasn’t there, she tended bar at Longhorn Steakhouse or worked as a graduate research assistant.

But the Sunny Side Café was her favorite. She looked forward to serving the regulars. She knew them by name and took pride in making sure they had a good time, good food and a good jar of homemade jelly to take home for later.

She left the cafe sometime around noon that day, tired as heck. The gear from a week spent hiking the Appalachian Trail, rock climbing and mountain biking with her boyfriend was still in her beat-up 2001 Oldsmobile Alero.

She arrived at her Carrollton home and was finally about to get some shut-eye when Sunny, her friend and fellow waitress from the café, called. She and her boyfriend had had a fight. Aimee offered to come over to console her.

At Sunny’s, the girls wandered around the sprawling yard near the Tallapoosa River where they were joined by Beth, another colleague. They spotted what looked like a homemade zip line over a shallow creek. Aimee climbed on first and zipped to the other side, giddy with excitement. Sunny slid across next and then Beth.

It was Aimee’s turn again. This time, though, she was halfway across when the rope snapped. Aimee plunged into the creek’s rocky shallows. The impact slashed a nine-inch wound just below her left knee.

“I looked down and saw this cut, shaped like a half circle, spewing blood into the river,” Aimee remembered.

She yelled to her friends who were frozen in place.

I need to go to the hospital! she screamed. I need help!

Within minutes, an ambulance arrived and Aimee passed out.

Paige (left) and Aimee were born just 13 months apart. The sisters grew up in Snellville. Contributed photo

3

All-American girl

In their quest to conceive a child, Andy and Donna Copeland made the 80-mile drive from Spartanburg, S.C., to Charlotte, N.C., once a week for two months to undergo fertility treatments before their daughter Paige was born.

Considering the difficulty they had conceiving their first born, they didn’t bother with birth control after Paige arrived. They assumed they couldn’t get pregnant on their own. They were wrong.

Fours months after Paige was born, Donna was pregnant again. On March 22, 1988, Aimee arrived at Spartanburg General Hospital, the same place her parents had met in the winter of 1979.

Donna was a nurse’s aide and Andy was an orderly. The two quickly became friends. The relationship soon evolved into something more, and they married in 1983.

The 24-year-old version of Aimee was not much different from the little girl.

She was outgoing, smart and competitive.

“Anything her sister did, she wanted to do it, too,” Donna Copeland said. “She was the ‘me too’ child.”

If Paige learned to ride a bicycle, so did Aimee. If Paige learned to read, so did Aimee. The monkey bars were different. Aimee was never quite able to master them.

“It frustrated her so bad,” Andy Copeland recalled.

In 1993, Andy got a job as a Wachovia Bank trust officer so the family moved to Snellville.

Aimee excelled in school, making her first B her freshman year in high school, a point that never sat well with her. Her blonde, girl-next-door good looks and effervescent personality made her a boy magnet, as well as the object of school bullies.

Having her yard rolled with toilet paper and lewd messages scribbled on the sidewalk was the price she paid for being pretty and popular.

Andy and Donna grew up in the Baptist church, and they raised their daughters in the faith. God was as close as a prayer, they told the girls.

When she was 9, Aimee started a Bible club for the children in their Snellville neighborhood.

I’m doing this for the kids, she’d tell her parents.

She was barely 14 when she landed her first job conducting health-care surveys over the phone. Within two years she was supervising employees twice her age.

By high school, Aimee was pretty sure what she wanted to be: a cheerleader and a film editor.

When neither of those materialized — her parents couldn’t afford the cost of cheerleading and she discovered film editors lacked the creative license she needed to be happy — she turned to teaching.

When she graduated from South Gwinnett High in 2005, she headed to the University of Georgia where she majored in elementary education, but that wouldn’t pan out either.

Eight a.m. classes saw to that.

“I didn’t like the whole waking up early thing,” Aimee said. “Plus I didn’t feel stimulated.”

Her first year at UGA was a blur of activity — spring rush with Delta Gamma, club meetings, concerts, part-time jobs and yep, partying. It’s a wonder her grades didn’t suffer, but they didn’t.

By her sophomore year, she started to settle down some, limiting her nights out to the weekends. She changed her major to psychology and became a member of the Psychology Honor Society and the Neuroscience Club. She worked as a research assistant in the neuroscience lab. For fun she joined her sorority sisters for football games and took in the local music scene. She was a big fan of jam bands, and her favorite venue was the Georgia Theatre. The night the theater burned down, Aimee had tickets to see Perpetual Groove.

Aimee graduated in May 2010 and moved to Carrollton to pursue a master’s degree in psychology at the University of West Georgia.

She had just three credit hours to complete when the accident happened.

Aimee (right) talks with her parents Andy and Donna as they sit with Aimee's dog Belle at Aimee's home.

4

‘I think I’m dying’

At the hospital in Carrollton, doctors stapled Aimee’s wound shut, bandaged her leg and sent her on her way.

She was fine, or so they thought.

Her parents offered to pick her up from the hospital and bring her to their Snellville home where they could care for her. But Aimee didn’t think she could stand the long car ride to Snellville. Except for the pain, she was OK, she told them. She went home where her boyfriend could take care of her.

Although the cut was below her knee, Aimee experienced excruciating pain in her thigh. As time passed, the pain became more intense, not less.

By the fourth morning, Aimee couldn’t take it anymore. She knew something was terribly wrong. She shook her boyfriend awake.

Her leg was dark purple and covered with large blisters from her foot to her hip. She couldn’t get out of bed, and her bedroom smelled like something rotten.

I think I’m dying, Aimee said.

Her boyfriend threw her over his shoulder and headed out the door to the hospital.

It was early morning, when the attending physician telephoned Aimee’s father.

Sir, you need to get here right now, he said.

Andy and Donna were en route and 20 minutes away from Carrollton when the doctor called again.

Aimee had necrotizing fasciitis, he said, the ailment commonly known as flesh-eating disease. When Aimee fell into the creek she was exposed to a bacteria called aeromonas hydrophila, found in fresh or brackish water. Once it entered her body through her wound, it traveled through the bloodstream, causing tissue damage and triggering sepsis, a life-threatening condition that threatened to shut down her major organs.

At the hospital, Andy cried like a baby. He felt nauseated. He rushed to the bathroom and turned on the water, watching as it flowed down the drain.

He had been in this god-awful place once before. Nineteen years earlier, Donna had suffered a head injury in an automobile accident that put her in a coma for 13 days. That day in 1993 Andy reached for a Gideon Bible he found on a table at the hospital and opened it to the book of James. He started reading and stopped at verse 6: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.”

Nearly two decades later, that verse popped into Andy’s head.

“Every bit of fear and trepidation in my heart was lifted and replaced with joy,” he said. “I said right then to myself, she’s going to be fine.”

When he finally heard the pounding on the door, he opened it to find Donna there crying.

He hugged his wife and tried to assure her Aimee was going to be fine.

The next day, Aimee was airlifted to the Burn Center at Doctor’s Hospital in Augusta where she could be placed in a hyperbaric chamber, which doctors hoped would prevent the bacteria from spreading and boost the effect of antibiotics.

The Copelands were en route to the hospital when traffic snarled on I-20, slowing their pace to a crawl. The phone rang. Aimee’s doctor wanted permission to amputate her left leg.

Just do what you got to do to save my baby’s life, Andy told him.

After the surgery, the doctor had sobering news for Andy and Donna.

Aimee might not survive the night.

5

‘Let’s do this’

The next day Donna and Andy were finally able to see Aimee.

Donna went first, accompanied by her sister.

Her daughter was swollen from head to toe. Her head looked like a basketball. There was no color in her face. There was an empty space where her left leg had been.

They weren’t in the room long before they exited, sobbing.

Andy went in next, but he was far too angry for tears. Tears meant he’d given up.

He leaned down to be sure Aimee heard him.

Honey, we’re doing everything we can. The doctors are doing their job. The family is praying. Whatever you do, you got to fight like you never fought anything in your life.

After he left the room, he called the family together.

Let’s not shed any tears, he told them. We need to celebrate this moment because she’s still alive.

There in the hallway outside intensive care, the family joined hands and prayed for Aimee’s deliverance.

From that moment on, Andy said, things he couldn’t explain started to happen. Every step they made felt like God parting the Red Sea, removing every obstacle in front of them.

The Copelands took to Facebook, rallying the community to donate blood. All of Augusta joined the effort. The Elks and Rotary clubs of South Gwinnett bused people in from Atlanta to donate.

“It was crazy,” Andy said. “We raised more blood than Aimee needed. Every patient in the burn unit benefited.”

Aimee continued to survive, but with each passing day, the condition of her remaining extremities worsened.

We’ve got to talk about Aimee’s hands, said Dr. Joseph Shaver, a cardiopulmonologist. They’re holding back her progress.

The medicine Aimee was taking to stabilize her blood pressure was concentrating blood in her vital organs and away from her hands and remaining foot. The veins had collapsed; her soft tissue was dying.

“At that point I felt like it was Aimee’s limbs to sacrifice,” Andy said.

He wanted to be the one to tell her. So he, Donna and Paige donned gowns, rubber gloves and face masks and went in to break the news.

Do you remember zip lining? he asked Aimee.

No.

Do you remember falling into some rocks?

No.

Andy explained to Aimee what happened.

They amputated your leg to save your life, he said. Now we’ve got another problem.

Andy took Aimee’s hands and held them up in front of her. They were dark purple and the ends of her fingers curled inward like a loose fist.

You see these? he asked

Yeah.

Do your hands look normal to you?

Aimee shook her head, no.

All this is hampering your progress. Our prayer was that God would do whatever it took to keep you alive. This is the next step, he said.

He paused to let all that sink in. He could tell she was thinking about it.

Aimee thought about a book she’d read called “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He maintained that in the darkest of circumstances, we create our own meaning. If Frankl could survive a concentration camp, Aimee thought, she could survive this.

She held her hands up in front of her face. She looked at the left, then the right and then back at her father.

Let’s do this, she told him.

6

Healing power of nature

“Let’s do this” became the Copeland family mantra.

Within an hour, they wheeled her off to the operating room. The surgery took five hours. Afterward, her recovery accelerated.

Aimee’s memories of those first days and nights were of horrible nightmares. She was haunted by visions of ghosts, dead bodies, maggots clogging her nose and feeding tube. And the pain. The pain was immense.

She underwent more than 30 surgeries to close the wounds from her amputations. Tissue was removed from her abdominal muscle to create a flap to cover her femoral artery. That was covered with skin grafts taken from her right thigh, which oozed and scabbed. Twice a day lotion was applied to all her wounds, aggravating what was already agonizing pain.

But she was out of the woods and improving with each passing day. Weeks later, Aimee was finally able to get out of bed and go outdoors.

Donna and Andy wheeled her to the edge of the woods behind the hospital. It felt like 100 degrees that day, but the sun on Aimee’s face felt glorious. Everything appeared hyper vibrant. The sky was a magnificent blue. The flowers, bright red and orange and yellow, with a sweet fragrance to match.

Aimee was reminded how much joy she felt for the world.

You know, I feel blessed, she told her parents

Blessed how?

I feel blessed to be different.

Back inside, Aimee was struck by the number of patients confined to beds, still unable to go outside. Being outdoors had revived her spirit and she wanted to share the joy it gave her with others. She vowed that someday she’d help bridge the gap between nature and accessibility.

“I didn’t know what that would look like, but the seed was planted.” she said.

7

The new normal

On the Fourth of July, two months after Aimee’s accident, she was transferred to Atlanta Shepherd Center, which specializes in brain and spinal cord injury rehabilitation, to begin physical therapy.

Her parents dubbed it “Aimee’s Independence Day.”

Over the next few days, she was weaned off painkillers, which made her feel wretched. She was constantly nauseated and couldn’t eat. Perhaps even worse, without the drugs, the emotional pain began to set in. For the first time, Aimee began to feel the full impact of what had happened to her. She would never be the same. How would she dress herself without hands? Who would hire her? Would she ever live on her own again?

Rolling through the hospital in a motorized wheelchair, she would read the inspirational quotes on the walls at Shepherd and sob.

“I can’t carry this weight alone / Please help me hold it up / All my devils become my angels when I face my fear.”

The more of them she read, the more she cried. She missed her hands so much.

She was in physical therapy one day when she couldn’t help noticing her therapist’s hands. Her fingers were so dainty. Her nails manicured just so.

Your hands are so pretty, Aimee told her.

I might have hands, the woman said, noticing the pain in Aimee’s eyes, but you’re the only one in this room who can control when you want to go to the bathroom.

It struck Aimee how relative suffering was.

“Here I was missing parts of my former life and looking around and seeing people who couldn’t lift their arms, move their heads from side to side,” she said.

By then, Aimee had become a media sensation. The Copelands were getting calls from every television network in the country. At first they had participated with the media, giving interviews and appearing on camera, but they soon began to feel like a sideshow.

“A part of me was very grateful, but it was very overwhelming,” Aimee said.

The media glare soon became too much. Aimee started putting on sunglasses and hoodies to hide her identity for trips to the movies and other outings.

Meanwhile, she was getting physically stronger, learning to use her wheelchair, working three hours a day with a physical therapist. She was being fitted for prostheses. But she was also starting to struggle with her body image.

There were no full-length mirrors at Shepherd, but one day Aimee got a day pass to visit a friend. She was using the bathroom when she saw her reflection for the first time since the accident. She was horrified at what she saw.

“I was disgusted,” she said. “It looked like I was sitting on a chunk of raw meat. I felt like a monster.”

Aimee had been a tall, lithe beauty, who was used to getting a lot of attention from men.

Now she didn’t recognize herself.

Then she remembered the doll a nurse had given her in the hospital. It came with a note that said: “Aimee, please remember no body is perfect. This doll is handmade with imperfections because we’re all made different. It’s what you do with what you have that counts.”

She decided that would become her motto moving forward: It’s what you do with what you have that counts.

NEXT WEEK: Aimee adapts to a new way of life and gets her joy back.


ABOUT THE STORY

Aimee Copeland’s story has been told in bits and pieces in various media outlets, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, since news broke in May 2012 that she had been infected by a flesh-eating bacteria. But for the first time, Aimee and her parents sat down with Gracie Bonds Staples to share the whole saga from the beginning to present day. It is an inspiring story about the power of faith, the power of community and the power of positive thinking. Despite everything she’s been through, Aimee remains one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. She is the embodiment of her favorite saying: “It’s what you do with what you have that counts.”

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER

Gracie Bonds Staples has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples, 58, lives in Johns Creek with her husband of 30 years, Jimmy. They have two daughters, Jamila, a third-year medical student, and Asha, a broadcast reporter at Fox10 news in Mobile, Ala.


ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.