Part II: Aimee Copeland adapts to a
new way of life and gets her joy back.
In Part I, 24-year-old graduate student Aimee Copeland was injured in a zip line accident and infected by a bacteria called aeromonas hydrophila, which developed into necrotizing fasciitis, commonly called the flesh-eating disease. To save her life, doctors had to amputate her leg, foot and hands.
After two months in intensive care and six weeks at the Shepherd Center, Aimee Copeland would be going home soon. Her transition was eased by an enormous outpouring of support from a number of metro Atlanta businesses and individuals.
Before she was even admitted to Shepherd, volunteers were building a two-story handicap-accessible addition to her parents’ Snellville home, courtesy of Home Depot and Pulte Homes. It featured a bedroom, bathroom, fitness room, sun room, study and an elevator.
During Aimee’s appearance on the Katie Couric show, the Steve Rayman Chevrolet dealership in Smyrna offered her a free vehicle of her choosing. She selected a silver van, which was fitted with features to meet Aimee’s needs, including hand controls to brake and accelerate. She christened it Sylvia.
Aimee received garbage bags full of fan mail and cards from well-wishers from around the world, many of whom sent money and gifts. The city of Snellville gave her a key to the city and called her a hero. Amy’s Kitchen donated a lifetime supply of organic frozen food.
“It was astounding to see how much my negative circumstances inspired people to be better,” Aimee said.
She was excited about the prospect of going home, but she worried about how she would manage. She had been fitted with prosthetic arms, but they were cumbersome and she didn’t like the metal hooks.
“They scratched everything up, my phone, the steering wheel,” Aimee said. “They weren’t as functional as I would have liked.”
Her custom-made power chair wouldn’t be ready for six weeks, so she was going home without it. Both her parents worked, Donna as an administrative assistant and Andy as a financial adviser. Aimee couldn’t push herself. How was she going to get to the bathroom, she wondered.
Friends Of Disabled Adults and Children (FODAC), the Goodwill of medical equipment, came to her rescue. The organization provided Aimee with the temporary use of a motorized wheelchair until hers was ready.
“I felt spoiled rotten and so blessed to have so many people who cared,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t even have family members who cared. I had the whole world behind me it seemed. I felt a little guilty for it, but at the same time extremely grateful.”
Home sweet home
Aimee arrived home in August to little fanfare. No media. No party. Just family.
In the hospital, nurses had been at Aimee’s beck and call. Now if she dropped something on the floor, she had to figure out how to pick it up. If her phone died, she had to figure out how to plug it into the wall. If she wanted to use the toilet or get out of bed, she had to transfer herself.
“That’s when I learned the very most,” Aimee said about her homecoming. “I had to figure it out. I was learning how to do things pretty quickly.”
Still, the thought of getting behind the wheel of Sylvia was daunting. Was she capable of controlling a vehicle that weighed nearly 4 tons on Atlanta’s busy highways? Aimee was scared, but she overcame her fear and aced the driving exam on the first try.
She also returned to her studies. She hadn’t forgotten about the first time she went outdoors after being in the hospital for so long. It had sparked her interest in the therapeutic benefits of nature. She took an independent study course in eco therapy, and a year after her accident drove herself to the Amputee Adventure Camp for children at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. There she studied the impact of camp on children with disabilities.
Meanwhile Aimee continued to work on adapting to her prosthetics.
Her metal hands were replaced with bionic hands. By then she’d learned to do so much without hands, she didn’t always use them. But they were helpful when she needed to employ fine motor skills for things like applying make-up.
And she was learning to use prosthetic legs, on which she could stand and possibly one day walk.
“I could only do it for 30 minutes, but it felt amazing,” she said. “It gave me hope.”
Aimee was starting to feel less isolated. She was visiting friends and going to concerts again. The minute tickets to the Dark Star Orchestra concert went on sale, Aimee snapped up a couple.
“I’d get the front row seats and dance in my wheelchair,” she said. “People told me I was the best dancer there. It was exhilarating.”
Photo: Aimee Copeland talks to her boyfriend Stephen Mercier at her home on Saturday, September 3, 2016.
Social life reboot
If only her love life could remain that way.
Aimee and her boyfriend had been together since 2008, but his presence had been noticeably absent through much of her illness and recovery. She feared he didn’t want to be with her now that she was a quadruple amputee. But she didn’t have the strength to end it. She decided to focus on herself.
She found a therapist she could talk to about her new life challenges. She started doing yoga, seeing a nutritionist and exercising. She focused on her spirituality, learning to walk and summer classes, commanding a 4.0 grade point average.
“I was on it,” she said.
Over the next year, Aimee’s goal was to regain her independence. She started cooking and grilling again. She visited friends in St. Simons, Statesboro, Athens, quickly logging miles on Sylvia. She volunteered with FODAC and Tools for Life, a non-profit that helps people with disabilities get the technologies they need.
But there were bad days, too. Sometimes she’d be so depressed, she couldn’t leave her room, preferring to binge-watch Netflix, scream and cry. Not because she lost her limbs, but because she’d lost her best friend, her last connection to who she’d been. She knew it wasn’t healthy, but she couldn’t help thinking that if her long-time boyfriend couldn’t accept who she was now, who could? She wondered if she’d ever experience romantic love again.
In 2013, Aimee completed her master’s degree in psychology and began working on a second master’s in social work at Valdosta State. And she began accepting speaking engagements to talk about her journey. The compensation she received went toward paying her college expenses and donations to FODAC. Her self-esteem was growing, and she was gaining back her self-confidence.
Aimee was finally ready to move out of her parents home and live on her own again. She bought a three-bedroom bungalow in Old Fourth Ward near the Atlanta Beltline, and construction began to adapt it for her needs.
In January 2014, she moved in. A friend came from North Carolina to help decorate. They filled the home with an eclectic mix of art and furniture in bright shades of yellows, greens and turquoise.
And after much soul-searching, the time had come to end it with her long-time boyfriend, once and for all.
“I let go of the old relationship and the connection to the girl I used to be,” Aimee said. “She was dead and she was never coming back. Instead of wishing I could go back, that he would love me, I could move forward and learn to love the person I was becoming.”
That very day, Aimee downloaded some dating apps and uploaded her profile with a full-length photo of herself in her wheelchair. Within an hour, her inbox was full of messages. She went on several dates. One seemed like a match but fizzled a few weeks later.
A couple months after entering the dating pool, Aimee spotted the profile of Stephen Mercier, an English teacher at Drew Charter High School in East Lake. She liked what she saw and sent him a message. They chatted online a few times and a week later went on a date at a nearby bar. They hit it off immediately.
Photo: After she was a patient at Shepherd Center, Aimee was an intern at the rehabilitation center for brain and spinal cord injuries for a while. She worked in case management.
On the career path
While Aimee continued her graduate school studies, she completed a couple of internships, first with All About Developmental Disabilities, a nonprofit that provides support services for individuals with developmental disabilities, and then with Shepherd Center, where she worked in case management.
She had just started working at Shepherd when trouble visited once more. She was in the middle of making a roux for chicken pot pie one day when a friend stopped by for visit.
Aimee, where is your car? he asked.
It’s not outside?
Aimee immediately knew Sylvia had been stolen.
Making a roux is a very delicate process so she couldn’t just stop. Aimee kept stirring as she called her parents, the police, the insurance company.
How in the world would she make it to work the next day, Aimee wondered. She looked up the MARTA bus routes on her computer. It would take two buses and a train to get from her home to the Shepherd Center. That wouldn’t work. So she mapped out the distance from her home. It was only five miles. Her wheelchair could travel 5 mph. If she rolled there, she reasoned, it would take exactly one hour.
And so she did, setting out from her home at 6:15 a.m. She arrived at work 10 minutes early.
The next day it wasn’t the police who notified her the van had been recovered in an abandoned schoolyard. It was a television reporter. Within 24 hours, Aimee had her van back. The only things missing were some CDs Stephen had made for her and a book about spinal cord injuries.
Aimee completed the course work for her second master’s degree last May, and she felt drained. Except for the year it took her to recover from her zip line injury, she had been in school her entire life. She was ready for some fun.
This summer she and Stephen went kayaking and took a camping trip to Cloudland Canyon State Park. She and her family took a Caribbean cruise and spent a week at a resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico.
By then Aimee had begun to look at herself differently, to believe Stephen and others who told her she was beautiful just the way she was.
They were in St. Kitts when the revelation hit her.
She was lounging on the beach wearing a bright pink and purple two-piece bathing suit when one of her friends snapped her picture. Aimee posted it on Facebook and quickly received 5,000 likes.
“I wasn’t ashamed anymore,” she said.
Life to the fullest
On Labor Day weekend, Aimee was busy scooting around her kitchen in her motorized chair, chopping up onions and tomatoes and lettuce without benefit of her prosthetics. She was whipping up a taco bar for Stephen and friends. Just days earlier, she had prepared a meal for her family — ravioli and pan-roasted chicken with pesto made using basil from her garden.
Friends. Family. Cooking. Home.
They are the hallmarks of Aimee Copeland’s life.
Why she contracted necrotizing fasciitis is anybody’s guess. It typically infects people with weakened immune systems, but Aimee had always been in tiptop shape.
“I never got sick,” she said. “I haven’t been sick since my injury.”
The flesh-eating bacteria turned out to be “just the perfect storm,” she said.
When she finally recovered, her limbs were gone and so was the life she once knew, but by no means was it over.
Aimee can still only stand for about 30 minutes with her prosthetics. The absence of tissue to protect what’s left of her femur has been a complicating factor. But she’s hopeful the development of new biotechnology and surgical advances will someday provide a solution. Because her femur doesn’t get enough use, she suffers from osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis. She’s on a strict regimen of vitamin D and calcium to maintain proper bone density.
Nevertheless, Aimee says, she feels “pretty incredible.”
“I would not be in this place, with this amazing life, had this not happened to me,” she said.
People have long marveled at Aimee’s spirit, including her parents.
“Some people give up, but no matter what, she wanted to carry on the fight,” said Andy. “She was bound and determined to not let a physical disability get in the way of her living life to the fullest.”
He wondered what the future might hold for his daughter, but this much he knows.
“Its going to be amazing. She’s going to help a lot of people.”
Aimee and Stephen recently celebrated one year together. As a gift, Aimee recorded herself singing and playing the tambourine on a rendition of Devendra Banhart’s “Baby.” Her roommate Esther played the guitar.
The couple enjoys outdoor adventures like kayaking, playing board games and joining the crowds that walk, bike and roll along the Atlanta Beltline. Every now and then they go to concerts, but mostly they prefer quiet evenings at home, watching movies or entertaining friends.
Aimee still plans to pursue her dream of creating a nonprofit nature center for people with disabilities. But first she has to take the state exam required by professional counselors and social workers, followed by two years of supervised work experience.
She recently received approval to take the state exam on Sept. 30.
“I’m ready!” she said. “I took a full practice exam and made 10 points above the passing score.”
And she’s writing a book about her life.
Whatever happens, Aimee believes God has a plan for her.
“Our life’s purpose is like a vast puzzle of which we only have one piece,” she said. “My piece is me, Aimee. I can’t always know how my piece fits. But I have to trust the piece will click in, even though you can no more see the whole puzzle than you can know the end of a book.”
ABOUT THE STORY
In the second half of our two-part Personal Journey, Aimee Copeland has recovered from necrotizing fasciitis and undergone amputation of her leg, foot and hands. She is learning to live life as the independent young woman she was before she was injured in a zip line accident that triggered the infection that nearly killed her. The courage and optimism she displays throughout the ordeal is an inspiration to everyone who encounters her.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
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.
Read more of the AJC's coverage of Aimee Copeland's battle with necrotizing fasciitis:
Aimee Copeland's moment of clarity
Thankful for a right knee, elbows and a beautiful life
Thieves steal Aimee Copeland's van
Aimee Copeland posts inspiring photo
Free-spirited student battles for her life
Woman battling infection doesn't recall events
Aimee Copeland's father speaks
Copeland on amputations: "Let's do this"