SAVANNAH — After more than three months in the hospital and a rehabilitation clinic, a young Georgia woman who survived a rare fleshing-eating disease returned home to a family dinner and a wheelchair-accessible house now equipped with an exercise room and private elevator.
Aimee Copeland, 24, had been away from her family's home in Snellville outside Atlanta since May 4, when doctors diagnosed her with the life-threatening infection she contracted after gashing her leg while zip lining over the Tallapoosa River. Both of Copeland's hands, her left leg and her right foot were amputated at a hospital in Augusta. Then Copeland moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for nearly two months of learning to move, eat, bathe and care for herself without prosthetic limbs.
With two trips in the family car to haul all of her things, and the bumper nearly dragging on the ground, Copeland moved back home Wednesday, her father said.
"It was almost like you were bringing a kid home from college," Andy Copeland said in a phone interview Thursday. "When we got back home, Aimee rolled around in her room and she was really laughing it up."
She returned to a home that had received a major makeover. A homebuilder, Pulte Homes, added a 1,956-square-foot living space for Copeland onto her parents' home. It includes a bedroom and bathroom with wheelchair-accessible features; wider doorways; an exercise room with parallel bars and other equipment; and an elevator between the addition's two floors. The $200,000 job was paid for by donations, at no cost to the Copeland family.
Copeland also got her first dinner outing and chose the steakhouse where her sister works, her father said. She dined on shrimp stew and spinach dip.
"She's actually very successful and is able to get around a good bit," Copeland's father said. "Last night she never wore a prosthetic limb the whole day. She was eating and drinking and taking care of herself without ever putting a prosthetic on."
He said his daughter is still adjusting to using prosthetic limbs and often finds them uncomfortably hot and itchy. Even without them, she's learning to pick up and use pens and other utensils by pressing her arms together to grip them. She also has special cuffs that fit on the ends of her arms that can hold a toothbrush, a fork or a spoon.
Copeland was pursuing a graduate degree in psychology at the University of West Georgia when she was injured during an outing with friends in May. She fell from a broken zip line onto sharp rocks along the Tallapoosa River and gashed her leg. Days later, doctors diagnosed Copeland with necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that emits toxins that can destroy muscle, fat and skin tissue.
Copeland defied doctors' expectations with a rapid recovery. Her father says they at first gave her just a slim chance of surviving, and she spent weeks sedated and breathing on a respirator.
Andy Copeland said it's unclear when his daughter will be able to return to school to finish her graduate thesis. The campus is 75 miles from her parents' home.
For now, he said, Copeland is just happy to be home.
"Right now her mental condition is wonderful, her health is good and her energy level is high," Copeland's father said. "She's doing great."