AUGUSTA — Aimee Copeland had her makeup done, joked with her doctors and hugged her nurses before she left a Georgia hospital Monday, just two months after she was infected with a rare life-threatening, flesh-eating disease.
Despite losing her left leg, right foot and both hands, the 24-year-old graduate student kept up her high spirits as she headed for an inpatient rehabilitation clinic in metro Atlanta.
Copeland's father, Andy, said she is ready for the next phase of recovery.
"She's a very determined young lady," Andy Copeland told The Associated Press in an interview at Doctors Hospital in Augusta moments after his daughter left the facility with her mother in an ambulance. "When she sets her mind on something, she achieves it."
Copeland suffered a deep cut May 1 when she fell from a broken zip-line along the Little Tallapoosa River in Georgia. Emergency room doctors closed the wound with nearly two dozen staples, but within a few days, she contracted the rare infection, called necrotizing fasciitis.
Infections by flesh-eating bacteria 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, as in Copeland's case.
The bacteria that infected Copeland, a bug called Aeromonas hydrophila, is found in warm and brackish waters. Many people exposed to these bacteria don't get sick. When illnesses do occur, it's often diarrhea from swallowing bacteria in the water. Flesh-eating Aeromonas cases are so rare that only a handful of infections have been reported in medical journals over the last few decades.
At first, doctors gave Copeland just a slim chance of surviving. She spent weeks sedated and breathing on a respirator while undergoing amputations and skin grafts to replace large patches of infected skin.
Copeland's speedy recovery has defied doctors' initial prognosis, and her story of survival has attracted worldwide attention and sparked an outpouring of support. A week ago, hospital officials upgraded Copeland's condition from serious to good.
Last weekend, her parents were able to take her outside the hospital in her wheelchair — her first time outdoors since she arrived. Leaving Monday was a bittersweet farewell.
"She hated to see a lot of people she loves, to say goodbye," her father said. "The sweet is that she is moving on to the next phase."
Copeland's mother arrived at the hospital early to help her get ready for the big day and did her makeup for her, her father said.
Copeland should spend about six to eight weeks in the rehab facility — just enough time for her family to finalize home improvements to make her life easier.
Copeland is determined to finish her psychology thesis and graduate from the University of West Georgia in December. Andy Copeland said he is optimistic she will achieve that goal because of her positive attitude and hopeful outlook on life.
Her father said she is looking forward to using prosthetic limbs.
"Her chances, when it comes to rehab, everything you get out of it is a direct reflection of what you put in," he said. "She looks at challenges as an opportunity, a chance to make a difference in her own life and in others. I know she is going to put in incredible effort to make sure it's the best possible experience she can have."
The ambulance crew transporting Copeland had a chance to see some of that attitude. Tom Adkins, president of Augusta-based Capital City Ambulance, said he was moved by her "unbelievable spirit."
"She's got a dynamite personality," said Adkins. "If you were not able to visualize her, there would be no way to know that she has been through this kind of experience. She will be an inspiration to people around the world."