After overcoming a rare bacterial infection, Aimee Copeland is braving a new world
Aimee Copeland is sitting in the front cockpit of a tandem kayak. A helmet covers her shoulder-length blond hair. Hand paddles are strapped to her arms. After readying the boat they’ll share, her instructor squats next to her on the pool deck and says: “We’re going to slide you in bow first.” The 26-year-old Copeland (BS ’10) responds in her typical, no-worries style: “Sounds good.”
In the water, the pair practices proper paddling techniques. “We want to rotate from the core,” says the instructor from Team River Runner, an outfit that works with people with disabling injuries. “Let’s shift our body weight to ride on the hull’s edge.” With every stroke, Copeland adapts to new methods to make yet another activity, once routine, possible.
Watching Copeland navigate her kayak, it is easy to forget she’s missing her left leg. It’s easy to forget she is missing her right leg below the knee. It’s easy to forget she’s missing both arms below the elbow. Just two years after an accident and bout with necrotizing fasciitis (more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria), it’s easy to forget because being with Copeland means keeping up with Copeland—literally chasing Aimee.
Coming out of the water, Copeland pivots on her arms from the hydraulic pool lift into her electric wheelchair. She slaloms between obstacles along the deck to the dressing room. She then zooms out the door and along the sidewalk to her van, wheels inside, and with the skill of a gymnast dismounting a pommel horse, maneuvers behind the steering wheel to drive herself home to Snellville.
“There’s a million different possibilities that could occur in life, and this is the one I landed in,” says Copeland, whose undergraduate degree is in psychology. “It’s the butterfly effect, where one moment changes the rest of your history, and I am not sorry it has. My life could have turned out so many different ways. At least in this particular way, I can be of service.”
It was already hot on May 1, 2012, when Copeland finished her breakfast shift at the Sunny Side Café in Carrollton. It was slow that day. Spring semester had recently ended at the University of West Georgia, where she was a graduate student in humanistic psychology. When she was leaving the restaurant, a co-worker suggested she come over to hang out with friends.
The group lounged in the sun, talked and watched rabbits hop through the yard. Then Copeland noticed a homemade zip line, which crossed the Little Tallapoosa River running through the property.
“The zip line was actually more like one of those dog-runner cables, you know?” remembers Copeland. “We held onto bicycle handle bars while we crossed what was, at that point in the season, the rocks of a very shallow creek bed. The water was maybe a foot deep.”
Athletic and self-confident, Copeland loves the outdoors. Soaring through the air hanging from a rickety contraption six feet above the ground was a challenge she welcomed.
With Belle, a 2-year-old Labradoodle, leading the way, Copeland maneuvers her electric wheelchair along the walk outside her Snellville home. Copeland received Belle, a trained service dog, last June from the Psychiatric Service Dog Academy and Registry, for which Copeland is now a spokesperson.
On that spring day, which seemed like any other, the group took turns on the makeshift zip line. On Copeland’s second attempt, the line snapped and she fell hard onto the rocks.
“I looked down and saw a gnarly, moon-shaped cut and my left calf muscle was hanging out. A lot of stuff was hanging out. When the ambulance got there, I passed out. They say in moments like that the mind shuts down to protect the body.”
What Copeland wouldn’t know until she regained consciousness two weeks later was that the gnarly cut and the water she landed in created a perfect storm for necrotizing fasciitis that would soon change her life.
It would be hard to invent a fictional condition more mysterious than necrotizing fasciitis (NF). A bacterial infection, NF assaults the fascia, which are sheets of tissue that sheath muscles. According to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation (NNFF), “NF can occur in an extremity following a minor trauma, or after some other type of opportunity for the bacteria to enter the body such as surgery.” Cases have been reported after “a tiny scratch, bumping a leg with a golf bag, a friendly punch in the arm from a buddy” and “no known trauma at all.”
The upside is that NF is rare and those most at risk typically, though not always, have compromised immune systems.
Copeland says her doctors don’t know what made her body fertile for the infection. “They just don’t have any idea. I guess if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it,” she says.
Once the bacterium enters the system, it moves very quickly. A misdiagnosis, even by a few hours, can mean the difference between life and death.
Three days after the accident, doctors knew Copeland had necrotizing fasciitis. She was airlifted to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctor’s Hospital in Augusta. By the time she arrived, time and the damage caused by the infection were rapidly working against her. The goal changed from saving her left leg to keeping her alive.
Robert Kistenberg, coordinator of prosthetics in the Georgia Tech School of Applied Physiology, works with Copeland to adjust her iLimb Ultra prosthetic hand from Touch Bionics. The fingers of the hand bend at the joints to allow Copeland to grip objects.
Copeland’s father, Andy, kept a public blog as the tragedy unfolded.
“Upon arrival at JMS, Aimee was once again rushed into surgery and the doctors completed a high-hip amputation of her left leg,” he wrote on May 4, 2012. “As if this wasn’t enough, Aimee arrested when they moved her from the operating table, but they were able to successfully resuscitate her. The doctors say that Aimee’s probability of surviving the night is bleak. All we can do and all we have done is pray.”
Copeland’s body would shut down repeatedly. She would die twice. And in a desperate race to save her life, doctors put her on vasopressors, a drug to divert blood from her extremities to save her failing vital organs.
Over the next two weeks she struggled on life support, but grew stronger. Still, the family faced major, life-altering decisions. The vasopressors had collapsed the veins in her hands and remaining foot, turning them black and useless and making them health risks.
Andy Copeland remembers holding up his daughter’s hands so she could see them. “Your mind is beautiful, your heart is good and your spirit is strong,” he told her. “These hands can prevent your recovery from moving forward. The doctors want to amputate them and your foot today to assure your best possible chance of survival.”
“Let’s do this,” she responded.
Copeland walks through an obstacle course with physical therapist Beth Fordyce at the Emory Center for Rehabilitation Medicine in Atlanta.
Following a two-month stay in Augusta, Copeland was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where her rehabilitation began in earnest.
“When I got to Shepherd, they took me off methadone,” she says. “That was when everything started to sink in. I was quite depressed for several weeks. I cried a lot in the beginning. I went through a grieving process.”
Over the next six weeks, Copeland woke at 7 a.m. every day to rehabilitate her ravaged body and take the baby steps necessary to meet life’s new challenges. She learned how to get out of bed, how to operate a wheelchair, how to get to the bathroom and how to use technology like an iPad. Her therapists worked with her to build strength and eventually adjust to prosthetics and use a walker. She spoke with a psychologist regularly. In Copeland’s words: “They snapped me back into reality.”
Four months after her accident and three weeks after her release from the Shepherd Center, Copeland appeared on “Katie,” Katie Couric’s talk show.
“Just a few months ago what you’re about to see seemed inconceivable,” Couric told the audience on September 12, 2012. “So please welcome Aimee Copeland.”
The crowd applauded and cheered as Copeland, blushing, appeared. She stood on one prosthetic foot. Her arms, stumps below the elbows, were fastened to a walker with wheels. Wearing a tank top and a cheery, flowered skirt, she lurched forward, extending her stumps to roll the walker she’d received just five days earlier. She then lifted her body and swung her prosthetic leg forward to again support her weight. It took one minute and 16 seconds to travel the 10 yards to Couric. Couric, like many in the audience, was crying.
“Was there any point where you said, ‘I can’t do this, I’d rather die’?” Couric asked.
“No, that was never really an option to me,” Copeland said. “I love life. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s something I don’t take for granted anymore. Seeing a sunset or the ocean. It’s so exhilarating—even more so now. The senses are so deepened. Everything smells better. Everything is more vibrant and colorful than before.”
Since the show, Copeland has been moving as fast as her recovery will take her.
She has appeared on the “Today” show, CNN Headline News and “Good Morning America.” She works as a motivational speaker. She travels to Valdosta State University, alone, each month to meet with professors in her second graduate program. She sits on the advisory council of Tools for Life and the board of directors for Friends of Disabled Adults and Children. Both work to make the lives of disabled Georgians easier.
As independent as she has become, Copeland is quick to point out that recovery is a team effort. Besides her family’s support, the larger community came to her assistance. Donations have come in the form of a van, retrofitted to accommodate her needs; a 1,975-square-foot addition, with an elevator, to her family’s home; and “bionic” hands, which typically cost $100,000 each. With the mechanical hands, which work in conjunction with her forearm muscles, she has learned to write, cook and comb her hair.
A typical day for Copeland includes an hour of push-ups, arm exercises and an assortment of core movements. She meditates. Then she showers and dresses, which, she laughs and says, takes up a “pretty big chunk of my day.” Copeland drives herself to physical therapy, occupational therapy, personal training and doctors’ appointments, before coming home to do school work. Her goal is to open her own social-work practice, focusing on ways to make nature accessible to others with disabilities.
A big part of Copeland’s life also revolves around visits to her prosthetist. She spends hours at a time helping to tweak adjustments on her full left-leg prosthetic. She now stands tall and is able to walk a mile using a crutch.
“I think a lot of people would be traumatized if they were in a situation like this because we identify so strongly with the form that is our bodies,” she says. “When we look in the mirror we say ‘that’s me.’ But from a more humanistic perspective, we are much more. I realize there are a lot of different aspects of myself. The biggest being that I am connected to everything in the universe.”
Her service dog, a black Labradoodle named Belle, curls up next to the couch where Copeland sits. She looks up from the floor with longing eyes, on the off chance she might be needed.
“But I have my moments of frustration, for sure,” Copeland says.
Copeland calls her accident the “butterfly effect,” a moment that changed her life forever and cast her in a role where she can inspire and help others. Here she shares her story with teenagers participating in a youth leadership event, sponsored by the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce, at Marietta High School.
“I’ve been catapulted from my wheelchair and skinned up on the pavement. I’ve fallen off the bench while bathing and had my arm stuck in between the grab bar and the shower wall. I’ll drop everything out of my bag and then have to pick everything up, without hands. When those things happen I just scream. It sucks, but what am I going to do? I have to just get on with it.
“I think a lot about Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, and his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl observed that meaning could be found even in the face of great suffering.”
Copeland looks down and finally rubs a grateful Belle on the head.
“My thoughts aren’t all philosophical though. I also think about everyday things—like the fact that I’m almost always hot. When you don’t have any limbs there’s no place for body heat to escape. It’s funny, nobody tells you those kinds of things when you lose your limbs. You just have to figure it out on your own.”
—Alex Crevar is a graduate student in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and a former GM assistant editor.