May 14, 2012 at 2:42 PM ET
Updated Tuesday, May 15:
A blood drive is planned Tuesday at the University of West Georgia for Aimee Copeland, the young woman fighting a life-threatening, flesh-eating infection. The blood drive is expected to be held from 2 pm ET to 7 pm ET in the school gym.
Late Monday, Andy Copeland, the 24-year-old patient's father, wrote that the family has been overwhelmed with well-wishers visiting the hospital where Aimee continues to recover from the infection. Her left leg has been amputated and her parents say she is likely to lose her fingers as well. Although Aimee is improving, she remains in critical condition, with a breathing tube.
"We saw Aimee laugh and smile. She told us some things she wanted, we played games with her and she was very stimulated," Copeland wrote in the blog where her family has been recording her progress since contracting the rare infection, called necrotizing fasciitis.
The parents of Aimee Copeland, the 24-year-old Georgia woman whose leg was amputated after contracting flesh-eating bacteria, told TODAY Monday they are optimistic about their daughter’s recovery. They have been communicating with her and she has begun to rely less on her respirator.
“We were able communicate with her through lip reading, which we’re becoming quite proficient at at this point.,” her father Andy Copeland told Ann Curry Monday.
Their daughter has a breathing tube down her throat, but is looking forward to being able to eat again, especially her favorite food: ice cream, her father told TODAY.
The flesh-eating infection that led to the amputation of one of the young Georgia woman’s legs was caused by a bacteria found in freshwater lakes and rivers. Even a wound as minor as a tiny scratch or cut can serve as the starting point of the bacterial infection called necrotizing fasciitis, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation. On its website, the Wisconsin Division of Public Health says an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 cases occur in the United States each year, resulting in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths.
Aimee will lose her fingers on both hands but doctors hope to save the palms of her hands, which would make it easier for her to use prosthetics, according to TODAY. She may also lose her right foot. She remains in critical condition in the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, hospital spokeswoman Stacey Snyder said.
Dad Andy Copeland, who lives with his wife, Donna, in Spartanburg, S.C., has been sharing her roller-coaster progress on blog posts and Facebook.
Almost two weeks ago, the University of West Georgia psychology grad student was kayaking with friends in the Little Tallapoosa River when she stopped to try a homemade zip line. She fell from the line and suffered a deep gash to her left leg, which required 22 staples to close.
Over the following days, her pain increased and she was given antibiotics and an MRI. On May 4, a friend carried her to the ER and she was finally was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a bacterial infection that breaks down muscle and fat and can lead to organ failure. The bacteria that infected Copeland is a bug called Aeromonas hydrophila.
Copeland reportedly was recently diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, which might help explain why she became critically ill with an infection most would shrug off, says Dr. Chaim Putterman, chief of rheumatology at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “It’s not only the bug,” Putterman told TODAY.com, but the interaction between the bug and the host, or patient.
In 2008, he coauthored a report about eight lupus patients hospitalized with necrotizing fasciitis at his hospital. Two of them died. Putterman says both lupus itself and the treatment for it could increase patients’ risk of necrotizing fasciitis.
“Many of the medications that we use to treat lupus patients are what we call immunosuppressants,” says Putterman, who is not involved in Copeland’s case. “Increased infection is one of the known prices we pay for those medications.”
In addition, in autoimmune diseases such as lupus, “the immune system is out of whack,” Putterman says. So even without taking drugs to suppress their immune systems, people with autoimmune diseases are more susceptible to infections.
“Necrotizing fasciitis didn’t start when she fell in the water. It didn’t start with the stapling. It started later,” he says. “But in these cases, minutes and hours do make a difference. It’s a rapidly progressing infection, so minutes count.”
The fact that Copeland has survived this long and that, according to her father, her lung function is improving, are both positive signs, Putterman says.
“What definitely is very, very much in her favor is that she’s 24 years-old,” he says. “Young adults are definitely much more resilient than individuals at the extremes of ages.”
While Aimee’s condition is improving, doctors say she has a long recovery ahead of her.
"It will be very difficult, in fact, her recovery will continue for the rest of her life," Dr. Walter Ingram, Grady Memorial Hospital Burn Center, Atlanta, told TODAY.
Meanwhile, the Copelands told TODAY they are staying focused on her recovery, rather than how hurting her leg could have caused the life-threatening infection.
“Our focus is on trying to stay positive, look at the present and the future,” Andy told TODAY. We believe that future is going to be bright for Aimee.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report