Flesh-eating bacteria victim's new woe: Phantom limb pain

June 7, 2012 at 9:56 AM ET

A month into her fight against the flesh-eating bacteria that required amputations on her hands and legs, Aimee Copeland is now facing the pain and frustration associated with her lost limbs.

The father of the 24-year-old from Snellville, Ga., wrote in his blog Tuesday that his daughter “struggled mightily’’ in the past week.

“Phantom pain now plagues her ‘hands,’’’ Andy Copeland wrote. “Although she has no hands, her brain is apparently still telling her body that the hands are there. I asked her if she could describe the pain and she told me, ‘It feels like I have been carrying bags of rocks.’”

Aimee also told her father that the “fingers” on her phantom hands feel contorted and twisted. She also has been vomiting from the pain medication.

“Generally, phantom pain is sharp or burning pain in an area where they no longer have a part of their limb,’’ Dr. Jeffrey Heckman, Director of the Amputee Rehab Program at the Rusk Institute, told NBC News. “Some people describe is as kind of dipping their limb into acid.’’

Copeland was kayaking with friends on May 1 and decided to use a homemade zip line for a fun diversion. An equipment malfunction on the zip line caused a fall in which Copeland sustained a gash on her leg. The cut on her leg became infected with necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating bacteria, an often fatal malady. Three days after her fall, she had to have the leg amputated and suffered failure in five major organs.

Copeland was on life support for several days, and the blood vessels in her hands and her remaining foot died. On May 17, her remaining foot and both of her hands were amputated.

“You try not to think about the rest of your life without your sister because really she's the closest thing I have,’’ Copeland's sibling Paige Copeland told NBC News. “It was a really hard time, but at the same time ... Aimee couldn't give up.’’

On May 20, Copeland was able to breathe on her own, and had even been cracking jokes with the nurses. However, last week was a trying time due to the pain of her phantom limbs.

“This past week the proverbial poopy hit the fan for Aimee,’’ her father wrote on his blog. “She was lashing out at her caregivers, she was in pain, she was sick to her stomach, she was unable to tend to her own basic needs and she was very unhappy.’’

“There needs to be a period of mourning or an opportunity for the patient to accept the loss of their limb, and so this will always take a psychological toll on our patients,’’ Heckman said.

A day later, Andy Copeland reported his daughter was back to her “sweet self’’ after some prayer and meditation. He also reported that her lungs are now healthy; she has gone from 16 IVs in her body to two; she is off dialysis, and the tracheotomy cap on her neck has been removed. Her next major procedures will be a series of skin grafts.

“Just seeing the strength that she had, the courage that she's displayed right now, is just remarkable, because now trying to put myself in her situation - maybe I would not have been as strong as she has been,’’ her mother, Donna Copeland, told NBC News.

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