Aimee Copeland shows improvement in palms after time in hyperbaric chamber, father says

An undated photo shows Aimee Copeland with her family. Personal Photo

An undated photo shows Aimee Copeland with her family.
Personal photo

(CBS/AP) Aimee Copeland looked at her hands ravaged by a flesh-eating bacterial infection and asked her father about the damage without tears, Andy Copeland said Wednesday.

"Her fingers are basically mummified. The flesh is dead," Andy said in a phone interview from Doctors Hospital in Augusta more than two weeks after a zip-lining accident left a gash in his daughter's leg that developed into the infection, necrotizing fasciitis.

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What Aimee Copeland still doesn't know is that doctors plan to amputate her all of her fingers, just as they had to remove most of her left leg in order to save her life.

Copeland's father said she held one of her hands close to her face Wednesday and asked family members about it. He said they told her "your hands have been damaged...and we're trying to bring back as much of the life into the hands as possible."

"She was well accepting," Andy said. "No tears or anything."

The 24-year-old student from an Atlanta suburb remains in critical condition as she battles the infection. Doctors initially feared they might have to remove her remaining foot and both hands. But her father said she now faces losing only her fingers after two days of treatment using a hyperbaric chamber, in which patients breathe pure oxygen to boost white blood cells and accelerate healing. Flesh on her palms that had been purple was turning pink again, he said.

Andy Copeland said she was still unaware of plans to amputate her fingers, an emotional disclosure that will likely require a counselor's help.

"We don't know if she's aware of her (amputated) leg yet," he said. "We're in a don't ask, don't tell policy."

The flesh-eating bacteria, Aeromonas hydrophila, emit toxins that cut off blood flow to parts of the body, destryoing muscle, fat and skin tissue. The bacteria is found in warm and brackish waters.

Copeland contracted the infection days after she suffered the deep cut May 1 when the zip line snapped over rocks in the Little Tallapoosa River near the University of West Georgia, where she studies psychology.

Many people exposed to Aeromonas hydrophila won'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 in recent decades.

In addition to the damage to her extremities, Copeland is on a respirator and a dialysis machine as her lungs and kidneys recover. Doctors also had to remove much of the skin from her torso to keep the infection from spreading, her father said.

Though still heavily medicated, Copeland has become more alert and communicates with her parents and older sister despite the breathing tube in her throat. Her father said Wednesday doctors were removing that tube and inserting another directly into her trachea to make her more comfortable.

"If they take the tube out, I believe reading her lips is going to be a lot easier," he said. "And she might be able to actually cover the tube up and be able to talk."

Andy praised the doctors and nurses working with Aimee in a personal blog he's been updating on the University of West Georgia psychology department's student website.

"We have an amazing assortment of brilliant minds focusing on Aimee," he wrote in a post Tuesday evening.

Andy Copeland said his daughter has been asking for her cell phone, her laptop and a book to read, but is still in no condition to use any of those things. He said her sister, Paige, has been reading to her from a book on meditation.

An update on Thursday afternoon on the official website on the student blog that has been updating Aimee's condition says she continues to be in good spirits. It also states that two major medical developments happened that Andy Copeland will announce later today.

Also on Thursday, reports surfaced that a South Carolina woman living several hundred miles away, 36-year-old Lana Kuykendall, had been infected with necrotizing fasciitis following the birth of twins, HealthPopreported.

Dr. Jerry Gibson, an epidemiologist with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, told Reuters on Thursday of recently reported cases of necrotizing fasciitis, "These cases don't cluster together except randomly."

  • CBS News Staff

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