After a terrifying ordeal with the flesh-eating disease and an intensive, three month rehabilitation, we’re happy to report that Aimee Copeland is back—and stronger than ever. Appearing recently in a talk show interview, the plucky, 24 year old grad student had a chance to speak about her near death struggle with Aeromonas hydrophila—the common waterborne bacterium that took both of her hands, feet and right leg.
Some readers may remember that Aimee’s troubles began after suffering a zip-line laceration that required more than 20 staples to close. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the wound was contaminated with Aeromonas hydrophilia— an organism common in brackish waters of the Tallapoosa river, near where Aimee was swimming. Before anything could be done, the infection had already begun to take root and within three days time, Aimee knew something was very wrong. “My entire leg was a dark purple colour. I wasn’t able to walk. I wasn’t able to speak. The only thing I was able to babble was, ‘I think I’m dying.”
Necrotizing fasciitis, or the flesh-eating infection, is known for the speed and relentlessness with which it kills. After a certain point, antibiotics are only partially effective, and must be combined with surgery—sometimes amputation. Studies have shown that mortality rates vary according to the type of bacteria, but are generally high.
While seemingly rare and exotic to most people, Aimee’s experience mirrors events in my own life. Just recently, a close acquaintance of mine suffered a similar ordeal after contracting flesh-eating disease from the more common bacterium, Strep. A normally healthy 75-year-old, my acquaintance awoke one day to severe pain in the area surrounding her thumb. Caulking it up to carpal tunnel syndrome, she ignored it as long as she could… until the pain became overwhelming and the fever set in. Disoriented, and in agony, she was rushed to the emergency room, where a quick assessment of the situation lead to an immediate cocktail of IV antibiotics and emergency surgery to debride—or remove—the infected tissue. Even with some of the most powerful antibiotics and advanced surgical techniques available, it took several days for her condition to stabilize. Even then, she was in the hospital for three full weeks. While she managed to escape with only mild disability, including the loss of tissue around her hand and wrists, she now lives in chronic pain due to nerve damage. She is currently seeking the help of a pain specialist. Despite all this, she counts herself lucky. Her doctors remarked that if she had waited any longer for treatment, she would have lost an entire arm and quite possibly her life. As with many cases of flesh-eating disease, the source of the infection was never found; it seemed to occur spontaneously.
Because of the short window of time involved, knowing the warning signs of flesh-eating disease can literally mean the difference between life and death. According to Medicine Net, early symptoms include: redness, swelling, pain, and blistering in the affected area– as well as fever, nausea, vomiting, and flu-like symptoms. Severe pain, beyond what is considered normal for an injury, is also a key warning sign; for my acquaintance, this symptom was the tipoff. Later symptoms can include gangrene and tissue death, along with scaling, discoloration or peeling of the skin. The longer an infected patient waits for treatment, the less effective antibiotics become.
Although Aimee has lost much more than the tissue surrounding her hand, she is adjusting well to her new circumstances. A true survivor with an unstoppable attitude, Aimee is working hard to relearn daily tasks many of us take for granted: such as getting dressed or using a cell phone. All in all, Aimee is very happy, despite the circumstances. While her story is a sad, cautionary tale in many ways, I also find it inspirational. In Katie’s own words: “I love life… it’s a beautiful thing… even more so now.”