Zip Line Incident Causes Ga. Student To Contract Flesh-Eating Disease

By Amir Khan on May 10, 2012 8:57 AM EDT

Zip line
A 24-year old student from the University of West Georgia is fighting for her life after she contracted a flesh-eating disease while on a zip line last Tuesday. (Photo: Facebook)

A 24-year old student from the University of West Georgia is fighting for her life after she contracted a flesh-eating disease while on a zip line last Tuesday.

Aimee Copeland was on a kayaking trip with friends when she got on a homemade zip line. The line snapped and cut a gash in her left calf that let the rare infection, known as necrotizing fasciitis, into her body. The infection became so severe that doctors had to amputate her left leg of Friday -- and she's not out of the woods yet.

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"It's a miracle she made it past Friday night," Andy Copeland, Aimee's father, told ABC affiliate WSBTV.

Copeland went to the emergency room after her injury, and doctors closed the gash with 22 staples. No infection was noticed at that time.

"The bacteria produce enzymes that can dissolve muscle deep down," Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. and president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told ABC News. "And because it's so deep, it can be a sneaky infection that's not immediately appreciated by the patient."

Copeland returned to the hospital the next day complaining of severe pain, a symptom that doctors should take very seriously, Schaffner said.

"The symptom that should ring alarm bells is serious, unremitting pain," he said. "An otherwise healthy individual with a seemingly superficial injury who has severe pain should have a much more thorough evaluation."

She was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, and doctors had to act quickly to save her life.

"The surgeons advised me that they wanted to try to save her leg, but at this point saving her life took precedence," Copeland's father wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to his daughter. "They removed all of the infected tissue and advised that she would have limited, if any use of her leg."

By amputating her leg they were able to stop the infection from spreading. However, Copeland went into cardiac arrest after the surgery, but doctors were able to resuscitate her.

Doctors aren't sure where the bacteria came from, but said it's possible she contracted it in the river she was kayaking in.

Copeland has made some progress since the surgery, but her condition has deteriorated as of late. Her organs have begun to shut down and her prognosis is unclear.

"I don't want people with long faces right now because we already had a miracle Friday night when she survived," Andy told WSBTV. "I just believe we have to stay positive right now to honor Aimee."

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