Her wounds are healed by helping others: Flesh-eating bacteria survivor shares her story

After losing a leg and both hands to a flesh eating bacteria in 2012, Aimee Copeland ended up at a spinal cord brain injury center in Atlanta.

Some wondered why she was there with no spinal injuries. But Copeland says it was better than being at another hospital where she would’ve been considered the worst-case scenario.

“Yet, here I was at the Shepherd Center and both of my neighbors could move nothing but their face; they were both quadriplegic, both from a freak accident,” she said. “In fact, one of my neighbors asked the physical therapist if they could have their legs removed so they could do prosthetics like I did.

“This really changed my perspective on things,” she continued. “Here was somebody who wanted to be me, who wished that they had what I had, and it made me realize that no matter who you are, no matter what’s happening, there’s always further down.”

Copeland, a native of Gwinnett County, shared her story at the United Way Power of the Purse luncheon held at the St. Luke Ministry Center on 11th Street. The event, which drew nearly 700 women, was sponsored by Women United, a group of United Way donors previously called the Women’s Leadership Council.

Copeland rolled to the front of the stage in a wheelchair after driving all the way from Atlanta. She was accompanied by her therapy dog, Belle, a Labradoodle.

She said she was working on a master’s degree in psychology at the University of West Georgia in May 2012, when she encountered an equipment malfunction while playing on a homemade zip line. The fall left her with a severe cut that set the stage for the development of necrotizing fasciitis, which led to amputations and the failure of her five major organs. She was only 24 years old at the time.

After her left leg was removed, her father consulted with her before making the decision to remove her hands, which were black at the tips with dark red palms, she said.

“I realized at that moment that he was asking for my consent to amputate my hands,” she said. “And I think it was at that moment that I suddenly came to the conscious realization that this was going to affect my entire life, and at that moment I had to make a decision. And I chose to fight for life. At that moment, there was nothing that I wanted more than to take another breath.”

Copeland said that was the turning point for her recovery. “At that moment, I saw my friends, I saw my family and I knew that there was a reason this was all happening,” she said.

There have been good days and bad days, she said. She has struggled with body image issues at times, but she believes she’s a spiritual being and her body is just the vehicle for this time in the world. It will age and deteriorate eventually. So, she focuses now on other aspects of her life and on helping others.

“So often we let the pettiness of our own issues get in our way,” she said. “We let them obscure our vision and it keeps us from acting on behalf of others. We feel so sorry for ourselves and we’re so stuck in our own obstacle that we fail to see that other people are struggling, too. That the same pain in me lives in somebody else, and that’s what connects us.”

Copeland said she uses compassion as a method for healing. “It’s really very selfish, y’all,” she said jokingly. “... Through the healing of others, my wounds are healed.”

Today, Copeland works as a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Atlanta. Despite a doctor saying she would never walk again, she walks on a treadmill for three-quarters of a mile, 30 minutes a day.

She recently launched the Aimee Copeland Foundation to provide outdoor recreation and mental health opportunities for people with disabilities. She’s also working on a memoir and hopes to be on a book tour around this time next year.

As Copeland spoke, sitting in the audience were Lafonzo and Rachelle Woods of Fort Mitchell, Ala., along with one of their daughters, Jasmine. They are parents of another daughter, LaKalia, 24, who has been hospitalized at Columbus Regional since Sept. 30, fighting the same flesh-eating disease that Copeland suffered.

The family met with Copeland before the luncheon and she encouraged them.

“She is so inspirational,” Rachelle Woods said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer Thursday afternoon. “To personally hear Aimee’s story, see the strength in this young lady and the encouragement that she gives to everybody — people like us. She just amazes me.”

Woods said she wrote a letter to Copeland, saying: “Aimee, what you have done is touching our family in a way that you would not believe. The sky is your limit, and I know you will continue to make your mark in a very positive way.”

Proceeds from this luncheon will benefit Women United’s signature initiative, “Wear One Bring One,” in which undergarments are collected for women in need and distributed to United Way community partners.

More than 2,200 undergarments were donated at Thursday’s event, according to the United Way. Attendees also contributed several thousand dollars to fund an undergarment voucher program. They were asked to text in donations during the luncheon.

Organizers also announced a new Women United scholarship for non-traditional students who have overcome hardship. Women United Scholarship Chair Tami McDonald presented the $2,500 scholarship to Margarlena Remington, food sourcing manager at Feeding The Valley Food Bank.

Remington utilized the services of The House of T.I.M.E. when she was homeless and strung out on drugs. She is now a student at Troy University studying global business with a 3.8 GPA.

“When I came to Columbus in January 2010 — a wounded, drug-addicted, homeless little girl in a grown woman’s body — I didn’t know how much my life could change,” said Remington.

She removed a stain from her blouse before coming to the event, she said, and compared the experience to her life.

“You could look at my past record and see some stains there,” she said. “But when you see this woman standing before you, no more do you see a stained woman.”

Women United leaders also used the event as an opportunity to encourage more women to join the organization.

Originally founded for women donating $1,000 or more to United Way on an annual basis, the organization is now open to a broader group, organizers said.

“The misconception was to be a part of this program you had to be a leadership giver,” said Gwen Ruff, co-chair of the Women United board. “Now, with different women, we have different levels of involvement. So we really want people to go to the United Way website, click on Women United and get more information for how to get involved.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter