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After Zip Line Injury, Student Fights Flesh-Eating Disease

Aimee Copeland, 24, contracted flesh-eating disease during a zip line accident. (WSB/ABC News)(ATLANTA) -- A Georgia woman is fighting for her life after contracting a flesh-eating disease during a zip line accident.

Aimee Copeland, a 24-year-old master's student at the University of West Georgia, hopped on a homemade zip line during a kayaking trip with friends in Carrollton, Ga. But the line broke, cutting a gash in Copeland's left calf and introducing a life-threatening infection that on Friday claimed her left leg and part of her abdomen.

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

Cuts in the skin open the door for a flesh-eating disease, officially known as necrotizing fasciitis, a rare strep infection that burrows deep into wounds and destroys the surrounding tissue.

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

After the injury last Tuesday, Copeland went to a nearby emergency room where doctors closed the gash with 22 staples. But she returned to the hospital the next day complaining of severe pain.

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

Doctors sent Copeland home with a prescription for painkillers. She returned to the hospital again Thursday and was released again, this time with antibiotics. On Friday, Copeland was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, and her left leg was amputated at the hip.

"The two main treatment options are antibiotics to kill the bacteria and surgery," said Schaffner, adding that bacteria left behind can invade the blood. "You have to look at the wound and think, 'This is as far as the infection has gone; now I have to cut even further.'" Where the infection came from is unclear, but Schaffner said the most likely culprit is Copeland's own throat.

"It could have come from an outside source; some other person who was perhaps helping clean and dress the wound," he said, adding that the bacteria is transmitted through respiratory droplets. "But more often than not, sadly, it turns out to be the patient's own bacteria."

Frequent hand washing, and avoiding people with sore throats can help reduce the risk of flesh-eating disease, according to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation. And all cuts, no matter how small, should be cleaned and covered with sterile bandages.

Since the amputation, Copeland's recovery has been touch and go. On Tuesday, one week after the accident, her temperature spiked and she lost her pulse.

"They actually were able to do CPR and resuscitate her very quickly," Andy Copeland told WSB-TV. "I don't want people with long faces right now because we already had a miracle Friday night when she survived. … I just believe we have to stay positive right now to honor Aimee."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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