Aimee Copeland’s morning waitress shift at The Sunnyside Café in Carrollton, Georgia, was winding down when she and a couple of girlfriends decided to spend the rest of that sunny day in May 2012 by the nearby, local river.
The adventurous 24-year-old, who was getting her masters degree in psychology at The University of Georgia, changed into her bathing suit and waded into the shallow creek-bed waters.
Suspended in the trees above, about six feet up, they discovered a homemade zip-line – not much more than a dog wire with handlebars.
On Aimee’s second turn the wire snapped, sending her crashing onto the sharp rocks just below, leaving her with a large, deep gash in her outer left calf.
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“I knew I was cut really bad and I knew it hurt but I didn’t know to what extent,” Aimee, now 28, tells PEOPLE.
At the hospital, doctors initially stitched her up with 22 surgical staples and sent her home. But over the next three days, she says, “Something just didn’t feel right in my leg.”
She even told one of her friends, who’d stopped by her house, that she thought there might be “bad blood” because she’d started feeling pain in her left upper thigh.
Three days after the accident, in the early-morning hours of May 4, things took a horrific turn.
Aimee woke up with blood blisters, and overnight, her left leg had rotted to her thigh and she couldn’t speak.
“My tongue was all shriveled up like a lizard tongue,” she recalls. “My boyfriend immediately threw me over his shoulder, threw put me in the car and drove me to the emergency room.”
At the hospital, doctors knew right away that she had necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating bacteria that almost took her life. They quickly turned into “saving my life” mode, says Aimee.
Miraculously, Aimee survived, but she was never the same. Doctors had to amputate all four of her limbs – both arms below the elbow, her right leg below the knee, and her left leg almost to her hip.
Recalling the grueling weeks just after the accident, she says, “One day I asked my parents if they could take these heavy boots off my feet, and they had to tell me, ‘You don t have feet.’ That was the phantom limb pain.”
A Long Recovery
It was very dark time but Aimee says she was always determined to “fight for her life” and push forward, despite unimaginable obstacles – both physical and emotional.
Sitting in her power-wheelchair in the living room of her adaptable three-bedroom home in Atlanta on a warm day in May, she says, “I wasn’t going to let anything hold me back. There is always hope for another day and that continual instinct to keep on trying and never give up.”
Anytime someone told her she couldn’t do something because of her disability – like making a ponytail – it only served to motivate Aimee even more.
During her two months in rehab, her occupational therapist told her that most women in her situation “cut their hair short,” because they can no longer style their own hair. For Aimee, “that wasn’t an answer.”
“I vowed on that day to learn how to do a ponytail,” she says, standing in front of her bathroom mirror and pulling her hair up. “If you really want it then one day – and maybe it will be 50 years from now – you’ll figure it out.”
Recovering her self-confidence was tough, too – especially when she realized her relationship with her boyfriend of three years had changed.
Following the accident, she says he was “extremely supportive.” But as time went on, something changed between them and, she says, “a large part of that was intimacy.”
Aimee could tell he wasn t attracted to her anymore. “That became more and more clear the longer we stayed together,” she says.
She adds: “We had been together for so long and I felt like he was my last connection to the girl I was before. He expected any day now I would just come walking in with legs and hands. It took him a long time to realize that wasn’t going to happen.”
Ultimately, Aimee made the decision to end their relationship in 2014 when she says it became “really unhealthy for me and really bad for my self-esteem.”
WATCH: How Aimee Copeland Found Love After Losing All of Her Limbs
Getting back into dating “with no hands or feet was very tough,” she says but, with encouragement from a friend, she signed up for a couple of dating apps and put herself out there.
The last thing she expected was to find was Stephen, a 29-year-old from Fayetteville, Georgia. They were a 93 percent match, immediately hit it off and now, over a year later, are still dating.
Aimee says Stephen thought her body was “perfect,” something she never thought she’d hear anybody say to her ever again.
For more on Aimee Copeland’s recovery, pick up a copy of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday
“He accepted me for something much deeper than what I present on the outside,” she says.
These days, there’s no stopping her. Aimee loves cooking for friends in her open kitchen, working out, kayaking and adding to the 80,000 miles she’s already driven in her customized van.
She recently finished her second master’s degree in social work and has plans to open up a non-profit holistic community center for people with disabilities. With her whole life ahead of her, she says, “My self-confidence has never been higher.”
“I’ve let go of the girl I was before,” she adds. “I’ve completely embraced who I am.”