Aimee Copeland’s first words said it all.
“Hello. Whoa. Wow, my mind is blown,” the flesh-eating bacteria victim said May 27, the first time she has been able to speak since contracting her deadly infection.
Her dad Andy Copeland, a financial advisor from Snellville, Ga., recently told PEOPLE about having to break the news she had lost several limbs – and how his brave daughter responded.
On May 14, two weeks after Aimee, 24, cut her leg in a fall from a zip line into the Little Tallapoosa River in Carrollton, Ga., and had it amputated due to the bacterial infection, her dad sat by her bed, held her hands, and told her what had happened.
“She was complaining about pain in her left leg that she didn’t have,” says Copeland, 52. “I said, the reason your leg hurts is because it’s been removed. And she stopped.”
But as he braced himself for tears, Copeland says he was shocked by her reaction.
“She kind of raised her eyebrows and mouthed, ‘Wow,’ ” he says. “She didn’t cry or blink an eye.”
A Freak Injury
Aimee’s ordeal began on May 1, when she received 22 surgical staples to close a deep gash in her leg.
But unbeknownst to the pretty blonde University of West Georgia grad student, she had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a rare and aggressive flesh-eating bacterial infection.
A few days after Aimee was sent home from the hospital, a friend watching her found her unconscious at her apartment.
Moments after arriving at the hospital, the Copelands – Andy, mom Donna, 52, a middle school clerk, and Aimee’s sister Paige, 25 – received horrific news.
“The doctor said, ‘Sir, when we brought Aimee in here, we were trying to save her leg. Now we’re trying to save her life,'” recalls Copeland. “We fell apart at that hospital. We just held each other and cried, and I begged God for her life.”
A Warrior’s Spirit
Ten days after surgeons at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., amputated Aimee’s left leg at the hip, they decided her badly infected hands and foot would also have to go.
“Her hands were purple and her fingers were black,” says Copeland. “So I took her hands and held them up and said, ‘Do these look normal to you?’ And she shook her head no. Then I said, ‘The fact is, these are going to make it harder for your body to heal, because your body is trying to keep these hands alive.
“She nodded, and sat there and thought about it. Then she held up her hands and looked at them, then looked at us, and said: ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
“It left me in tears,” says her dad, “and blew me away.”
Now the passionate hiker who dreams of working as a staff psychologist for a national or state park is already thinking about getting prostheses.
“I’ve talked with many people who’ve been through her disease. One man told me he hiked the Grand Canyon, even though he had both legs removed and an arm, and I shared that with Aimee,” says Copeland, who’s been keeping a blog about her condition. “She’s shown strength I never knew she had.”
For more on Aimee’s courageous fight, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now