Medical Nightmare

05.11.12

Necrotizing Fasciitis: Georgia Woman Fights Flesh-Eating Bacteria

The bacterial infection that cost Aimee Copeland her leg and hands is rare, but when it strikes, it can be deadly. A look at the lethal wrath of necrotizing fasciitis.

A blonde, blue-eyed 24-year-old graduate student named Aimee Copeland is lying in a hospital bed in Augusta, Ga., fighting for her life, a breathing tube down her throat, an amputated leg, and at least two more amputations ahead to remove both her hands.

According to updates that Aimee’s father, Andy Copeland, has been posting online, Aimee fell from a homemade zip-line during an afternoon of swimming with friends in Georgia’s Little Tallapoosa River last Tuesday. Copeland reportedly gashed open her leg so deeply that doctors had to use 22 staples to seal the wound.

As it turned out, that wound was the least of Copeland’s problems. With each day that passed, she suffered exponentially increasing levels of pain. By last Friday, Copeland was airlifted to Augusta and rushed to the emergency room at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center.

Copeland had contracted a devastating infection called necrotizing fasciitis. It’s nothing short of a nightmare scenario you’d expect to see on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy—fodder for paranoia about all the contagions out there, lying in wait.

“Necrotizing” denotes a substance that kills living tissue; necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection that causes muscle, skin, and tissue death. The infection can be caused by several different types of bacteria, says Otto Yang, an infectious-diseases physician at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “Almost any type of bacteria that can cause skin infections can cause this. Staph. Streptococcus. And sometimes various mixtures of bacteria can get in there,” he says.

“It’s one of the few true infectious-disease emergencies where an hour can make a huge difference.”

The most common bacteria responsible for necrotizing fasciitis is the Streptococcus pyogenes, known in lay terms as “flesh-eating bacteria,” an evocative name that does not paint a completely accurate picture. Copeland herself was infected by a bacterial strain called Aeromonas hydrophila, most often contracted in bodies of water, according to the Associated Press.