“This is Me Now: I’m Blessed to Have This Opportunity”

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Aimee Copeland is a bundle of activity and energy. Mentally, intellectually, spiritually and yes, physically, this is a young woman in perpetual motion. Powering through a life threatening illness and outcome that would have left most of us forever stilled, Aimee is moving – purposefully, intently and with an intensity that’s likely to leave many in her wake, energized, inspired and somewhat in disbelief.

In our community, in and around Aimee’s hometown of Snellville, her story hardly needs retelling. A beautiful young woman spends a spring day outdoors with her friends near Carrollton and cuts her leg in a fall from a zip line. Serious, to be sure, requiring 22 staples to close the wound, but seemingly manageable – especially from Aimee’s vantage point.

Fiercely independent, the University of West Georgia (UWG) graduate student tells her parents, “Don’t come get me.” Days later, necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating bacteria) begins to take hold. “I think I’m dying,” she tells the friend driving her to the ER.

Horrifyingly, she is right. In the days and weeks that follow, as doctors fight to save first her leg and then her life, Aimee goes into cardiac arrest twice. Her parents, Andy and Donna, and sister, Paige, pray for her life and ultimately, are told that a series of amputations is virtually the only chance she has. First, she loses her left leg, hip high, and then her other foot, below the knee, and both hands, below the elbows. We are told and begin to understand in some small measure that Aimee’s story is not just about a medical miracle, but is instead about unfathomable faith and courage, the sustaining nature of family love, and about a purpose-filled life that will not be denied.

Gwinnett Magazine’s Family of the Year
Gwinnett Magazine readers and editors annually select a Man and Woman of the Year, honoring individuals who both contribute and captivate, enabling us to share their stories.
This year, no one was on our hearts more than Aimee, her story initially brought to light by Andy’s blogs – heartfelt updates from a father leading his family through an inexplicable tragedy. Or so we thought, because the more we learned about Aimee, and Andy, Donna and Paige, the more we realized that the story they wished to tell was much more about triumph than heartbreak. So this year, we extend our honor to Family of the Year and continue our community’s conversation with the Copelands.

While Aimee and Andy, a financial planner, have been the focus of most of the media coverage, this is a tight-knit family of four. Donna works at Snellville Middle School, supporting the sixth grade special education team, and Paige, 25, is a restaurant manager in Gwinnett.

Conversation and communication are at the heart of this family. We’re talkers and we can be loud, admits Andy. The best times, say Donna, is having both her girls with her in the kitchen, at home or at their lake house in South Carolina. They love to cook and Aimee’s latest accomplishment is making a batch of Betty Crocker brownies by herself, with her initial prosthetic hooks in place. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I broke a sweat,” she says.

We met with Aimee, Donna and Andy at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, known for serving patients with spinal cord and brain injuries, after six weeks of rehabilitation and treatment. “I have lots in common with spinal cord injury patients,” explains Aimee. “They can’t use their limbs and I don’t have any.”

Home was very much on all of their minds during our visit and was a just-days-away destination for Aimee. Home now includes Aimee’s Wing, a 1,956 square foot addition completely adapted for Aimee’s needs, donated and built by Pulte Homes, with major help from Home Depot and other local vendors. From all accounts, Aimee’s Wing defines the phrase “labor of love,” and the Copelands are both overwhelmed and humbled by the gift. “People have just loved on us,” says Donna.

The design and all the features of the new addition were a surprise for Aimee upon her homecoming, although she had early input and provided her style and color preferences.
Now, home is not only a completely accessible refuge, but also a retreat for this family to live together for the first time in many years. “I haven’t lived at home in six years,” recalls Aimee. “Paige promised she’d drive whenever we need to break away.”

Finding Healing Outdoors
As inviting as Aimee’s Wing is, it will always be the outdoors that lures Aimee. Nature is where she finds comfort, healing and, as was always her plan, her career. Aimee earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia in psychology and is now completing her master’s degree in humanistic psychology with a focus on eco-psychology at UWG. Translation, please?

“It’s a way of looking at how human psychology is embedded in nature. How we are inherently connected to the earth – how we are a part of the world – a facet of the earth. That’s the theory,” explains Aimee. “Practically speaking, eco-psychology is known as wilderness therapy. It’s using nature as a healer — for psychological, mental and emotional wellbeing.”

She practices what she someday plans to teach. “Every second that I get, I’m out of these doors. At first, it was just the secret garden here, but as I’ve been able to get out more and leave the hospital, I’ve been able to go to local parks.”

“My goal is to really get out, go camping, eventually go kayaking, and eventually go hiking. I met with the outdoors specialist here (at Shepherd) and looked at some of the adaptive equipment that I can get. They actually have kayaking hands. I’ve already transferred out of my wheelchair into a kayak and then back into the wheelchair,” she adds.

Aimee plans to finish her master’s thesis next May, and it will likely be a guidepost for her – if not an actual business plan. “Before this happened, I wanted to write my thesis on wilderness therapy. And my professors kept saying that I needed to narrow it. “What’s your population?” I’d say I’d like to work with youth. ‘Not narrow enough. You’re going to end up with a 1,500-page thesis.’ So when this happened, it was obvious – wilderness therapy for amputees.”

One drawback with the topic though. “It’s so narrow, in fact, that we all just keep finding the same one article.”

Aimee is rather resolute about her timeline. After all, she needs to finish the first master’s in time to start the second one in August 2013. The additional degree will be a master’s in social work necessary to earn the credential of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), required for a counseling practice – and more.

“Then, I can start my wilderness therapy practice, which is my ultimate goal. I want to create an environment that’s safe for people with disabilities to go out into the wilderness. Often, when you have an injury, there’s a lot of emotional turmoil that comes with a traumatic experience. I think that nature is a great place for people to heal, rather than inside some sterile hospital. My idea is to create a space where people with disabilities are safe in the wilderness. I’d like to buy some land – where we can create paths and trails of different levels. One for people in wheelchairs, another for those with some other type of adaptive device, another for those using walkers. They’d be different lengths with campsites every few miles, so we can go out for longer times,” she plans.

A World for People with Fingers
There’s no doubt that Aimee has made remarkable progress adapting to her “new normal” in a very short time. When we visited, she was feeding herself — sans hooks, she says it’s easier that way — and enjoying the gift of Amy’s Kitchen organic meals sent by the founder herself, who learned that this nature-lover favors organic. She put on her own make-up (totally unnecessary), but “pulling my hair back is pretty much impossible.”

“Turns out,” she says, “the simple things in life really aren’t all that simple. The world is created by and for people who have fingers and can use them.” The hardest thing to do with her prosthetics is brushing her teeth. One false move and it’s a “toothpaste tornado.”

She considers herself “in the best shape of my life,” due to a very rigorous physical therapy regime. “My PT says I have Rock Star abs!” Credit 250 crunches in seven minutes for that. Fitting on her prosthetics continues, testing sockets on a foot and on her hooks. “We’re still doing some fittings, but we’re getting really close. I’ll be getting a whole new set of arms.”

The world of prosthetics, adaptive devices, self engineered help gadgets, and even iPad and iPhone apps that can help her with daily life occupy her mind and energy. “My mind goes a mile a minute. I want to see what I haven’t thought of in terms of what I need to adapt,” and she pauses, “but no – I’m pretty sure I’ve thought of everything.”

Emphasizing Independence
Not surprisingly to her parents, family and friends, Aimee’s desire to be independent hasn’t waned since the accident. It’s a value her team at the Shepherd Center fosters, and one that her parents struggle a bit to accept.

When Aimee was preparing to go out for the first time in public, Andy was more than a little nervous. “Her doctors even told me – man, you’ve got to calm down.” He was also chided a bit by his daughter: “Dad, you’ve got to let me live.”

Lesson learned, he says. “Experience has taught us that Aimee is usually right.”

At Shepherd, Aimee says, if you ask them to do something, you have to ask two or three times. “They emphasize independence. They want you to try on your own.”

“But, as a momma,” says Donna, “it’s hard to do. Aimee gets mad at me all the time.”

“I do tell them — you have to back away and let me try to take care of myself. I need to do it on my own. What about the day when you’re not here? What am I going to do then? Every day when I try really hard to do these things, I’m closer to overcoming these struggles,” counters Aimee.

The distinction between being a disabled person versus a person with a disability is a vital one. “The word handicapped is a label – having a disability is a fact. My daughter is a human being who can overcome disabilities,” says Andy.

“And a human being who may have extra abilities that others don’t have,” says Aimee. “I say I am handi-able or handi-capable. (Love that, says Dad!) I may not have hands, I may not have feet, but I think I have a lot. I have a very powerful brain. I would never call myself handicapped, because that implies I have issues where I can’t function. I can do anything you can do – and probably more.”

“Didn’t we tell her that as a child?” Andy asks Donna. Turning to Aimee, he asks, “What was the one thing that we always told y’all?” “Can’t never could,” all three recite in unison, laughing.

“Blessed to Have This Opportunity”
As arresting as Aimee’s positive attitude is, she makes another statement that will likely surprise. “I feel blessed that I’ve been given an opportunity that most people don’t get,” she believes.

“I’m blessed to have this opportunity to have a change of perspective. Most people live their whole lives on one street. If you never leave that street, you never really know what any of the other streets look like and you never really understand the people who live on the other streets. So having this experience has given me a perspective from the other side. Not only do I understand what it’s like to have all your limbs, but I can also empathize with people who have a disability.”

“This is me now. I’ve accepted it really well. It’s surprising, even to myself,” says Aimee. “You would think that something like this would just destroy your life, and I feel like my life has just been so enhanced.”

To have a hope of understanding her belief, you must understand the depth of her faith – and that of her family. “Nothing about this is me. I thank God, my parents and my friends. This is a huge God thing. I’ve been so supported. I think if I had been in a different situation, with no belief in a higher power, no belief in something larger than me, I might have curled up and died. But in my position, because I do see the beauty in the world, I do see this spiritual side of the world, I do see so much love in the world — it wouldn’t be possible to do that.”

“Everything about this felt God-led,” echoes Andy. “People were put in our path when we needed them. We are still overwhelmed by how much the community has done for us. That doesn’t just happen by coincidence. We felt like we were living in a prayer bubble.”

That bubble that started very small, but grew exponentially. In the early days, I just asked my Facebook friends to pray, says Andy. “And I had about 90 friends.” (That draws an eye-roll from Aimee.) But then the word spread and people starting “friending” him. “If you’re praying for my daughter, you’re my friend.” His page had about 3,000 friends a month ago; there’s no time to check it now.

“I Pray for Wisdom”
If some of life’s daily to-do’s have been overlooked as the Copelands care for Aimee, prepare to bring their daughter home and transition to life on this “new street,” continued prayer is never forgotten.

“I pray that she’ll have wisdom,” says Andy. “That she’ll be attentive to God’s leadership in her life. I pray for guidance. I pray that God will continue to heal her. That God will protect her. I pray for her friends to understand her needs – I pray for her to have discernment in her life. I pray she’ll be able to remove the obstacles in her way so that she’ll have a life that produces fruit.”

And from Aimee: “I pray for wisdom especially, and I pray for others. I see so many others who need our prayers, but you don’t hear about them. My peers here (at Shepherd) – I’m close to all these people, and I pray for them constantly.”

The role of the healthcare professionals who’ve treated her, in Carrollton, in Augusta and at Shepherd is never far from Aimee’s mind and they are never without her gratitude. Her peers on the fourth floor with her at Shepherd hold a special place. “I learned so much from my peers here – about life and love and overcoming challenges. I’ve seen people who came in here who couldn’t move anything, and they’re up walking.”

As Andy can now testify, “Life is about a lot more than just our physical condition. That can change. It’s spiritual, emotional and psychological things that make us who we are.”

“My friends tell me that I’m exactly the same person,” says Aimee. “I totally agree with that. This is just an outer shell.”

“I still feel like a whole person. It’s not my body that makes me whole. It’s my spirit. It’s my practice. It’s prayer and meditation and love. That’s what makes me whole.”