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Aimee Copeland, known as 'a ray of sunshine,' attempting to communicate

Before Aimee Copeland became the subject of national news reports, the inspiration for prayers from thousands of strangers and the face of a rare bacterial infection that's threatening her life, she was just Aimee.

"She is a ray of sunshine," said Gary Duke, the owner of Carrollton's Sunnyside Cafe, where Copeland worked as a server while pursuing her master's degree at the University of West Georgia. "She is the most optimistic, radiant person that any of us know. She lights up a room."

A 2006 graduate of South Gwinnett High School, Copeland went on to earn her undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, where she was roommates with Duke's future daughter-in-law. Her father describes her as loving but with a fiery, independent streak.

A lover of music and the outdoors, she was about a semester away from earning her master's in psychology, a degree father Andy Copeland said the 24-year-old planned to use as a counselor to people with injuries or "other kinds of trouble."

When she gashed her leg open after falling from a homemade zip-line on the Little Tallapoosa River May 1, she refused to come home to Snellville. She could take care of herself, with a little help from her friends.

"She said, 'I'm working on my thesis and you're not going to come get me,'" her father recalled.

The story since has become well-known, not only in Gwinnett and Carrollton, but the rest of the country through reports by CNN, the Huffington Post and nearly every other major media outlet: Three days after the accident, Aimee Copeland was taken to the emergency room and diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis, a rare flesh-eating bacteria that quickly began ravaging her body.

Her left leg was amputated after she was rushed to a burn center in Augusta. Major organs have shut down, and more appendages will have to be removed. She remains in a fight for life, a fervor for which those around her said they could spot from a mile away.

"She just projected this sense of kindness and people were just drawn to her," said Dr. Donadrian Rice, the chair of West Georgia's psychology department. "She made people feel good."

Though Aimee's prospects for survival are improving, Friday was perhaps the toughest day yet for the rest of the Copeland family.

She was awake and responsive during the day and attempted to speak despite her breathing tube. Andy Copeland said his daughter indicated that she didn't remember the events that led to her condition. Attempts to communicate were frustrating and walked a delicate line, he said.

"If she asks did she lose her leg, I don't want to lie to her," he said during a phone call from Augusta. "But I also don't want to hurt any part of her psyche that could have an impact on the long-term healing. There's got to be a protocol."

Aimee remained in critical condition Friday but her father believed that her status might be upgraded to "serious" when she is eventually taken off a respirator. Her brain function has been deemed normal.

A vigil was held Thursday night on the campus of West Georgia. Faculty members and about 40 students attended, Rice said. A 10-minute moment of silence was held among "a lot of tears."

At Sunnyside Cafe, Duke said the close staff of 15 -- many of whom were on the kayaking trip that ended in Copeland's injury -- is "devastated." Customers at the small-town restaurant have felt her absence as well.

"I had a customer just a few minutes ago who said he travels a lot and meets a lot of servers," Duke said Friday afternoon. "He said he had an experience in my restaurant two weeks ago, and that Aimee changed his life in the 30 minutes that he knew her. Just a radiant personality and a positive attitude."

A blood drive had been organized for Tuesday afternoon at the University of West Georgia gymnasium, and Andy Copeland has asked anyone willing to donate blood anywhere they can. "Aimee's Fund" has been established at the United Community Bank, which has Gwinnett branches on South Lee Street in Buford and Riverside Parkway in Lawrenceville.

Online, more than 30,000 people "like" the Facebook page "Believe and pray for a miracle to happen for Aimee Copeland." A singer-songwriter from Connecticut, with no connection to the family, posted a video of a song for her called "Southern Belle."

"I firmly believe that God does all things for good and the purpose of making sure that we can be stronger," Andy Copeland said. "He's got a big plan."