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Sister of flesh-eating victim: Aimee 'couldn't give up'

 The family of Aimee Copeland, the Georgia college student who has been battling flesh-eating bacteria for almost a month, said that her recovery is exceeding their expectations, but they know she still has a long road ahead.

Though she is still in intensive care, Copeland is breathing on her own and can sit up. And just two days ago, she began to talk again.

In an exclusive interview with TODAY, Copeland’s family discussed her progress and described her first words after waking up in the hospital where she has been for the past 21 days. 

“The doctor said, ‘All right Aimee, you can talk now, so say something,’”  her sister, Paige, told TODAY. “So she just said ‘Hello?’ And then she said, ‘My mind is blown.’”

Though her voice was strained and raspy, it was like music to the ears of a family that has been waiting anxiously.

“You know, it had been the first time in 21 days -- about three weeks -- that she was able to speak and hear her own voice, so it was a crazy, crazy moment for all of us,” Paige said. “Awesome.”

Aimee has been battling necrotizing fasciitis -- a bacterial infection that can destroy muscles, skin and tissue -- since cutting her leg on a homemade zipline on May 1. Surgeons amputated her left leg at the hip, her hands and remaining foot.

Her first words earlier this week were so momentous that Aimee’s dad later wrote on his blog that the day will now be known to them as “Aimee Day.”

 “We’ll always celebrate that day as the day that Aimee was able to finally express herself and hearing her voice has just been a great treasure to us,” Andy Copeland told TODAY.

Her mom, Donna Copeland, had counted on Aimee’s inner strength to pull her through.  “I always knew she was a really strong child,” Donna said. “Now, trying to put myself in her situation, I don’t know. Maybe I would not have been as strong as she has been.”

Her father has been recording her progress in a blog. The family's next hope is for Aimee to recover enough to leave the ICU.

A 1996 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were 500 to 1,500 cases of necrotizing fasciitis annually in the United States, with about 20 percent of them fatal. The National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation has said that estimate is probably low.

Aimee's case is one of three recent infections in Georgia. A 36-year-old new mother, Lana Kuykendall, underwent a series of operations to remove dead or damaged tissue after contracting the condition just days after giving birth to twins. In addition, a Cartersville, Ga., landscaper, Bobby Vaughn, is recovering from five surgeries where doctors removed almost two pounds of infected tissue near his groin.

Aimee’s spirit has been noted by the nursing staff, one of whom gave her a creative nickname.

 “Jalapeno,” Paige said, laughing. “One of the nurses called her Jalapeno. Spicy, I guess.”

 Though the infection has cost Aimee her hands, left leg and right foot, Paige is ecstatic just to have her sister back. “You try not to think about the rest of your life without your sister because she’s the closest thing I have to myself,” Paige said. “So it was a really hard time, but at the same time...  Aimee couldn’t give up.”

Related stories from TODAY Health:

Woman fighting flesh-eating bacteria breathes on her own

No tears as Georgia student sees bacteria-ravaged hands

Parents optimistic about Aimee's future