Courtney Waldon, a 27-year-old mom who suffered horrific burns after catching fire while grilling dinner over a campfire outside her Tallapoosa, Georgia, home, says she found the will to live and strength she never knew she had from one person in particular: her 5-year-old daughter, Caroline.
“It’s been really hard on her,” Waldon tells PEOPLE. “She knows that things will never be the same.”
On Sept. 30, 2016, Waldon’s husband of two months — who left her just two weeks after she returned home from the hospital — swung a can of gas to relight the fire and some of it got on her body. Next thing she knew she was engulfed in flames.
“I stopped, dropped and rolled while screaming bloody murder,” she recalls. “I thought I was dying.”
She was left with fourth-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hands, legs and feet. Caroline was sleeping when the fire happened and didn’t see her mom until she was home. Waldon spent 51 days in the hospital, 40 which were in the ICU.
“She didn’t know what had happened. My parents told her that mommy had been in an accident and was getting better at the hospital” says Waldon. “When I got home, she looked at me really weird and was standoffish. But then I said, ‘It’s me, baby. It’s your momma.’ After that she came and gave me a hug. She hasn’t let go since.”
“I’m so blessed to have a second chance, so I try and spend every second with her,” says Waldon, who knows how close she came to never seeing Caroline again. “It’s a miracle I survived. I was seconds away from dying.”
Because she’s currently unable to work because of her disabilities, a GoFundMe was created to help with medical bills and lack of income. She’s currently living with her parents while the Refuge Ministries of West Georgia builds her a new home free of charge on her parents’ property.
For now, Courtney and Caroline spend time swimming, feeding the cows on the family farm and playing around at home. When she first got home, she was too weak to even put a straw in Caroline’s Capri Sun and was barely able to walk. Not being able to pick up her daughter hurt her the most.
Despite immense challenges, the bond between mother and daughter was never broken. When Waldon recently surprised her daughter at school, Caroline grabbed her hand, went up to everyone and said, “This my mommy. She’s been burned.”
Waldon is in awe of Caroline’s resiliency.
“After my husband left that was also hard on her. She thought I had abandoned her when I was at the hospital, and then she thought he abandoned her too. I told her that he burnt mommy and that life would be better for them without him,” she says. “And it has been.”
She added: “I’m so grateful for how far I’ve come. I’m getting stronger every day to prove to everybody that I can be a fit mother and do everything I could with her before the accident.”