"It's been a journey but I'm only getting better," says Courtney Waldon, who has undergone 40 surgeries since the accident nearly three years ago
It’s been almost three years since Courtney Waldon suffered third- and fourth-degree burns over her entire body from a campfire accident at her Georgia home. Now, she says, life couldn’t be better.
“I am so blessed,” Waldon tells PEOPLE. “God has done so many good things for me.”
On Sept. 30, 2016, Waldon was living the dream. She put her then-5-year-old daughter, Caroline, to bed in their Tallapoosa home before joining her husband around a backyard campfire to celebrate their two-month wedding anniversary. The couple sat by the fire cooking tuna steak and asparagus. But when her husband attempted to relight the fire with a can of gas, some of the oil fell onto Waldon.
The next thing she knew, she was engulfed in flames.
“I stopped, dropped and rolled while screaming bloody murder. It was horrible…. I honestly thought I was dying that night,” she told PEOPLE in 2017. “It was the most painful feeling in the world.”
When paramedics responded to her husband’s 911 call, Waldon was unrecognizable: Fourth-degree burns had ravaged her face and third-degree burns left her hands, legs and feet mangled. She would spend the next 51 days in the hospital — most of them in a medically induced coma in intensive care.
To make matters worse, Waldon’s husband left her and Caroline — who is Waldon’s daughter from a previous marriage — and never returned.
“I was devastated,” she says. “I begged for him to come back but … then I finally realized, after about three weeks of him putting me off, that he wasn’t coming back. I lost my dignity, my looks, and the person who I thought was the love of my life.”
Since that almost-fatal day, Waldon has undergone 40 surgeries to help her regain the ability to drive, swim, and cook. After briefly living with her parents during her recovery, Waldon and Caroline, now 7, have since moved into their own home on the same 100-acre property.
“It’s our own place and we have been able to restart our lives,” says Waldon, now 29. “Caroline is everything to me. I do everything for her.”
Waldon has worked hard to regain the confidence she had before the accident, all while managing her frequent pain, as she says it feels like “my hands are on fire” almost daily.
“It has gotten so much better over time,” she says. “God has been amazing and helped my skin smooth out. I see my features more and more and how I was before.”
Having a serious boyfriend since December has also made her feel loved and beautiful.
“He treats me and my daughter amazing, which has helped tremendously,” says Waldon. “I have had several people try to date me because of my story, thinking I have money and to get publicity.”
But she says she knew she found the right guy in her neighbor Christopher when he sent her a Facebook message the day after Christmas in 2018 — and “that’s all she wrote,” she says.
Caroline also “loves him and looks up to him,” something that means the world to Waldon, she says.
In addition to her family, she has received tremendous support from the community. Her local church built her home, and a GoFundMe page set up by her mother Karen to help cover expenses has reached over $428,000.
“It’s been a journey but I’m only getting better,” she says. “My burns don’t define who I am.”