After Courtney Waldon’s 51-day stay in the hospital — which was mostly spent in a medically-induced coma while she recovered from horrific burns she suffered from a fire on Sep. 30, 2016— she couldn’t wait to get home to her 4-year-old daughter, parents and husband.
Her goal was to make it home in time for Thanksgiving, and on Nov. 17, 2016, she was finally able to return to her family in Tallapoosa, Georgia.
But just two weeks later — as she still struggled to walk and eat — her husband of four months walked out on her and her daughter Caroline from her first marriage.
“I was devastated,” Courtney, 27, tells PEOPLE. “I begged for him to come back, but then I realized, after about three weeks of him putting me off, that he wasn’t coming back.”
At the time, she felt like she had lost everything, she says, including her “dignity, my looks and the person I thought was the love of my life.”
A Daily Battle
On that brisk night in September — the couple’s two-month wedding anniversary — Courtney sat by a campfire looking at Facebook while her husband grilled tuna steaks and asparagus and got up to relight the fire.
After swinging a can of gas, some of it accidentally got on her body. The next thing she knew she was engulfed in flames. “I stopped, dropped and rolled while screaming bloody murder,” she says. “I thought I was dying.”
Fourth-degree burns ravaged her face and third-degree burns destroyed her hands, legs and feet. The first time she saw her face in the mirror she almost passed out. “I got sick to my stomach,” she says. Her hands were so burned because she used them to try and put out the fire on her face.
When she got home, she didn’t think anything could get worse until the man “who told me the vows of for better or for worse” left, she says.
“I was in a very bad place” says Courtney, who relied on the unconditional love her daughter gave her during that difficult time.
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As Courtney healed from a broken heart and severe wounds, she also learned how to accept her new appearance and limitations. At the same time, she found a new outlook on life.
“I shouldn’t be here,” says Courtney, who has endured over a dozen surgeries since the incident. “It’s a miracle I survived.”
For more on Courtney Waldon’s inspiring story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
She achieves a new milestone every day, including small wins most take for granted, such as opening up a bag of chips for her daughter or a pack of string cheese. After six months and numerous additional procedures — including one to help reopen her eyes and another to give her better use of her hands — she was able to get her driver’s license back.
“Caroline is the one who motivated me to get better,” she says. “I just kept telling myself if we can get through this we’ll be better off in the long run. Being able to drive her to school means everything to me.”
A Bright Future
On a sunny afternoon in August at her parents’ property in Waco, Georgia — where Courtney moved with her daughter after the split — she and Caroline make their way down a dirt road to a small home that’s under construction.
“That’s our place baby girl,” she says to her daughter. “Are you excited?”
They carefully walk into the two-bedroom house that a local church donated. With funding from their community, the mother and daughter are building a new future. The new home is expected to be completed in October.
“It’s overwhelming. I can’t wait to start our new life together,” Courtney says. “I keep on saying God’s blessed me, but you have no idea how much God has honestly blessed me. I cannot ever be grateful enough for it because it keeps on coming.”
Her mother, Karen Cosper, created a GoFundMe page for her daughter, who will most likely never be able to hold down a regular job. Over $367,000 has been donated so far.
“I’m in awe of her,” Karen tells PEOPLE. “There are not many people that could go through that and come out with the same outlook on life that she’s got.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve been through so much, but things are looking up.”
For Courtney, there is nothing she can’t accomplish going forward.
“I might look different, but I’m really the same person,” she says. “I want to be a public speaker and help others who have been through traumatic situations. I want them to know they’re going to be okay.”