WACO, Ga. – Courtney Waldon wears her new ink proudly scrolled across her arm: “I survived because the fire inside of me burned brighter than the fire around me.”
On a cool Friday evening, last September, the newlywed was enjoying a night outside with her husband of two months—celebrating their anniversary at their Tallapoosa, Ga., home.
Her 4-year-old daughter, Caroline, was asleep inside.
Her husband was behind her, grilling tuna steak and asparagus, while she sat with the crackling campfire in front of her. She mentioned to him that she was chilly.
The 27-year-old bride was scrolling through her Facebook feed on her phone, and looked up just in time to see her husband throw gasoline on the campfire.
The campfire erupted, flooding her face and blonde, shoulder-length hair with an intense heat, and immediately and simultaneously submerged her entire body.
From her head to her feet, flames ravaged her—her flip flops melting on her skin.
She dropped to the ground, remembering what she had learned in school as a child. But “Stop, drop and roll” wouldn’t save her from the relentless blaze. The gas-infused fire only continued to grow.
Her husband dropped to the ground and started smothering his fully engulfed wife, hoping to extinguish the fire.
“I remember telling him to hurry up and call 911, please hurry!” Waldon said. “I remember going into the ambulance just praying to God: ‘Please let me live; please let me live; please forgive me; please forgive me. I'm so sorry.’”
She was then air-lifted to WellStar in Cobb County.
It was Sept. 30, 2016.
When she arrived at the hospital, she said, her entire face was swollen beyond recognition.
She woke from her medically induced coma 36 days later in the ICU burn unit, with fourth-degree burns on her neck, third-degree on her hands, legs and feet.
“I did know the fire had hit me all over my body, but I did not know what to expect,” she said.
The first time she saw herself at the hospital, she recalled, she almost passed out and had to go lay down.
“I was disgusted. I was disgusted at myself. I was about to have a panic attack, because I was overwhelmed with how I look… and what is everybody going to think of me now? I sat there, and was like, why would someone want to be with me? No one is ever going to want to be seen with me.”
But the pain of her appearance would not compare to the physical pain she would experience.
She endured more than a half a dozen surgeries, including one while she was in the coma.
“They were doing skin grafts… adding skin to my neck, hands, legs, feet… you name it, I have a perfect flip flop burn on my left foot from that night,” she said.
After 51 days in the hospital, she was released to go home. But before she would go inside, she made her family remove all the mirrors inside.
“I just wouldn't look at them because I didn't want to see myself. Because I go from being this beautiful person on the inside and out, to this ugly on the outside, still beautiful on the inside.”
But then her daughter saw her. She peered up at her through her tiny glasses.
She didn’t understand. She didn’t know the person in front of her. She looked like a stranger.
“She was very hesitant. She just stood back after she walked through the door basically and then she heard my voice,” she said.
She walked up to her mom and wrapped her tiny arms around her, refusing to let her go. Tears ran down her face as she begged her mom to stay with her, after she realized who she was.
“She realized that was still her mother and her mommy is going to love her no matter what. And she will love her mommy no matter what.”
It’s a love that’s more resilient than her burns and tougher than her scars. And that love gave her the will to survive and the strength to face her future.
“She showed me that no matter what I look like I am still loved, and I will be loved by others as well. And here I am, just loved by so many, and they actually see me, because of my beautiful inside now. My daughter she's my rock, she's my everything,” she said of Caroline, who’s now 5 years old and would hold her hand and help her walk when she couldn’t on her own.
A short time after she came home, more devastation hit her household.
Two weeks after she came home, her marriage couldn’t withstand the emotional toll the fire had taken on their relationship.
“I was sitting there going through my mind, how am I going to take care of my daughter now? How? Because I had no idea how I was going to make her food. I couldn't even open a bag of chips, string cheese, a coke can, you name it.”
But, Waldon said, God gave her the strength and she learned to make butter knives her best friend.
“I learned how to open stuff with butter knives… And the very next morning, when I didn't think I could, [God] gave me the strength and I was able to make me and my daughter toast and I've gotten stronger and more motivated ever since that day.”
“When I look in the mirror now, I see someone beautiful, courageous, inspiring--someone who can go through anything with God by her side. And I can achieve whatever he throws at me because he's not going to let me down.”
Since her injuries, she can longer work and lost her job at the cappuccino plant she worked at before the accident, and subsequently lost her home.
With the severity of the injuries to her hands, it is uncertain that she will ever return to work. But, she is OK with that. And she looks at how far she’s come.
“Here we are today, and I can cook for her… I can do it now, for her, and it's the best feeling ever, to now be able to feel like a mom again,” she said. “I don't really think negative; I think positive because that's where I am now. I am here, and I couldn't do better.”