Courtney Waldon vividly remembers sitting by a campfire on September 30, 2016, cooking tuna steak and asparagus. The 27-year-old mom was on her phone using Facebook as her husband of two months got up to relight the fire. After swinging a can of gas, some of it got on her body. The next thing she knew she was engulfed in flames.
“I stopped, dropped and rolled while screaming bloody murder,” Waldon of Tallapoosa, Georgia, tells PEOPLE. “I thought I was dying.”
Waldon, who is mom to 5-year-old daughter Caroline, miraculously survived but was left with fourth-degree burns on her face and third-degree burns on her hands, legs and feet. Then two weeks after she got home, she dealt with another devastation when her husband left her.
“My hands got so burnt because I was trying to put out my face,” she says. “I felt every inch of my flesh burning off that night.”
After yelling to call 911, Waldon only survived because of how close she lived to the hospital.
“They said if the ambulance arrived one minute later I wouldn’t have made it,” she recalls. “I just started praying to God in the ambulance.”
Waldon was in the hospital for 51 days. After waking up from a 30-day induced coma, she started to panic.
“I just wanted my daughter,” she says. “She’s the reason I live.”
Waldon’s family only told Caroline what had happened as the date got closer for her mom to come home. “They said, ‘Mommy got badly burned and she will never look the same,’ ” she says. “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.”
Throughout her entire stay in the hospital, which included 40 days in the ICU — and every day since — Waldon has managed to stay positive. But she admits the first time she saw her burned face was difficult.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I got sick to my stomach and almost passed out.”
Waldon — who has had over 20 surgeries since the incident — says that because of God and her daughter, she’s taking advantage of her second chance at life.
“I shouldn’t be here but I am,” she says. “I know that there are people out there who have it worse than I do. I’ve always been a believer that everything happens for a reason and I still believe that.
“God saved my life and now I have work to do on earth to help others. I received a message three days ago from a lady who said she didn’t kill herself because of my story.”