BURNS SURVIVOR COURTNEY WALDON
After a horrific accident left her burned almost beyond recognition, a single mum finds the strength to fight back for her little girl
After a horrific accident left her burned almost beyond recognition, a single mum finds the strength to fight back for her little girl.
One short year ago Courtney Waldon would have said she was living her dream. She’d just tucked her then 4-year-old daughter Caroline into bed and was happily sitting next to the backyard fire pit, celebrating her two-month wedding anniversary with her new husband, Mitch Cobb, 30, who was grilling tuna steaks and asparagus on the open flame. “I made the comment that I was cold,” says Waldon, remembering how she’d turned away to check Facebook on her phone, “and the next thing I knew, he went and put gas on the fire. I heard a noise, and the fire shot up and hit me in my face, and all the way down my body. I stopped, dropped and rolled while screaming bloody murder. It was horrible ... I honestly thought I was dying that night.”
Paramedics responding to Cobb’s emergency call arrived minutes later at the couple’s home in Georgia and within 20 minutes had helicoptered Waldon to Wellstar Cobb Hospital near Atlanta. But by the time she arrived, her body was unrecognisable: Fourth-degree burns had ravaged her face, while third-degree burns had left her hands, legs and feet badly mangled. She would spend the next 51 days in hospital—most of them in a medicallyinduced coma in intensive care. “I shouldn’t be here,” says Waldon, 27. “It’s a miracle I’m alive.”
After 10 surgeries, two bouts of walking pneumonia and a rigorous rehab program to relearn how to walk and eat, Waldon finally returned home last November. “That was my goal,” she says, “to spend Thanksgiving with my family, out of the hospital.” But there was one blow left to come: two weeks after her homecoming, her husband, Cobb, walked out on her and Caroline (who is Waldon’s daughter from her first marriage). “I was devastated,” she says. “I begged for him to come back but ... then I finally realised, 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.”
Today Waldon says she has gained a lot more than she has lost. Unfailing support from her parents (who moved her back home after Cobb left), Karen, 52, and Scott Cosper, 56, and Waldon’s own determination to raise her daughter have played a crucial role in her recovery—along with a dozen surgeries to help her regain the ability to drive, swim and cook. Her biggest triumphs often come from the smallest things, like
opening a bag of potato chips or a pack of string cheese for her rambunctious little girl. “I don’t take anything for granted,” says Waldon, “because I was so close to losing it all.”
Her mother knows it. “Tears just rolled down our cheeks,” says Karen, as she remembers seeing her daughter for the first time the night of the accident. “She didn’t look like a human being. We were devastated by what we saw and just how critical she was.” In the weeks that followed, Waldon, in the induced coma, suffered severe hallucinations during which she thought the nurses were trying to kill her and rats were coming after her. “I was on so many drugs,” she says, “and had so many mixed emotions whenever I woke up.” Her parents were by her side for every emotional and physical challenge—from the countless skin grafts to the first time she saw her own face in the mirror. “I just about passed out,” recalls Waldon. “I got
sick to my stomach. It was just horrible.” But when she’d lose the will to try to walk or endure another session of physical therapy, they’d tell her to think about Caroline—who wasn’t allowed to visit her mother in the hospital for fear of infection and hadn’t been told about the accident. “We’d say, ‘ You’ve got to do this for her,’ and she would every time,” says Karen. Adds Waldon: “Caroline is the reason I wake up every single day. She was my reason to learn how to do stuff, to eat in the hospital, to come home, because I missed her so much. I didn’t ever want her to think that I would just up and leave her by choice.”
When she finally did go home, that first night, Waldon says Caroline “walked in the door and was standoffish. I said, ‘Baby, it’s me, Mommy,’ and she ran up to me, gave me a hug and cried. She hasn’t let go since.” In that moment Waldon says she knew “everything had changed forever.” Although Waldon’s life still involves weekly doctors appointments and additional procedures— including one to further open her eyes and another to remove scar tissue from her hands—she has eased back into everyday tasks, such as driving Caroline to school or the play centre. “I am finally able to feel like a mom again,” says Waldon. “That’s been the biggest milestone for me.”
In addition to her family, she has received tremendous support from the community. Her local church is building a two-bedroom home for her and Caroline on her parents’ 40-ha property in Tallapoosa, Georgia, that should be finished in October. And a Gofundme page ( gofundme.com/ courtneywaldon) set up by Karen to help cover expenses has already reached more than US$360,000. “I can’t be grateful enough for the support, and it keeps on coming,” says Waldon, who has received letters from all over the world, including Australia.
While there are certainly challenges ahead, she has learnt to look for blessings in disguise. “My ex-husband left when I needed him the most,” she says. “But if he’d stayed, I wouldn’t be who I am today.” Drawing her inspiration from Caroline—“she’s my life; she’s the one who has motivated me to get better”—waldon plans to start publicly sharing her story, and next May she’ll be the motivational speaker at the Sherwood Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Sherwood, Arkansas. “I have work to do on Earth to help others,” she says. “Whether it’s someone who has burns or has been in a car wreck, I know that there are people out there who have it worse than I do ... This all happened for a reason. It just took me some time to figure out what that reason was.”
“As a family we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel” —Scott Cosper
BURNS SURVIVOR COURTNEY WALDON “I’m blessed to have a second chance, so I try and spend every moment with Caroline,” says Waldon.
LOOKING BACK Waldon (left, in 2014) and with Mitch Cobb (right) at their wedding in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in July 2016.
Waldon in hospital on Feb 22. “It was the most painful feeling in the world,” she says.
Taking selfies as Waldon’s dad, Scott Cosper (right), drives around their property. “Courtney has taught me a lot about patience,” he says.
FINDING JOY “I don’t have to rely on anyone to take her to do things every little girl deserves to do,” says Waldon (with Caroline, fishing on the family’s property). Below, the pair play “shark in the water” in her parents’ pool.
Support System: Waldon with (from left) dad Scott, Caroline, sister Lindsey Brooke Kilgore, her daughter Elizabeth and mum, Karen.
“This is where we can rebuild our lives together,” says Waldon (with Caroline at the building site for their new home).
Waldon got her tattoo in April. “It’s part of my walking testimony,” she says proudly.