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

WHO - - News - By Caitlin Keat­ing

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.

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