Michael Patterson dove into a swiftly-moving stream to rescue 4-year-old Javea Jones but broke his neck in the shallow water.
WSB-TV, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, reports that Patterson's 9-year-old son and the girl's mother saw the whole thing happen.
"He jumped in head first and after I grabbed her, I looked back and he was floating on top of the water," Carlissa Jones told WSB.
Patterson had taken a new job as a drywall contractor in the past two weeks, and didn't have health insurance at the time of the accident, according to family friend Tonya Davis.
She and others are trying to raise money for Patterson's medical costs.
"It's not only for his medical bills?he'll have to be helped financially for the rest of his life," Davis said.
Luckily, donations are flowing in from all over the globe. "I think people are thirsty for good news, and when they hear good news, they respond," Davis said.
Donations can be made via the Facebook group "Friends of Mike Patterson"