When Stephanie Nielson, her husband, Christian, and six other Arizona Burn Center survivors reached the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, Stephanie walked over and showed her physician Dr. Kevin Foster a picture. The picture, Stephanie says, looks like an autopsy photo, but the woman in the picture was alive. She asked Dr. Foster if he remembered that girl. Of course he did—the picture was of Stephanie nearly 15 years ago, just a couple of weeks after a plane crash left over 80 percent of her body burned.
When the Nielsons were approached by the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health Medical Center and asked if they would be interested in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro—one of the world’s most famous extreme altitude mountain treks—to raise money for the center’s new facility, Christian was immediately all in. But Stephanie had some hesitations.
“I think I’m just kind of a homebody. I don’t really try new things,” she says. “I don’t know if the accident has contributed to that because I felt like, ‘Ugh, how irresponsible to get in an airplane crash and leave my kids?’ We could’ve died and I just think I’m scared to do things now.”
But the trip was going to benefit the center that saved her life and, in many ways, it promised to be symbolic of the mountains of recovery she climbed in fighting for her life. So, Stephanie and Christian said yes.
A film documenting their journey, Courage Rising, premieres on Thursday, April 20, and all proceeds will go toward the new burn center. For Stephanie, it was an experience that was unforgettable for many reasons. “I’ve overcome and climbed so many mountains in my life, mountains that have brought me to my knees, taught me lessons, and helped me grow,” she wrote on her blog. But those mountains have showed her something important—that no matter how difficult the challenge, or how taxing the journey, she can always reach the summit.
Stephanie says the climb was in many ways like the days and weeks she faced following her accident.
“There are mountains every day that we have to get over and some are longer than others … it’s an ongoing, uphill climb,” she says. Recovering from burn injuries has been a lifelong climb, but there have also been plateaus where God has given her the opportunity to rest. She found the same to be true en route to the top of Kilimanjaro.
“It was uphill the whole time, but then there were times where it would flatten out for a minute and we could take a deep breath and gather ourselves and prepare for the next hill,” she said. “And I think our recovery was very similar to that. It was an uphill battle all the time, but there were moments of clarity where I could see where I was going. This just wasn’t going to be pain and horrific life from here on out.”
Stephanie recalls times in the hospital during her recovery where she would tell herself, “I can do this for another minute.” She would then watch the clock for a full minute. She utilized similar tactics on her climb up the mountain. For example, on the second to last day, she found it harder to get to base camp, so she began thinking of every person in her life who had helped her get to that point. With each step, she said a different person’s name.
“I went for hours, and I just never ran out of names,” she recalls.
While porters were available to help carry each survivor’s pack, Stephanie also insisted on carrying her own backpack up the mountain, saying that she just wanted to prove to herself that she could do it. She says while there are definitely still days where she doesn’t feel great and her skin doesn’t stretch and her joints hurt, she considers herself to be in the best shape she’s ever been in and she is healing every day, physically and spiritually. For her, carrying the pack herself was symbolic of no longer needing to carry the emotional weight she has carried since her accident.
“I just wanted to carry my own weight and take it to the top and let it go,” she says. “Kind of like giving our sins to the Savior—I felt like I wanted to just get it there and then be done with it.”
Up to the Mountain
In a video released by the Church in April 2020, President Russell M. Nelson said, “When God wanted to give the Ten Commandments to Moses, where did He tell Moses to go? Up on top of a mountain, on the top of Mount Sinai. So Moses had to walk all the way up to the top of that mountain to get the Ten Commandments. Now, Heavenly Father could have said, ‘Moses, you start there, and I’ll start here, and I’ll meet you halfway.’ No, the Lord loves effort, because effort brings rewards that can’t come without it.”
Six months before the trip, which took place in June 2022, Stephanie began studying references in the scriptures to mountains. Some of those references included mountains in the Book of Mormon, references to the temple being referred to as “The Mountain of the Lord,” and Jesus’s experience when he was on the earth with mountains—whether it be the mountain where He went to be alone and pray, the mountain where He taught, or the Mount of Transfiguration.
Her conclusion? “We climb mountains to get closer to God.” So she began to pray that she would have a sacred experience atop Mount Kilimanjaro. “Surely God will meet me there,” she says. And He did. “I got to the top and I was so overcome with gratitude that I could even be there.” She knew her effort, not only to climb but to seek healing in the years since her accident, had been accepted.
Isla Cook, a young girl and fellow Latter-day Saint who also hiked with the Nielsons, was 10 years old when, in June 2021, a propane tank accident at a family party led to second and third degree burns covering 45 percent of her petite body. Isla had never completed a serious hike and worried about how her body would handle the cold and wind at the top of the mountain. But she wanted to “show all other burn survivors that there is a life after the hospital.”
Isla says that, like Stephanie, she also learned spiritual lessons as she climbed. Specifically, she found that “every step you take is a risk, but it’s better with the Lord and you have to trust His process in order to thank the Lord and be able to do the things you want to do in life.” While she is still healing, Isla has made a remarkable recovery—her hospital stay was shorter than the best predicted outcome—and is back to competing in gymnastics. She says the amount of gratitude she feels toward the Arizona Burn Center is too much to describe in words, but she’s very thankful.
The Nielsons have a special interest in the success of the Arizona Burn Center now that extends beyond its role in saving their lives. Their oldest daughter, 21-year-old Claire, is now working as a burn tech in the center. It is a move that Stephanie and Christian never saw coming since their entire family, particularly their two oldest daughters, have struggled with hospitals as a result of being old enough to remember visiting their mom in the hospital.
But Claire is thriving. “She calls me every day after her shift and just tells me how much she loves it, [and] how amazing it is—[and] works through some sad things. She doesn’t tell me details obviously … but the great thing is I get it! And it’s cool, she’ll say to me, ‘What would you have wanted if this was you? What would you have wanted a nurse to say?’”
Stephanie says Claire is able to relate because she went through the same experience with her mom that many of these families are going through.
“It’s just a beautiful full circle for our family and for the burn center, and I feel like God absolutely knows what He is doing,” Stephanie says. “This is just another evidence that He is aware. He’s aware not only of my family but other families that will go to the burn center [and be blessed by] Claire being there. He uses people to get His work done. He uses people to heal and bless others’ lives.”
Restoring the Color
When Stephanie reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, she pulled out the picture of the younger version of herself. “There is no life in me when I see that photo. It’s colorless. But I love this photo because even though it’s horrifying to look at, it’s also beautiful simply because I overcame it,” she wrote on her blog. “Just like the magnificent phoenix, I burned away, then regenerated and grew back with more life, more purpose, and more color.”
That color came back as she rediscovered her purpose as a mother, wife, woman, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ who has made a covenant to mourn with those that mourn. In that spirit, she says that she would say to others who currently find themselves in that colorless place to just “keep fighting, keep working, keep going. It’s just a chapter to their beautiful story and sometimes [those chapters are] the worst, but it always ends up beautiful because we have the whole plan. Because we have a Savior, it’s going to end up beautiful.”