On August 16, 2008, Stephanie Nielson boarded a Cessna 177 Cardinal for a daytrip with her husband, Christian, who had recently earned his pilot’s license, and Doug Kinneard, Christian’s flight instructor and dear friend.
After stopping in St. Johns, Arizona, to refuel for their return to Mesa, the small plane sped down the runway and climbed into the sky. But without warning, the plane plummeted to the quiet neighborhood below.
The 27-year-old mother of four was knocked unconscious upon impact, only to awaken to the sickening smell of burning fuel and burning flesh—her flesh. “I was drowning in flames,” she recalls. “I reached for the seatbelt, but I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t get out.”
Help from Heaven
Nielson screamed for help, but her cries went unanswered. Christian had escaped the plane, believing his wife was right behind him, and Kinneard was unconscious in his seat. Finally she stopped struggling and accepted that she would burn to death. But she suddenly felt someone at her side guiding her hand to unbuckle the seatbelt and guiding her to the airplane door—and that someone was her deceased nana, Aurora. When Nielson escaped from the plane, her body engulfed in flames, her grandmother told her: “Roll.”
“There were people from the other side of the veil helping me,” Nielson says. “I felt my grandmother and others there.”
In addition to help from loved ones beyond the veil, Nielson says there were other miracles that day.
“The first miracle is that when we crashed, we didn’t hurt anyone on the ground,” she says. And Nielson believes where the plane crashed was no coincidence—across from an LDS bishop’s home.
“I remember men running over to me,” she recalls. “The first thing they asked is if there were other people in the plane. Then they asked if I was LDS and if I wanted a priesthood blessing. They gave me a blessing that I would be comforted and that things would turn out the way they were supposed to, and that I would have limited pain. It was awful, but it was a very spiritual moment.”
Christian Nielson, age 29, and Doug Kinneard, age 48, were also badly burned. With a broken back and burns on 40 percent of his body, Christian was the most fortunate of the three plane-crash victims. Soon after they were airlifted to the Arizona Burn Center in Phoenix, Kinneard, who suffered burns on 90 percent of his body, died from his injuries.
Doctors put the Nielsons in medically induced comas. Christian awoke about five weeks later, but it would be three and a half months before Stephanie would regain consciousness.
Her arms, legs, hands, and face were covered with third- and fourth-degree burns—the worst occurring on her face. She was unrecognizable, but surgeons were at least able to retrieve enough tissue from other parts of her body to give her a new nose and ears. There was talk of amputating limbs. A deadly liver infection nearly killed her, and her heart stopped beating on multiple occasions. All the while, doctors performed surgeries every few days to harvest and graft new skin.
On November 5, 2008, Nielson awoke to find her body encased in bandages. She was unable to move, unable to speak. But her mother and sister Page were at her side. They gently told her about the accident and that her children had been living with her sisters in Utah while she and Christian recovered. Lucy had baby Nicholas. Courtney had the three older children: Claire, age 6; Jane, age 5; and Oliver, age 3. She also took over Stephanie’s popular blog, NieNie Dialogues, to keep readers updated on her sister’s condition.
Nielson was devastated to be so helpless, unable to care for her children.
“When I woke up from my coma and learned where my children were, I felt guilty, but I also felt at ease because I knew they were being taken care of,” she says. “This is what families are about.”
In mid-November, the couple moved to Utah, with Stephanie at the University of Utah Burn Center, to be closer to their children while they continued their long physical and emotional recovery.
Facing the MirrorNielson had seen the extensive scarring on her body and on her husband’s face, but she couldn’t bear the thought of looking at herself in the mirror. And she especially couldn’t bear the thought of her children seeing their mother so disfigured (she had only spoken to them on the phone).
It was only after persistent prodding from doctors and family that she finally found the courage to look in the mirror, five weeks after waking from her coma. It was worse than she imagined.
“I felt like a monster,” Nielson says. But the hardest part was yet to come—seeing her children for the first time since the crash. “They came in expecting to see Mom, but I looked completely different. My youngest son, Nicholas, who was only two, didn’t remember me. He didn’t want anything to do with me. It ripped my heart out. Jane turned white as a ghost and wouldn’t look at me.”
Only Oliver seemed comfortable with his mother, happily pushing a toy car around her hospital bed. Claire remained in the hallway, refusing to see her mother after Jane warned her, “Don’t go in there.”
“It was awful,” Nielson says.
Gradually the children adjusted to their mother’s new face. Nielson has also come to accept her appearance, but she admits it is still hard at times.
“I still struggle with my scars,” she says. “I think I will for a while—forever, maybe. But I remember how grateful I am that I still have a face or a nose or things that I almost didn’t have. Then I look at my family and friends and think, ‘This is all worth it.’ I am a wife and a mother. The accident couldn’t take that away from me.”
She continues, “God gave us physical beauty, but what matters most is that we are a beautiful person on the inside. If we are, then our outside beauty will shine. I like to think that’s how my transformation is taking place—by making sure my heart is where it needs to be.”
Nielson says there are still bad days, but the love of her family makes her feel less self-conscious. “I’m not as worried about my appearance because I’ve got this beautiful family around me, and that’s what matters most. They don’t see me as someone who looks different or can’t do the things I used to. My husband sees me as the wife that he married, and my children just see me as Mom. I feel beautiful because I have a beautiful life.”
Nielson’s beautiful life is filled with purpose: to fulfill her roles as wife and mother and to share the hope of the gospel with the world—a mission she says she agreed to while still in her coma.
“I was with my grandmother, and I was given a choice,” she says. “I was told, ‘This is what’s going to happen if you stay here—you can do lots of missionary work with your grandmother and others who have passed before you, and there won’t be any suffering. Or you can go back to earth where you will have your husband and children but will probably be in constant pain.’”
She continues, “It was a hard choice—I don’t remember making it right away. But ultimately, I wanted to come back and finish my mortal life with my husband and children. I knew what an honor it is to have a body on this earth, and I wanted to finish what I started.” Before she returned, Nielson asked how she could make her life easier. She was told, “Share your hope.”
“This is my mission,” she explains. “I promised I would share the gospel with everybody who needed it. Through this accident, this is what I am supposed to do.”
Since the plane crash, Nielson has appeared on Oprah, 20/20, Today, Anderson Cooper, and given interviews to many other media outlets so she can share her story and her faith. She prays about each opportunity before she accepts. “If I don’t feel good about it, then I don’t do it,” she says. “But this is my calling, and I’m going to do it to fulfill my promise.”
But she admits that so much media attention can be draining. “It’s a little stressful to talk about things over and over again,” she says. “I want to sound hopeful and faithful, but I can’t even begin to explain how painful and difficult it was for me. I was in the depths of the worst place I could possibly be, but feeling God’s love and easing back into the things that I loved is how I got to where I am now. One of my favorite parts of my story is being able to be a missionary. Through my words and my story, people will see that there is a God.”
Another way Nielson shares the gospel is through her blog, which has about 30 million readers each month. She writes about the joys of being a wife, mother, and Mormon, and she offers to send a free copy of The Book of Mormon to anyone who requests one.
“I know of about 12 baptisms that have happened from giving away copies,” she says. “People send me their baptismal pictures. I get lots of emails from all over the world from people who have read The Book of Mormon. Some don’t necessarily want to be baptized but are grateful they know more about my faith. There are little seeds being planted, and I’m honored to be the one to introduce them to the gospel.”
Another MiracleOn April 3, 2012, the Nielsons experienced another miracle—the birth of their daughter Charlotte.
“For a long time, I didn’t want to ask if I could have more children because I wanted it so badly,” Nielson recalls. “I didn’t want to hear ‘no’ from anyone.”
But about two years after the plane crash, she was ready to know. “I wanted another baby before the accident, so I was definitely ready,” she says.
Nielson was thrilled when the doctor told her it was possible—her lower abdomen was one of the few areas that wasn’t burned in the accident. In fact, after she gave birth, doctors were even able to reuse the stretched skin from her stomach for other parts of her body. But carrying a baby to term would be a very painful endeavor.
“I had to go off all my pain medication,” she explains. “And my skin didn’t stretch because it is scarred, so the normal weight gain was painful, but it wasn’t anything I had to have surgery for. I knew it was going to be hard, but I knew that I could do this. When she came, it was a tender mercy. I think about myself lying in the hospital, and my outlook was so dim. I was sad and lonely and frustrated. If I had had a glimpse of where I am right now, I would never have weakened. This is something I pictured myself doing, and I’ve worked really hard to get here. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and hope.”
A Firm Foundation
Because of the accident, Nielson says her family has learned to rely more completely on the gospel. They have also grown stronger and gained a new perspective on life.
“It’s brought us all closer and made us realize how valuable and how short life can be. What really matters is love and relationships,” she says. “I want my children to remember that there were miracles that came from our experience. We’ve learned so much and gained so much strength and knowledge and a deeper testimony of what we’re doing. As hard and difficult as it was, I’m grateful, and I feel so proud of where we are. For being so young, our kids have gone through a lot and have come through it wonderfully.”
The Nielsons’ marriage has been strengthened, too. “Christian is amazing,” she says. “He’s been the one who takes care of me. And because he was also burned, he knows how I’m feeling and what I’m going through. You can complain all you want to your husband about being pregnant, but he won’t really know. We understand each other’s wounds and are more reliant on each other.”
“We are so blessed to have the knowledge that we have,” she says. “I can’t imagine going through the accident without a testimony of the gospel plan, of the Savior, without knowing there is a God. Our family fasted and prayed and relied on the Atonement so much. Everyone is going to have problems and challenges, but it’s so much easier having these things. We are so much stronger than we think we are. I am so much more than a human going through some problems. I’m a daughter of God getting through this with God’s love and help. That’s what I like to tell people—and myself.”
She adds, “There is divine purpose in all that we do. We can be grateful for what we have and make it into something better. We can gain strength from our experiences rather than dwell on how horrible they were. There is a loving Heavenly Father who wants us to grow from trials, and it’s up to us to do that. We have been given all the tools and more to get through anything that comes our way.”
This is the cover story of the July/August 2012 issue of LDS Living. Read more about the issue and order a copy here: LDS Living July/August 2012 issue.
Also, find out more about Stephanie Nielson's positive outlook on life in her new book, Heaven Is Here. You can also watch an inspirational video, "My New Life," with Stephanie talking about her changes and blessings since the accident.