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Mormon blogger Stephanie Nielson finds 'heaven' after fiery crash

Published May 18, 2012 1:49 pm

Stephanie Nielson • Author gives birth again after tragic accident.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After the plane crash in 2008, she wasn't sure if she would ever be able to have another child.

Fire seared 80 percent of Stephanie Nielson's body. She spent three months in a coma. A seemingly endless road of surgeries and pain medication stretched before her.

Little did the Provo woman know then that not only would she have another child, but also that the baby — born last month — would help rebuild her.

Nielson gave birth April 3 to Charlotte, her fifth child and her first since the accident. Two weeks after the delivery, Nielson returned to the hospital, where doctors used the skin over her belly, stretched from pregnancy, to repair some of her burns.

"I just thought what a blessing this was, that I've been through so much, such hard things and disappointment, but for this to work and be here and for the doctors to say this could actually help my body, having a baby, which is something I always wanted," Nielson said in an interview, " ... I just feel so lucky and blessed."

This Mother's Day, Nielson will celebrate a multitude of blessings. She'll feel gratitude for her new baby girl. She'll rejoice in the way she and her family have adapted to the challenges they've faced the past four years. And Nielson, author of a popular blog about her life as a Mormon mother and wife, will celebrate the recent publication of her new book Heaven Is Here.

"It was always a day of reflection for me," Nielson said of Mother's Day, "to think this day was created because of people like me, and I'm so grateful I have this role. I celebrate life."

"A fairy-tale life" • Before the accident took so much, Nielson was living the life she had always dreamed of growing up in a large LDS family in Provo.

"For some, the dream of a fairy-tale life fades away, but for me, it never did," Nielson, now 30, wrote in her book. "When my friends started talking about college, I became even more certain that what I wanted most was to be a wife and a mother. I knew there was a meaning and purpose to my life that I wouldn't really experience until then."

When she was 19, Nielson, a dark-haired girl with green eyes and freckles, married Christian Nielson, a returned Mormon missionary. About a year later, she gave birth to their first child, Claire. The young family moved to New Jersey for Christian's job.

That's when Nielson began blogging. Her blog, "NieNie Dialogues" started in 2005 as a way to keep her family in Utah up to date. She blogged about her kids, motherhood and homemaking, posting artfully shot photos.

Her readership soon included more than kin. In the world of so-called "mommy bloggers," Nielson stood out for her rosy take on motherhood, her focus on the colorful beauty of everyday moments.

"She makes being a mother seem like this great journey," said Christina Chau, a longtime reader, who works in marketing at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City. "I've always grown up [hearing] complaints about having kids and taking care of kids. ... It's really refreshing for me to read."

Chau said Nielson's blog has long been a topic of lunchtime conversation among a handful of workers at the company.

Nielson continued blogging as the family relocated to Mesa, Ariz. Her fan base mushroomed.

Then, one day in August 2008, her blog fell silent.

Her world comes crashing down • Nielson's husband had been learning to fly, fulfilling a childhood wish. One day, Nielson decided to go up with him and his flight instructor, who was also a close friend.

She left pizza dough rising on the counter in anticipation of making dinner later that night.

Instead, the plane went down, slamming into the earth and bursting into flames. Christian's flight instructor died. Christian suffered burns over nearly a third of his body, spending more than a month in a medically induced coma.

Nielson was burned over 80 percent of her body and didn't open her eyes until more than three months after the tragedy.

When she did, she saw that her fairy-tale world had shattered.

She couldn't move. She couldn't bear to look at her raw face in the mirror. When she finally allowed her young children to see her, four months after the crash, they were frightened.

Her younger daughter asked to leave the room and warned her older sister not to go in.

"They brought her out of the coma and she was obviously unhappy, and she was confused and she was scared and she struggled," said Nielson's brother Andrew Clark, who, like her other seven siblings, spent much time near her bedside during those months. "So badly she wanted to be back at home as if it never happened."

It was agony for Nielson not to be able to care for her children, and she sometimes felt like a burden. She felt guilty.

But she leaned on her family and her faith, moving back to Provo. She recovered one small step at a time. With the nurses' help, she sat up in bed. She regained the ability to move her fingers.

Painfully and slowly, she walked. She even began blogging again, shocked to discover that thousands of fans had emailed and sent cards and gifts to show their support.

"Of course it's not easy, and there were days when I was so frustrated and mad, but ... praying and my faith in God, that's what got me through," Nielson said. "Mormons believe that there is a purpose in life, that we're here for a reason, and we're not here just mindlessly walking through life, that we all were given challenges unique to us and we're given the tools to get through those challenges."

An anniversary gift • There was at least one question, however, that Nielson was afraid to ask: Could she have more children?

She and Christian had always dreamed of having a big family, and they had already started planning for another baby before the crash.

"I didn't even want to know the answer," Nielson said. "It was something so close to me, something I wanted so badly."

Finally, about a year after the accident, she asked. Doctors told her "probably" but that they'd have to wait and see. A year after that, she asked again. This time, she was surprised to hear her doctor answer, "I don't see why not."

Nielson was elated.

"I knew there was more for me and there was another baby I needed to bring to this Earth," Nielson said. "I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I knew it was right."

Nielson announced her pregnancy on her blog in August, on the third anniversary of the plane crash.

It was a move her fans online — after spending years reading about her tortuous recovery — cheered.

"I honestly was probably as excited, if not more, as when a family member announces they're pregnant," said Heather Anti, a longtime reader and fellow blogger who lives in Massachusetts. "It was awesome to see her go through the pregnancy and be able to have the child she so wanted after the accident."

Anti called her "inspiring."

"If I'm having a tough day and things aren't going well, I think about her and how she looks at being a mom and especially all the things she's overcome, and it really just puts things into perspective," Anti said. "The childhood that she gives her children is something that I would like to follow with my children."

A child is born, a mom rejoices • Baby Charlotte arrived April 3 at 12:53 p.m. at Orem Community Hospital, a healthy 6 pounds, 12 ounces, after a normal pregnancy.

The Nielsons consider the infant a gift from God.

"Considering the things Stephanie has been through in the last four years, that her body has been through in the last four years, the fact that she's able to bring a new healthy child into this world is just nothing short of miraculous," said Christian Nielson, who describes his wife as a "natural" mother and "lovely." Christian had worked in construction and facilities management before the accident and now owns a life insurance company. "I know it sounds cliché, but truly, in this situation, it is."

That's not to say, of course, that his wife doesn't face a number of hurdles.

The physical tasks of motherhood aren't as easy for her as they once were. Nielson recently wrote on her blog about the challenge of bathing her new infant the day after she returned from the hospital.

Christian took the other children sailing for the day to give her and Charlotte, or Lottie, time alone.

"My hands were awkward and I was nervous holding her new little body. My hands don't bend, my new hands can't do much at all," she wrote.

"I was frustrated as I tried washing and rubbing my perfect baby. Then, as I tried moving her onto her back, my stiff hands fumbled and water got into her eyes and mouth. She gasped and began crying. I gave up."

Nielson also began crying and waited for her husband to return. When he got back, he comforted her and reassured her the next time would be better.

"It was true," she wrote. "I have given Charlotte a bath almost everyday since the incident. Lots of practice with tears and pain."

Normally, bathing a new baby wouldn't be an overly difficult task for a mother of five. But as with many things in Nielson's life, it's something that now takes extra practice, patience and resolve.

Not that Charlotte will notice the difference. Not only is she Nielson's first baby since the plane crash; she is also the first of her children who won't remember what it was like "before." The only mother she'll know is the one who perseveres.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Learn more about Stephanie Nielson

Stephanie Nielson, a Provo mother of five who survived a 2008 plane crash, writes about her experiences in her new memoir Heaven Is Here. She also blogs at › nieniedialogues.com.