True Story Of Stephanie Nielson, Mom Burned Beyond Recognition In Plane Crash

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Stephanie Nielson felt being a mom was her “divine purpose.” Then suddenly, after narrowly surviving a fiery plane crash, her own children couldn’t stand to look at her. She nearly gave up. But her faith kept her going. And that’s what makes the true story of Stephanie Nielson so inspiring!

Growing up in the foothills of Utah, Stephanie remembers climbing the Y mountain in her youth. She’d sit with her journal and write about all the blessings to come in her future life — love, marriage, a family.

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What she didn’t expect was the intense the trials on their way, too. She couldn’t know that, at 28 years old, she’d be climbing that very same mountain a year after surviving a terrible plane crash. And she’d be climbing as a very changed woman, reciting this simple prayer before beginning the trek:

“Please bless me to feel like a mother today,” her prayer went. “Please bless that I can make it up the mountain today.”

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — The Crash

By 27, Stephanie Nielson had a devoted husband and four beautiful children. She loved being a mom. But her picture-perfect life in Mesa, Arizona was about to drastically change.

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Credit: Daily Mail

On Aug. 16, 2008, Stephanie and her husband Christian took a day-long joy ride in a small Cessna airplane to New Mexico. Christian’s parents babysat the kids while Christian, a licensed pilot, flew his bride and Doug Kinneard, his flight instructor, around.

It was a great day until they stopped for fuel in New Mexico. Just after liftoff, the plane stalled and fell from the sky. After hitting some power lines, the aircraft crashed into the ground and burst into flames.

Christian escaped the burning plane first, thinking Stephanie was behind him. But it took her longer to get out, the flames and heat scorching her body all the while.

“What are my babies going to think of me?” she asked Chris Baca, a Good Samaritan tending to her as they waited for help to arrive.

As she lay on the pavement, she placed her hand on Chris’ cheek and remembers seeing burned skin hanging from her arm.

Rescuers airlifted all three passengers to the Arizona Burn Center in Phoenix, but Doug’s injuries proved to be too much. He passed away, leaving behind a wife and four kids.

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Christian and Stephanie were seriously injured but still fighting. Doctors put both into medically-induced comas while their family prayed for a miracle.

“Everyone has a lot of faith,” Stephanie’s mom, Cindy, said. “And we know that the Lord will intervene in one way or another.”

Over 35% of Christian’s body was burned. He managed to wake after five weeks, but it took even longer for Stephanie.

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Credit: Youtube/KUTV2News

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — Waiting On A Miracle

Stephanie endured severe burns to over 83 percent of her body. Doctors were doubtful she’d survive. But the family chose to put their trust in the Great Physician in Heaven.

They posted an update about the accident to the mommy blog Stephanie managed, asking all of her fans to pray. Despite the doctors’ grim outlook, the family just knew God wasn’t done.

“I said, you know, you’re going to see a miracle,” Russell Nielson, Christian’s father, said. “You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before.”

For three months, Stephanie lay in a cocoon of gauze and tubes, battling heart failure and infection, along with undergoing multiple surgeries. It’s a miracle she woke at all. But by God’s grace, she did.

While waking up may have been a blessing, it felt like a nightmare at first. For starters, there was the searing pain. On top of that, for Stephanie, it was like waking up in a stranger’s body.

“The only thing that… resembled our sister was her red toenails,” said Stephanie Nielson’s sister, Courtney Kendrick. “That’s the only way we knew.”

Stephanie didn’t recognize herself either. There was hardly anywhere on her body the fire didn’t touch.

“I remember looking — looking at my body, looking at my hands, uh, and my legs,” she said. “It was burned, and it was black and swirly with pinks and purples and I couldn’t even comprehend what my face looked like.”

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In fact, Stephanie waited weeks before summoning the courage to look in the mirror.

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — Waking As A Stranger

The burns on her face were so bad, doctors had to cut all the skin away in a process called excision. They left the raw muscle and tissue behind, adding a layer of cadaver skin to the open wounds in order to trick the body into thinking it was new skin.

“It actually starts to heal a little bit. It allows the body to retain some of the moisture that it otherwise would be just overwhelmingly losing,” Stephanie’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Salvatore Lettieri said.

Meanwhile, doctors grew cultured skin in a lab. When it was time, the lab would send “a little rectangle, about 60, 70 square centimeters, at about $2,000 a sheet” to replace the cadaver skin. Doctors used around 150 sheets on Stephanie!

With all of the changes, Stephanie wasn’t just fighting for her physical life. She was also fighting for the life she’d know before — life as a mother, a wife, and a confident woman of God.

All of Stephanie’s children were under the age of seven at the time of the crash. For months, the mother they remembered was gone, replaced with a bandaged, unconscious form connected to a ton of tubes and machines.

Now that she was awake, her severely altered appearance terrified her children. They didn’t recognize her at all.

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — The Kids Visit

5-year-old Jane was the first to enter the room and saw Stephanie first.

“I was like, ‘Hi Jane.’ And then I just will never forget her look that she gave me… And then she put her head down. She wouldn’t look at me for the rest of the time. I wanted to die,” Stephanie recalled. “It was awful to not have your own daughter not want to look at you just felt very. . . words just don’t even describe that feeling.”

Claire, the oldest child at 7, couldn’t bear to look at her mom. She’d only talk to her through a curtain.

Brave, little 3-year-old Oliver walked to Stephanie’s side and said, “Hi Mom.” Then, he climbed into bed with her and drove his toy car up and down her legs. Even though it hurt terribly, Stephanie wouldn’t let anyone stop him. For a moment, she was Mom again and it was a blessing.

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Nicholas was the youngest. He was only 18-months old when the accident occurred and turned 2 while Stephanie was in a coma. He’d been staying with Stephanie’s sister, Lucy.

Now came the ultimate rejection. Not only did Nicholas not recognize Stephanie. But as he cowered from her appearance, he threw his arms around Lucy and called her “mom.”

Stephanie desperately wanted to rekindle her relationship with her children, but her slow recovery made it extremely difficult. She struggled with even the simplest of tasks.

“Just combing my daughter’s hair, putting a little bow in her hair, or building blocks with my son, just simple things that mothers take for granted every single day… And I couldn’t do it,” she said. “So once those little things were taken away, it felt like my life was gone.”

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — The Pit Of Despair

Stephanie’s physical recovery was hard. But the deep divide between her and the family she loved so dearly was the worst. She questioned why she’d even survived. An intense depression settled over her and Stephanie started believing everyone would be better off without her.

“They don’t need me,” she thought. “I could go and it would be just fine.”

Stephanie eventually was sent home, though she first went to live with her sister, Page, who was a nurse. For the most part, she was bedridden and still struggling to find a reason to keep fighting.

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Prayers and donations to help with the astronomical medical bills poured in. Through Stephanie’s blog alone, fans raised upwards of $250,000 to help. But even with all the support and gradual improvements in Stephanie’s physical health, life didn’t seem to be getting any easier.

Christian and Stephanie, along with all their kids, finally returned to live together in the same home in February of 2009. But all the scar tissue and new skin still left Stephanie far too weak and tender to care for her family the way she wanted.

Christian did most of the work — cooking and bathing the kids, while a heartbroken Stephanie watched from the couch. In agony, she listened as Nicholas cried at the door where he’d last seen Lucy, begging for his “mom.”

Trapped in a deep pit of despair, Stephanie continued to ask God why He’d let her live. Sometimes, she even prayed that He’d just let her die.

Thankfully, God’s Word promises our Lord “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion” (Psalm 103:3-4).

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — Rescued From The Pit

It was some words of encouragement from Stephanie’s earthly father that helped her turn things around.

“He was telling me, you know, ‘This is just this in your recovery. You know, you won’t be walking like this forever. And your face is going to get better… And look at this beautiful family you created. You can’t just give up on them,” she recalled. “And you’re a mother, that’s your job, that’s what you want to do. And do it.'”

Stephanie stopped praying for death. Instead, she started asking God to help her feel like a mom again. And little by little, she did.

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Stephanie couldn’t do all the things she used to, but she started doing what she could. Reading stories, helping the kids tie their shoes. And over time, her children started recognizing the mother they used to know in the “new mom” before them.

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Credit: ABC News

Nicholas was the last to come around. He’d only let Christian tend to him at home. But Stephanie would sneak into his room and night, pleading for him to remember her.

One night, he woke up crying. Usually, Christian would go to console him because the little boy wanted nothing to do with Stephanie. But Stephanie decided to try again on this night.

She crawled into bed with Nicholas and started kissing him the way she used to. Then, something beautiful happened. The 2-year-old boy stopped crying and curled up next to his mom’s side.

True Story Of Stephanie Nielson — Loving Life Again

Each day, Stephanie grew stronger. And on the one year anniversary of the crash, she returned to the Y Mountain she’d climbed so many times in her life. Surrounded by friends, family, and even strangers who’d followed her story, Stephanie hiked all the way to the top. It was a milestone symbolizing just how far she’d come.

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Credit: Jed Wells/Nie Nie Dialogues

Stephanie Nielson’s journey has been anything but easy. And it isn’t over. Each day brings new healing, new trials, and new blessings. But this incredible woman keeps pushing forward.

The rejection she felt from her children mirrors how, as children of God, we so often reject our Heavenly Father. Yet, he still loves us and fights for us. Stephanie’s story is a wonderful example of God’s grace — of how He restores and redeems us, making beauty from ashes.

Now, embraced fully by her family, Stephanie’s continuing to live out her divine purpose as a mother. God even blessed Christian and Stephanie with another child — little Charlotte!

After surviving the unimaginable, Stephanie’s faith is even stronger. And despite all the pain, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.

On this side of Heaven, it’s impossible to figure out why horrible things like this happen. But Stephanie is able to see how God used her horrific experience to bring about so many blessings. And while each one of our struggles is different, God promises to do the same for us.

“Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

WATCH: The Inspiring And True Story Of Stephanie Nielson

The true story of Stephanie Nielson is pretty amazing. And this real-life overcomer continues to inspire others on her blog, Nie Nie Dialogues.

h.t: ABC News / AZ Central

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This story is part of a series of inspirational stories designed to uplift your day and show you God's hand at work in the world. Here are some other articles in this series that we hope you’ll enjoy!