World Congress of Families IX: Stephanie Nielson’s story of faith, family and survival

Plane crash survivor Stephanie Nielson shares her story of faith and family during a plenary session at the World Congress of Families on Friday, October 30. (Jenna Barratt)

Blogger Stephanie Nielson told delegates at the World Congress of Families on Friday that her family and faith gave her the strength to survive and keep fighting after an unexpected tragedy changed her life.

In 2008, Nielson was in a serious plane crash with her husband, Christian, and was burned over 80 percent of her body. She was in a coma for three months and afterwards underwent multiple surgeries, skin grafts and physical therapy in a painful, ongoing treatment regimen. Her recovery process caught the attention of thousands of Americans, and she now is a successful blogger and public speaker.

Nielson began by sharing her dreams of becoming a mother when she was a young girl.

After meeting her husband and with the addition of each of her four children, Nielson felt as if she was fulfilling her “divine purpose.”

But then at age 27, Nielson’s life changed forever.

Nielson said that when the plane crashed and she felt her body engulfed in flames, she knew she was going to die.

“My last thoughts were those of my children and I hugged each of them individually in my mind to say goodbye,” Nielson said.

Nielson said that the thought of her children gave her the strength to hold on. She was able to get out of the plane and then proceeded to roll and extinguish the flames.

“After rolling for what felt like forever,” Nielson remembers the sensation of being raw.

She was immediately transported to the hospital where she stayed in an induced coma for three months.

During this time, Nielson’s family was told she might not live and if she did, her life would be filled with challenges. She would not look the same, and the difficulties and complications would probably result in martial strain, if not divorce.

“Our family confidently told the medical staff that divorce was not an option and this trial would only make us stronger,” Nielson said.

When Nielson came out of her coma, she endured painful skin drafts. She described the process of scraping off the damaged skin and stapling on new skin. Cleaning the skin and grafting on new skin was a process that had to be done many times a day.

“I always closed my eyes against the onslaught of pain,” Nielson said. “I tried to go somewhere, somewhere beautiful, but most of the time it was too much for me and I just cried like a baby.”

Nielson described the recovery as long and emotional.

“I remember my wildest dreams consisted of things like cleaning the toilet,” Nielson said. “Just being able to stretch my arms and use my fingers. I just wanted to be normal.”

However, Nielson’s greatest fear was not about her own well-being, but about the effect her ordeal would have on her children.

“Each day I became more and more depressed as I felt that my dream of motherhood was being taken away from me,” Nielson said.

She reiterated multiple times how the thought of her children kept her alive, but when the time came for her children to see her face-to-face, Nielson was afraid of what their reaction would be.

“I felt more like a monster than a woman,” Nielson said. “My face scared me, I felt like I was wearing a Halloween mask. I asked myself, ‘How could my children see me like this?’”

Nielson’s youngest child was just two years old at the time.

Even through the attempts to explain what had happened, Nielson’s children were not prepared to see their mother like that. Her two-year-old son did not recognize her and her seven-year-old daughter could not take a second look for three months.

“I knew it would take a long time to reconnect with my children,” Nielson said. “But I didn’t just want to be a survivor, I wanted to be a thriver. I wanted to do everything that I used to do.”

Nielson then shared the steps she took to get her family back.

One of her greatest achievements happened one night after crying in front of the mirror at the sight of her appearance. Nielson’s husband had come in and was comforting her when they both heard their youngest child crying. Nielson knew that their little boy wanted to be comforted by her husband, and that her presence may just increase his cries.

“But that night, I just wanted to comfort him so badly,” Nielson said.

Encouraged by her husband, Nielson was the one who went in to comfort the two-year-old.

“The greatest miracle was that he let me touch him,” Nielson said. “I was filled with love and gratitude for this little boy that let me near him.”

Nielson felt more encouraged after that night and now she says her children see her as their mother.

However, that does not mean the challenges stopped. Nielson deals with some physical handicaps and other effects from the accident, but she says she makes it through by relying on her family and her faith.

“My family brought me back from the dead, because I knew to them I was irreplaceable,” Nielson said. “I made it through the crash and everyday since because I have faith in something bigger than myself.”

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