When Stephanie Nielson started keeping an online journal about family vacations, changing seasons and the simple joys of motherhood, she was a 23-year-old mother of three. Four years, one child and hundreds of posts later, Stephanie has become a well-known mommy blogger with thousands of followers.
Since the first post in 2005, Stephanie's uplifting, humorous stories have inspired people across the country. Now, fans of her blog, NieNie Dialogues, have one more reason to admire this devoted wife and mother of four.
On August 16, 2008, Stephanie and her husband, Christian, were flying across Arizona when the small plane they were on crashed into the desert. It exploded on impact.
Doug Kinneard, the pilot, suffered fatal injuries and died 24 hours later. Christian and Stephanie made it out alive...but just barely.
Christian says he remembers every terrifying moment of the crash. "The whole sequence of events that transpired that ultimately ended in a crash, that was frightening," he says. "But getting out and accounting for Stephanie and Doug...it was heart-wrenching and just terrible."
When the plane hit the ground, Christian broke his back and ankle, yet he still managed to wrench the door open and help Stephanie escape the burning wreckage. "I kicked a path so that we could both find an area to stop, drop and roll and extinguish the flames on our body," he says. "I had my third-grade teacher in my head."
Christian saved Stephanie's life that day, but for the next three months, no one knew what sort of life she'd be able to lead.
When flames engulfed the plane, Christian was burned on his face and neck, while Stephanie suffered severe burns on more than 80 percent of her body. She was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, and for the next 10 weeks, doctors kept her in a medically induced coma while they treated her burns.
Stephanie's husband, parents and eight brothers and sisters gathered at her bedside. "The first time we went in, she was totally covered. She looked like a mummy," says her father, Steve Clark. "All you could see was her beautiful eyes that she's always had and her toenails that were painted red."
While Stephanie was in the hospital, there was always someone at her side. Siblings slept on the floor, her mother spoke words of encouragement, and they all prayed for her recovery. "We did everything we could to make it normal and natural, as if she was among us," Steve says.
Then, in November 2008, Stephanie woke up. "I thought, 'Where have I been? What happened?'" she says. "It was very strange."
Stephanie says she had a vision while she was unconscious, and she was given a choice. "[I was] with somebody who told me that I could choose to live and have a hard life, you know, embarrassing at times and painful. Or, I could just stay there, and there's lots of work I could do there too," she says. "But I thought of my children and my husband, and it was easy. An easy choice."
Since Stephanie returned to her Utah home, very little has been easy. For the first few months she was home, she says her children didn't want to look at her or touch her.
"My redhead daughter, Jane, she came in, and it was like she saw the most terrifying person ever," Stephanie says. "I think she was expecting to come in and see Mom, and it was not Mom."
Her scars may never heal, but Stephanie says it gets a little easier every day. Despite constant physical pain, she still manages to make lunches, bathe her children and celebrate life and love.
Cindy, Stephanie's mom, says this trying time has made her tight-knit family even tighter. "We all came together because of this accident, even more so, with great love and appreciation for each other," she says. "For our understanding of eternal life that we would always be together."