OREM — On Aug. 16, 2008, a plane crash left Stephanie Nielson, then a mother of four, with burns covering more than 80 percent of her body. She was 27 years old.
Just over seven years later, Nielson, now a mother of five, offers a powerful message of faith, hope and courage.
Nielson, who gained renown from her popular blog NieNie Dialogues, shared her message Thursday afternoon at Utah Valley University. Students and members of the community filled the Grande Ballroom to capacity. In his opening remarks, UVU President Matthew Holland said he was “blown away by the turnout.”
Nielson began by expressing her love of motherhood. She married her husband, Christian Nielson, in 2000 and had her first child 10 months later.
"We continued to have children, and it felt right," she said.
At the time of the accident, Stephanie Nielson had been married for more than seven years and had four children, ages 6, 5, 3 and 18 months.
She described her first thoughts after the plane crash.
“I was in so much pain and so much fear and then my mind raced to my children," she said. "I couldn’t imagine that would be the end.”
Nielson and her husband were put into medically induced comas, with Nielson’s lasting for three and a half months.
Doctors eventually told the couple that the prognosis was not good and that it was normal for couples in these kinds of situations to even separate or get divorced. Nielson and her husband responded by simply saying, “We built our love and trust on the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Nielson discussed her time spent in the hospital upon waking up from the coma. She said she always wondered about her children. During this time, she missed two of their birthdays.
“Each day, my dream of motherhood disappeared,” Nielson said. "I didn’t even feel like a woman. I felt like a monster. How on earth could my children see me like this?”
Nielson faced these fears by deciding to look at her reflection for the very first time since the accident. Slowly making her way up to her face, she described how difficult it was to see all of her burns and her new skin. She felt as if it wasn’t even her. But then she got to her eyes.
“I saw my green eyes staring back and I saw God in my eyes,” Nielson said. "Those were my eyes, and the life I saw from them came from God.”
Nielson was finally ready to see her children for the first time. She said that this experience “ripped (her) heart out.”
They could barely look at her, and it pained Nielson that she couldn’t even hold them close without hurting her body even more. All of the simple, basic things mothers share with their children had been taken from her.
With time, meetings between Nielson and her children got better, more comfortable and natural.
“I didn’t want to be a survivor," she said. "I wanted to be a thriver. I was going to own this trial."
Nielson told the audience that how trials are dealt with is the key to whether or not they are successfully overcome. She said she made it through each day because she had "faith in something larger than herself."
She described her family as her greatest accomplishment and expressed her deep love and appreciation for her husband’s unwavering support.
Nielson explained that she and her husband are grateful for this trial in their lives because it allows them to connect with other people who are enduring challenging circumstances and to be a source of inspiration for them. She firmly believes that the lessons she learned from the plane crash and her long, painful recovery could not have been learned any other way.
Although Nielson still wakes up in pain sometimes, she said she chooses happiness each day.
“I believe that 'once upon a time' is real and 'happily ever after is true,’” she said.
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