When she brings her lips to her infant daughter’s soft little cheeks, Stephanie Nielson remembers all over again – she was made for this.
“Everything I enjoyed as a mother before the accident,” says the 31-year-old mom of five, “is just as wonderful as ever.”
But four years ago, as she clung to life in a Utah burn center after the small plane carrying her and her husband, Christian, crashed in St. Johns, Ariz., the popular mommy blogger didn’t know if she’d ever know the joys of having another baby.
A Life-Altering Moment
On a perfect summer afternoon four years ago, Stephanie Nielson’s life changed forever.
As on so many days, she felt she lived a charmed life. She kissed her children – serious Claire, feisty Jane, inquisitive Oliver and baby Nicholas – left them with her mother-in-law and joined Christian for a ride in the Arizona sky.
One minute he was taking the twin-engine plane into the clouds; the next they were bracing for impact. After that came a crash, a fire and a death-defying crawl out of molten airplane wreckage. Her face was destroyed; burns covered more than 80 percent of her body.
In that moment, Stephanie lost her health, her beauty and the idyllic existence she’d chronicled on her blog. “I lost my sense of who I was,” she says. “I felt I had nothing.”
But after battling through months of pain and despair, she again found joy in the simple things and discovered what really made life worth living. Her journey has culminated in a book that spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, Heaven Is Here, published in April.
After the crash she spent 4½ months in the hospital, much of it in a medically induced coma. “They didn’t think she’d make it,” says Christian, who is now back at work selling life insurance. Seriously injured, with a broken back, he had burns on 40 percent of his body and the right side of his face. (Copilot Doug Kinneard, 48, died shortly after the crash.)
At first Stephanie was unable to accept what had happened. “I refused to look in the mirror,” she says. Finally, one night, alone in her hospital room, she picked one up. She recognized her vivid green eyes, but the face gazing back at her was that of a stranger. “I thought, ‘That’s me?’ My head was shaved, I had no hair, no eyelashes, sores all over my face. It was scary.”
The worst was yet to come. Toward the end of her hospital stay, Christian brought the kids to see their mom for the first time since the crash. “They came in expecting to see me,” says Stephanie. “They didn’t recognize me with all the burns and scars. When I called them over for a hug, they were afraid. It was awful.”
After the kids left, she broke down: “I literally felt my heart breaking. I wanted to die. I couldn’t see all I had to live for.”
Adjusting at Home
Years before the crash, Stephanie had started posting updates about funny, poignant moments with her kids. It caught on, and, before the accident, she had a following of 150,000. After, it exploded as Stephanie wrote with astonishing candor about her struggles to accept herself and reclaim her life as a mother and wife.
Over time, the children warmed up.
But Stephanie struggled to reconnect with her husband. Their doctors said that “with accidents like this, it usually ends in divorce,” she reflects. “They didn’t think we’d stay married.”
Head cheerleader in high school and nicknamed Snow White for her raven-haired, fair-skinned looks, “I [used to feel] beautiful all the time,” Stephanie says. For months after the crash – or AC, as she and Christian call it – she avoided her husband’s gaze. “I couldn’t even kiss him because it hurt,” she says. “I threw away my swimsuits. I felt I’d never be cute or sexy again.”
But Christian patiently wooed his wife, leaving notes and assuring her. “I courted her all over again,” he says. “But I knew Stephanie had an inner depth that she could fall back on.”
These days she’s back to where she started: doing art projects with her kids, celebrating birthdays with balloon launches, and cherishing a new baby girl, Charlotte, who was born April 3rd – the same day her book was released.
“I have relied on Christian more than ever,” Stephanie recently told PEOPLE. “We have cherished this new addition and held our little family closer than ever before.” Her kids Claire, now 11, Jane, 9, Oliver, 7, and Nicholas, 5, “have also been a big help,” she says.
Another benefit to her pregnancy: a new, flat belly. Using the abdominal skin stretched during her pregnancy, doctors were able to replace painful scarred areas on her stomach, a huge “relief,” she says. “It feels so much better, the pain is gone in that area.”
Though more surgeries await – she’ll need reparative work done on her hands, nose and lips – for now, Stephanie is feeling well, and relishing time with her newborn.
“I have had to adapt a few of my mothering skills to accommodate this new body of mine,” she recently told PEOPLE. “Bathing Charlotte has been hard with my stiff burned hands, burping her over my shoulder is sometimes difficult with the scarring on my neck, and kissing her is different with my tender lips. But it’s all the same – beautiful.”
Just the fact she gets to kiss this little girl at all is a miracle, she says, and a gift. “I’m alive,” says Stephanie. “I’m able to enjoy my children. I have everything.”
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