PROVO — Stephanie Nielson says she has plenty to be thankful for this holiday season. At the top of the list is life — both hers and the new one she carries.
A little more than three years ago, Nielson and her husband, Christian, nearly burned to death in a light plane crash in Arizona.
Christian, who was flying the plane, suffered a broken back, a broken ankle and severe burns. His flight instructor died.
Stephanie, who recently spoke to several thousand at Deseret Book's "Time Out For Women" in Salt Lake City, described the terror of being trapped in her seat belt, drowning in fire.
For a split second, I thought, 'OK, this is it. This is the end of my life, and I can do this. It's going to hurt really bad for probably five more minutes, but then I'll be in heaven.'
"For a split second, I thought, 'OK, this is it. This is the end of my life, and I can do this. It’s going to hurt really bad for probably five more minutes, but then I’ll be in heaven,'" she said. "Then I remembered thinking, 'I just have to put all of my trust and faith in the Lord and he’ll take care of me. He's always done that.'"
What happened next, she said, was a sacred experience in which she chose to live, escaping from the plane with more than 80 percent of her body burned. Her next choice was the decision to recover, despite excruciating pain.
"At first I didn't want (to live)," Stephanie said. "I wanted it to end. I wanted to die."
The choice before her, she said, was decided whether to "live in despair and be sad and in pain all the time, or I could just be happy."
Then came the choice to look at her face. She recalls telling Christian she needed to be alone. Holding a mirror, she started at her neck, not recognizing it. The reaction was the same from her chin all the way up to her eyes, she said.
"I looked at myself and I saw God in my eyes," Stephanie said. "It was as if he was looking right back at me, and he was saying, 'Everything is just fine. You can see yourself, and I can see you. I know who you are, and you're beautiful to me."
That experience, she says, has made it possible to see others through their eyes and know what they've been through.
"I can see the spirit in their eyes, and I'm grateful for that knowledge," Stephanie said. "I believe it's kind of a gift I've been given."
Another gift is expected to arrive in April, when the Nielsons will welcome their fifth child.
"This is our miracle baby, for a lot of reasons," Stephanie said. "Mostly … it's a miracle we're even alive and it's even possible for us to have children. I was burned over 80 percent of my body, and the spots that are needed for childbirth weren't burned."
Still, nothing has come easy. Returning home, months after the crash, Stephanie could barely sit up. Once that was conquered, there were more challenges. She simply wanted to be a mom, but she couldn't even help her four children with buttons and zippers or make their school lunches.
"And that's what I'm really grateful for all the time, but especially this time of year — just immense gratitude for life and just the small things that life gives me," she said.
The Nielsons say their marriage has grown strong because of the experience.
I like to believe that (the accident) happened for a reason, and I like to believe I'm helping in some small way. What I can give is hope because I carry the scars that show I didn't give up." -Stephanie Nielson
"I'm so thankful that Stephanie and I approached marriage the right way, and we had a marriage that was more than skin deep," Christian said. "Not only did it survive, but our marriage and relationships thrived."
"You learn together as you grow really old," Stephanie said, "and we kind of skipped a big chunk of time. Here we are feeling like we're 80-year-olds. … Our bodies are old, they hurt and are achy, but we have been through some very incredible, spiritual moments together that you just don't take lightly."
Everyone, they say, has trials, pain and sadness. This is why Stephanie shares their story on her blog, NieNie Dialogues.
"I like to believe that (the accident) happened for a reason, and I like to believe I'm helping in some small way," she said. "What I can give is hope because I carry the scars that show I didn't give up."
Every year on the anniversary of their plane crash, the Nielsons visit doctors, nurses and staff University Hospital's burn center to express their gratitude. They also visit the patients to offer hope.