by jeanette bennett • photography by kenneth linge
styling by Dear Lizzie
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One of the first questions Stephanie Nielson asked when she woke up from a 10-week medically-induced coma was, “Will I be able to have more children?”
The doctors were focused on healing the burns covering 80 percent of her body and managing the narcotics needed for nerve pain after the plane crash in August 2008. They told her having more children probably wasn’t in the cards for her.
She wouldn’t accept the answer she’d been dealt, so she did what any frail 27-year-old wife and mother of four who nearly died in a plane crash would do: she bought her own “card table” with sturdy seating for eight.
“I’m going to fill up this table,” Stephanie says. “It is possible for us to have more children, and I’ve been working on getting off my medications so my body can be ready.”
Stephanie’s house of hope is speckled with signs of life like the white wooden table for eight. She has white pots with plants in varying stages. Bright artwork adorns the walls and floors. And there are sounds — mostly of children slamming screen doors and chasing Jimmy, the dog. But there’s also the music of Stephanie’s fingers — now gloveless — typing on her Mac laptop.
The readers who sent her thousands of messages of hope are now on the edge of their seats as they turn to nieniedialogues.com for inspiration.
From Pain to Gain
The small plane crash killed the pilot and also burned Stephanie’s husband, Christian, significantly but less severely. But it didn’t torch the Nielsons’ souls. It enhanced Stephanie’s sense of self and her identity as a mother.
Miraculously, Stephanie’s reproductive organs were untouched; she didn’t break any bones; her cognitive functions are in tact. And her pain, although ever present, is manageable. In fact, Stephanie isn’t worried about enduring the aches and pains of pregnancy — she aches for them.
“It may sound selfish, but I really want to do it,” she says.
Stephanie will not only need maternity paneling on her pants; she’ll also need panels of skin throughout her pregnancy to adjust for non-elastic parts of her stomach. But this experience will simply add to Stephanie’s “branches.”
“I like to compare life to a pine tree,” she says. “Every year we get taller, and experience makes our tree fuller. We’re extending, we’re reaching out.”
This growth analogy became clear to Stephanie as she spent week after week in the hospital.
“That time in the hospital was my temple, my sacred moments,” she says. “Those experiences helped my tree to grow.”
Five months after the crash, Stephanie resurfaced as a blogger with a post headline of “NewNie.” She feels this same sense of newness and possibility with the turning of the calendar.
“A new year for me is a milestone,” Stephanie says. “My new life is a good one. It’s a happy one, and I look forward to progress such as a new year. Life just keeps getting better for me.”
In fact, Stephanie feels “honored” that she was chosen to go through this.
“I feel like God trusted me enough and knew I could do this and learn from it — and teach others,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have said that last year — time really does heal a lot of things.”
Time is exactly the kind of thing Stephanie now appreciates fully. A new day. A new month. A new year.
“As a family, we’re going to do things full force — nothing skimpy around here,” Stephanie says of their 2011 plans. “We’re going to make our goals.”
Stephanie’s personal resolutions include writing birthday cards to her friends, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters. And with two large families — Stephanie is the 8th of nine siblings and Christian is the 8th of 11 — that is no small task.
“But little things make life happier,” she says. “Like sending and receiving mail.”
Stephanie still gets teary thinking about the mail she woke up to post-coma.
“This is a good world we live in,” she says. “There are good people everywhere, and I was lucky to be a recipient of their faith and kindness.”
It’s a Blog’s Life
The family blogging tradition began when brother Christopher e-mailed the family in 2005 and introduced them to the idea of blogging. A talk by Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church also influenced Stephanie to blog.
“I was living in New Jersey, and I thought it would be a great way to keep up with everybody,” Stephanie says. “I immediately saw it as a creative way to share my family — like my own magazine about us.”
She wrote about her children. She wrote about her neighbor with marital problems. She wrote about birthdays and milestones.
But not every post — or accompanying responses — equaled blogging bliss.
“There have been many times I was going to quit, but then someone would say ‘thanks for writing,’ and I would keep going,” she says. “Tender mercies brought me back to it again and again.”
And then the accident. And then 10 weeks in a coma. Stephanie’s sister Courtney (blog.cjanerun.com) kept the world “posted” while her younger sister slept. When Stephanie woke up, her doting family encouraged her to blog again.
“But I thought I was done with that,” she says. “That was the old me, and I was a new person. I didn’t feel worthy enough.”
More tender mercies. Stephanie uttered many prayers while lying on a hospital bed trying to find herself behind the burns.
“In the past I had prayed but not always listened afterwards,” she says. “But in the hospital, I would pray and then I couldn’t move, so I would get inspiration. And a lot of my thoughts came back to the blog. And now I see the blessings of keeping nieniedialogues going.”
But Stephanie doesn’t blog for her millions of readers. Or for her husband. Or for the LDS Church. Or for herself. (She handwrites in a personal journal every night.)
“I honestly write my blog for my kids,” she says. “I think they are going to love it someday, and they’ll see it as our family journey. It helps me realize things aren’t as bad as they seem.”
Stephanie’s positivity positively oozes from her keyboard, and it’s not an act.
“I feel like I’m genuine on the blog,” she says. “I’m more ‘me’ now than ever.”
Although Stephanie doesn’t consider herself a “review blogger,” she has Oprah-esque power when it comes to spotlighting products and driving traffic.
“When people send me things and I find them helpful, I want to share,” she says. “Most people I write about are creators out of their homes — they are self-made women. I love that moms can be entrepreneurs.”
The Mighty Oprah
When the invitation to meet the ultimate entrepreneur (Oprah) was extended in 2009, Stephanie had an atypical reaction.
“I didn’t want to be on national TV,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to know what I looked like. I kept the blinds closed, and my kids were having a hard time with how I looked. People told me they were nervous to see me, and that broke my heart because before the accident I was confident and felt pretty.”
Stephanie prayed and decided to accept the invitation. The Oprah episode aired in October 2009.
“After I was on Oprah, I didn’t care so much about my image anymore,” she says. “Everyone saw what I looked like on the show. I got that painful task over with. If people still wanted to be around me then I felt comfortable with that. I realized I shouldn’t be ashamed. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I became grateful to be alive.”
In addition to her on-stage appearance in Chicago with Oprah, Stephanie also entertained Harpo’s camera crews when Oprah flew out a disgruntled mother to spend the day with Stephanie.
“I tried to ignore the cameras and be a real woman with a real life,” Stephanie says. “I didn’t go overboard cleaning my house in preparation. I wanted it to be genuine. I didn’t want it to feel staged or silly.”
The two mothers shared an emotional conversation in Stephanie’s Provo hallway as they looked at the “before” picture of Stephanie’s family. Stephanie created a “mother bond” with the other woman, and the two keep in touch.
Even still, that long day in the eye of the camera wore Stephanie out. Around 3 p.m., she went into her room and lay on the bed.
“The novelty of it had worn off by that point,” she says. “I’m not a performer. I’m not an actress. I don’t do those kinds of things.”
But she has. And she does. When the show aired, a Utah TV station wanted to film her watching the show. So her extended family gathered to laugh and cry while they watched themselves.
The Nielsons have referred to their lives as BC and AC (before crash and after crash).
“Wow! I had a great life. I liked the way I was back then. It was wonderful,” she says. “When I compare my two lives, they really are similar. And now I’m trying to be better than I was back then. I have more zest for life. It was almost taken away from me, and now I do everything with purpose. I teach my children how grateful we are for our bodies. I am fully aware that in one day it could have all been gone — and my children would not have had parents. So I try to tell them every day why we love our lives and why we are so happy.”
Stephanie has always had a thing for happy. She loves to celebrate, to host parties, to entertain.
“There’s just something inside me that makes me want to do it even better — to entertain with more meaning and inspiration,” she says.
No need to set that as a 2011 resolution. Her readers from the past six years keep clicking back for meaning and inspiration that comes in the form of Stephanie’s pictures of her PJ-clad children. With more than 3 million hits a month, Stephanie’s blog is an influential media outlet. (The Daily Herald’s website — harktheherald.com — gets nearly identical traffic.)
Tale of two states
At the time of the crash, the Nielsons were living in Arizona where Christian was working as a facilities manager at Boeing.
“I was so happy because he was so happy — we were near his family, and my kids loved it,” Stephanie says.
After the crash, Stephanie’s parents and siblings took turns flying from Utah to Arizona. Between the Clarks and the Nielsons, someone was always at her side. But Stephanie knew of the sacrifices her siblings were making to leave behind their large families.
“I felt I would heal better if we could bring our kids to Utah and be with my family,” she says. “My sister is a nurse and has been a big part of my care.”
The Nielsons purchased a home two blocks from where she grew up in the tree streets east of BYU. Stephanie’s kids attend the same elementary school that she did.
“I’m living my childhood over again,” she says.
She is mindful of how she was raised and how she wants to be remembered. Stephanie doesn’t want her kids growing up picturing her as a burn victim behind a laptop.
“My mom was always there for us,” Stephanie says. “I want my kids to feel the same about me.”
Her blogging routine usually begins at 8:30 or 9 p.m. when the kids are in bed. Christian keeps her company and watches TV while she types up her thoughts and chooses photos to share. Although she occasionally has Christian pre-read her posts, for the most part it’s all-Stephanie all-the-time.
“I’m not a professional writer in any way,” she says. “But I share what comes from my heart.”
Stephanie gets noticed in the Target aisles — both by people who know who she is and by children who don’t know why she is.
“People are sweet and introduce themselves and share how my story has affected them,” she says. “That makes me so happy. But children have a hard time looking at me. That’s difficult. I don’t want to embarrass my kids or have them avoid bringing friends over because of how I look.”
As a 1999 Provo High graduate, Stephanie made the most of the teen scene. She was head cheerleader and involved in student government and basketball — mostly because of her parents’ encouragement to leave the house and her comfort zone.
Stephanie says she wasn’t a natural student and would have preferred staying home running errands with her mom. Her English teachers didn’t spot an influential writer — at least that’s Stephanie’s self-graded recollection — even though she did take AP English.
“I never imagined being known as a writer, speaker or business woman,” she says. “I wanted to be a mom and have babies, and I thought about that all day long.
Stephanie’s love for her children is patterned after the parenting she received from Steve and Cindy Clark. One poignant anecdote from her blog describes snuggling up between her parents while her dad feeds her taffy from his nightstand and her mom rubs her back.
“Our parents let us be who we are, and all of us are different,” Stephanie says.
When the Clark siblings (namely Courtney and Stephanie) get together, there’s blog talk.
“Why do we do this?” they ask each other, especially after one of them gets a hateful e-mail.
“We work through our feelings about the negativity directed at us and then forget about it,” Stephanie says. “It’s therapy for us.”
The most hurtful comments accuse Stephanie of using her blog for show or to exploit her children.
“I wish they could come over and I could talk to them,” she says. “I shouldn’t care, but I do.”
“Caring” might as well be the Clark family’s middle name. Stephanie’s father served five terms as a state representative. He had an unsuccessful run for Provo mayor in 2009. Stephanie’s mother served as a Provo City councilwoman.
Now the couple serves as LDS mission presidents in Missouri. With 1,300 miles of separation between Provo and St. Louis, the Clark connection happens via technology. Stephanie talks to or texts her mom every day.
Fashion forward and backward
Stephanie’s penchant for style began BC.
“It’s always been ‘me’ to have a style,” she says.
But after the accident, she didn’t feel like “me.” Her style was to avoid talk and thoughts of life before. When the altered Nielson family first moved back to Utah, Stephanie didn’t want to unpack her stylish things because it reminded her of the “old me.” The family ate on paper plates in an undecorated home.
“Nothing looked appealing to me,” she says. “I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to get dressed. I didn’t care about anything.”
Stephanie remembers the day she got back in style. She walked into her front room and saw a perfect place for a Christmas tree. She began decorating the room in her mind.
“All of a sudden, I woke up,” she says. “My siblings came and helped me bring out boxes and put things up because my hands were bandaged.”
Although Stephanie is a household URL, she doesn’t consider herself a speaker. But she’s stood at many-a-microphone the past two years — and she’s on the 2011 Time Out For Women schedule for Deseret Book.
“I don’t want audiences to expect a good speaker,” she says. “I have stories to share, but I’m not a professional. I had an accident, and that’s my only qualification.”
She is, however, a pro at wrapping audiences around her story and her voice, which reveals more emotion than nervousness.
“The experiences are still very fresh and real for me,” she says. “It’s hard to share those emotions with people.”
Although Stephanie tries to limit her speaking engagements to one per month, she particularly enjoys speaking to medical groups, including the BYU nursing students.
“I wanted to share with them what I loved about my nurses and what I didn’t so much love about my nurses,” she says. “I am always willing to talk to medical groups. They are the ones who were so patient with me and have helped me through this ordeal. I feel it’s my duty to speak to them.”
Through her blog, Stephanie is one of the most prolific spokespersons the LDS Church has. Over Thanksgiving 2010, she was in St. Louis visiting her parents. She announced a Sunday-night fireside on her blog a couple of hours before the prelude music started. A handful of non-LDS blog readers saw the post immediately and came to hear her — along with hundreds of missionaries and area members.
But Stephanie doesn’t seek out publicity. In fact, she’s asked her brother to sort through requests so she doesn’t have to.
“I’m content and happy at home,” she says. “I am not searching for reasons to do more than that.”
She did travel the short distance from her home on Provo’s tree streets to kick off the “Recapturing Beauty” campaign at the BYU Women’s Services and Resources Center last fall. She shared her definition of “beauty.”
“I used to love to get dressed up and fuss over things,” she says. “After the accident, I pretty much didn’t have a face. I feel bad for women who don’t believe they are special. We are all beautiful.”
With her AC-perspective, Stephanie worries women place too much emphasis on trying to be physically perfect.
“Some women exercise all day or go to the salon and spa constantly, but we should always put our family before those things,” she says.
As Stephanie watched the calendar flip by from her hospital bed, she worried about her children.
“I had heartache and guilt,” she says. “Another holiday would go by without me at home with my children.”
Jane, in particular, had a hard time with her mom’s new look. But with the help of family, neighbors and church-goers, the four children faced their mother and their new lives.
“Children come with amazing spirits, and they are so resilient,” she says. “Our kids aren’t going to blame us for having trials. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up as mothers when we are doing as good of a job as we can.”
She wishes she would have known that truth in the hospital two and a half years ago. But she knows it now, and “now” is the new NieNie.
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