May 12, 2011 — -- Stephanie Nielson loved being a mom, calling it her "divine purpose" in life. The beautiful mother of four shared her joy in her blog, the Nie Nie Dialogues, an unabashed celebration of motherhood with fans the world over.
But a plane crash left Stephanie, then 27, so injured and disfigured that it threatened to forever change her relationship with her children. At first, they couldn't even look at her. Stephanie began to wonder if they would be better off without their mom.
"I felt guilty that I didn't look like the mother that I was," she said. "I thought it would be easier if everyone just sort of forgot about me."
The crash happened on Aug. 16, 2008. Stephanie and her husband Christian had gone off on a day-long joy ride from their Mesa, Ariz., home to New Mexico in a small Cessna airplane while Christian's parents babysat the children. Christian, a licensed pilot, was flying the plane that day alongside his friend and flight instructor, Doug Kinneard. After a fuel stop in New Mexico, trouble struck just after liftoff and the plane went into a stall. The Cessna fell from the sky, smashing through powerlines, barely missing some homes. It careened out of control across the pavement and erupted in flames, leaving Kinneard and the Nielsons badly burned.
Medivac helicopters raced all three to the Arizona Burn Center at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix, but Kinneard's injuries proved overwhelming. The husband and father of four died at the hospital.
Both Stephanie and Christian Nielson were put into medically-induced comas. Stephanie Nielson's burns were so widespread that family members said they could only recognize her feet.
"The only thing that... resembled our sister was her red toenails," said Stephanie Nielson's sister, Courtney Kendrick. "That's the only way we knew."
Jaimee Rose, a reporter with the Arizona Republic, and photographer Cheryl Evans, spent months reporting on Stephanie Nielson and her family. View the series and Evans' photographs here.
Doctors said the prognosis for both Christian and Stephanie was not good. But the family, including Christian Nielson's father, believed otherwise.
"I said, you know, you're going to see a miracle," Russell Nielson said. "You're going to see something you've never seen before."
Indeed they did. After five weeks, Christian was awake and recovering.
Rousing Stephanie would take much more time.
For three months, she slept in a cocoon of gauze and tubes, undergoing countless procedures, growing new skin and healing from the crash. Finally, it was time to wake her.
Her first memory, she said, seeing "November 5th" written on a white board. Later, she saw her own body.
"I remember them doing a dressing change. And I remember looking, looking at my body, looking at my hands, uh, and my legs, it was burned, and it was black and swirly with pinks and purples and I couldn't even comprehend what my face looked like," she said.
It took her five weeks after waking up to finally look at her own reflection. Her face, as she feared, was completely transformed. Gone were her eyebrows, her bee-stung lips and her trademark freckles.
She examined her new face with a small hand mirror.
"I did it slowly, started with my lips, and went up to my head, and just sort of kind of took it all in piece by, piece by piece," she said. "It was hard, it was so hard ... but I saw my eyes, and I had eyes, and my eyelashes were there. And so I, I still felt like, you know, I, I was there."
Stephanie's new face and body were the result of months of surgeries and skin grafts by Dr. Daniel Caruso, director of the Arizona Burn Center, and Dr. Salvatore Lettieri, Stephanie's plastic surgeon.