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Infection slows Sister Clain's recovery from Brussels bombing, but she is determined to finish her LDS mission

SALT LAKE CITY — Suddenly, Sister Fanny Clain was all by herself.

The explosion had knocked the tiny, 20-year-old Frenchwoman to the floor and seared the skin on her hands and head. Now, when she opened her eyes, she could see only gray and brown ashes. It was as if the three other Mormon missionaries who'd been standing with her in line for her plane tickets to the United States had disappeared.

"I was alone," she said.

That feeling of isolation persisted for hours, even when she ran out of the Brussels airport and kind rescue workers helped her and eventually transported her to a hospital. Clain had been a missionary for four months, and missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live and work in pairs. The chaos and the kindness of others couldn't make up for a yawning sense of separation.

Where were her friends?

Then, as she lay on a gurney wheeling down a corridor at the army hospital, another gurney going the other direction passed her. The man laying on it said two words.

"Sister Clain."

It was one of the other missionaries, a badly wounded 20-year-old Utahn named Elder Joseph Dresden Empey.

"I saw Elder Empey for just a second," she said. "He called my name and gave me strength. He called my name, and I was relieved. It was really important for me. Him just saying my name was one of the biggest blessings I ever saw."

Clain is supposed to be at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, right now, but two suicide bombers at the Brussels airport warped her plans. Now, 10 days after the terrorist attack, she is instead still in a Belgian hospital recovering from second-degree burns to her hands and head and two shrapnel wounds in her right leg. On Sunday, doctors discovered that one of the pieces of shredded metal had caused an infection in her blood. They started her on 10-day treatment of antibiotics.

Outside of an interview she gave French television last week, news reports have focused on the other missionaries, all Utahns. Empey, who was knocked out by the first explosion, managed to get up and round up his companion, Elder Mason Wells, 19, of Sandy, Utah, and Elder Richard Norby, 66, of Lehi, Utah. All three suffered severe burns and shrapnel wounds.

Empey and Wells returned to Utah by air ambulance this week and remain hospitalized at University Hospital's burn center in Salt Lake City. Norby, who was closest to the blast and sustained the worst wounds, is still in a Brussels hospital. Full recoveries for them could take months. All three men have been or will be honorably released from their missions early.

Clain is undeterred.

"I want to complete my mission," she said, "as soon as I am healed. Since the beginning, I was supposed to serve in Ohio, but I had to wait for my visa. I think I got called to Ohio because I have something to do there. I would like to do it."

That didn't surprise her mission companion of the previous five weeks, Sister Haylie VanDenBerghe.

"That's Sister Clain," she said. "She's very determined. I think that says she is a really strong person. She didn't let little things get to her easily, and she doesn't let big things get to her, either.

"She loves God so much, and she really wants to show him that through her work."

Clain agreed.

"I saw the hand of the Lord in my life and how much he loved me," she said, "and that I would really like to thank him, to give him something important that counts. I decided that a mission would be the tithing of my life, because I'm 20 and I would give two years. It's really 18 months, but that's how I feel."

VanDenBerghe, a 20-year-old from Riverton, Utah, who completed her mission on Wednesday, put Clain on a train from Liege, Belgium, to Brussels at 6 a.m. on March 22. VanDenBerghe was eating breakfast with a senior missionary couple when she learned about the bombing, which happened just before 8 a.m. Clain's flight had been scheduled for about 10 a.m.

"Nobody knew where Sister Clain was, so we started to really worry about her, and if she was OK."

Finally a nurse called from the army hospital. Clain and VanDenBerghe were reunited at the hospital a couple of days later.

"It was kind of a shock to see her all bandaged up like that, VanDenBerghe said. "It was kind of overwhelming. We hugged instantly and cried a little bit. It was so good to see her, and that she was well and she was smiling and happy.

"She's a very pure-spirited person who is very nonjudgmental and loves everyone. She would never cause harm to anyone, just the most sweet-natured person. I love her very much. She is a very innocent person."

Clain said her faith took root when she was 7, after her mother taught a lesson on obedience during a family home evening.

"I realized I wasn't that obedient," she said. "I went into my room and cried into my pillow and said sorry to Heavenly Father. I asked for forgiveness. I felt the Spirit. It was really warm in my heart. I realized he accepted my repentance. All my life I've felt how he has used me to help others, and how he loves us."

As a girl, she admired other Mormons.

"One of the women served a mission, so I thought that was the best thing to do if I wanted to be like her."

Clain studied leather working — shoemaking and bag making — in Montélimar, France, for two years before her mission. She is from Réunion Island, a French island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Clain's mission began Nov. 24 under a cloud of terrorism, said her first mission companion, Hannah Nelson, 20, of Farmington, Utah, a freshman at Utah State University.

"When I picked her up we had to stay in Versailles for a week before going back to Belgium because of the terrorist bombings in Paris. She was super enthusiastic, super ready to get going. She had a really positive attitude. It's clear she still does. The people loved her. She's awesome. She's an amazing missionary."

The weeks before the Brussels bombing were exciting and bittersweet. Clain and VanDenBerghe traveled from Liege to Paris on March 17 to pick up Clain's long-desired visa to the United States. She found out on March 21 that her flight to Atlanta and then on to Salt Lake City was scheduled to leave the next day.

The bombs appear only to have delayed her trans-Atlantic transfer.

They left her ears ringing and, "at first," she said, "I didn't feel the pain in my leg, but then I realized I couldn't walk any more. My burns were really bad. It was burning and burning. That was the worst."

Now the shrapnel has been removed, replaced by stitches. She has started to grow bored with the hospital. Visits from local church members bolstered her morale in the early days, and her father and aunt have been with her for several days. Her mother is arriving from Réunion Island on Saturday.

And as Mormons around the world prepare to gather Saturday and Sunday around TVs, tablets, computers and other devices to watch the faith's leaders at the 186th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Clain is aware that tens of thousands have followed her story and prayed for her.

She and the other injured missionaries were the talk of a France Paris Mission reunion on Thursday night in South Jordan, Nelson said.

"I'm grateful for all the people who are praying for me and all the elders," Clain said. "I think that's why I'm healing so fast."

"Don't be too sad," she added, "because I'm not sad, and I think it's OK and that we can trust in the Lord. He knows what happens to us, and he knows why it happens to us. If we don't know now, we will know later. It's all OK. There's no need to doubt."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com