Mom Severely Burned by Bonfire Hopes to Recover in Time to Walk Son Down the Aisle: 'She's Still Fighting'

Tami Chmielewski, 51, who was burned by a bonfire while on vacation, has also declared a competition with her 1-year-old granddaughter: Who will walk first?

Tami Chmielewski.Photo: Tami Chmielewski/Facebook

Nearly a month after suffering severe burns over 30 percent of her body in a horrific bonfire incident, single mom of four Tami Chmielewski, 51, has set new goals for herself following painful skin-grafting surgery to repair her wounds.

She has declared a competition with her 1-year-old granddaughter to see who can walk first — and she's determined that, come next spring, she will walk her son down the aisle at his wedding.

Sending daily videos of the toddler's progress to Chmielewski "just keeps reminding my mom of why she's still fighting and what she has to live for," Brooklyn Hardwick, who is Chmielewski's daughter and the toddler's mom, tells PEOPLE.

"We've been really trying to stay positive and lean on God and our faith and know there is a plan and there will be something good that comes from it all, and he's got us and he's got her, and he's watching over all of us," Hardwick says. "My mom remains optimistic and eager to continue getting stronger and back on her feet."

On August 27, Chmielewski, of Gilbert, Ariz., was on vacation in Minnesota celebrating the wedding of a best friend's son. Guests who gathered at a wilderness area were surrounding a nighttime bonfire when the flames apparently flared up and her mother's clothes caught fire.

"We don't quite know what happened, I just know that the fire got larger," says Hardwick. "She stopped, dropped and rolled, and the fire wasn't going out. So one selfless human got on top of her. They risked catching themselves on fire to help."

The removal of Chmielewski's burning clothes finally extinguished the flames, but not before she incurred severe injuries to her torso and both of her legs. An ambulance carried Chmielewski to the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where she underwent grafting surgery on Sept. 8 using skin cut from her back, thighs and buttocks, Hardwick says.

Her condition has since been upgraded from serious to satisfactory, a hospital spokesman tells PEOPLE.

Tami Chmielewski.Tami Chmielewski/Facebook

Doctors told the family that Chmielewski should expect at least six months of physical therapy to recover — and on Monday, 11 days after the grafting surgery, Chmielewski took a first positive step with a therapist by sitting up on the edge of her bed, Hardwick says.

"The smallest things are the biggest wins for us right now," Hardwick adds. "Every step in the right direction leads us to more hope."

As of Tuesday, Hardwick says her mother's grafting sites were halfway healed — and her doctors are giving the family hope that she could be released and start outpatient therapy after the 30-day mark.

Still undecided is where that outpatient treatment will start. The family initially launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking help with costs for a medical flight to bring Chmielewski back to Arizona, where she lives with her teen son and Hardwick's sister. But she may remain under the care of her current medical team in Minneapolis, the home of Chmielewski's older sister, who has been a daily presence at the hospital.

Hardwick and her twin sister, both 24, and their 15-year-old brother finally were able to visit their mother briefly earlier this month.

"She hasn't seen herself and she was really worried about us seeing her, of course," says Hardwick, who is a registered nurse. "It just felt really good to be reconnected with her and be face-to-face and be able to hold her hand and tell her we love her."

"It's tricky because she needs all of the medication to keep her comfortable and she's going through a lot herself, but she's also thinking about us because she's a mom," Hardwick says.

"She's a completely independent, motivated, selfless human being. She is the glue not only to our family, but all the people in her life. If anybody is going through something, Tami is the one they go to. She brings them back down to earth, and she makes sure to ground them and also comfort and support them," she continues. "It's so weird to have her out of commission right now. We don't realize how much we depend on her."

Chmielewski, who is divorced and works for a small business that does restoration and repair work, wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday for the first time since the incident, "Thank you all for the prayers and well-wishes ... please don't stop. They are appreciated more than you know."

While in the hospital, Chmielewski missed her granddaughter's first birthday, and also the 15th birthday of her son. But she's been somewhat cheered by seeing that one her doctors is himself a burn survivor, with visible grafting scars, says Hardwick.

"That was a really encouraging moment for her," says Hardwick. Her mother's reaction: "He's a doctor, he's living his life, I will get through this," she says. "It's just a constant reminder that this is not her forever. It will be a marathon, not a sprint, but we'll get through it."

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"The doctors and nurses and the physical therapists, everyone has been amazing," says Hardwick, who wants to push the importance of fire safety as Chmielewski recovers.

"I just got a fire extinguisher this summer and I've had a fire pit for a couple of years now. Make sure that you know how to safely cut out a fire of you're going to start one," she says.

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