This is the captivating story of a lady who literally froze up after collapsing on an icy night. She fell unconscious and lay frozen stiff in the snow for six hours, only to defrost a little later in hospital and lived to see another day.
Jean Hilliard was 19 years old at the time when she froze up that night in Lengby, Minnesota. It was just days before Christmas, on the 20th of December, 1980, when she had been visiting a friend. As Hilliard was driving home, her vehicle started slipping abruptly on the icy road. She was unable to take control of the vehicle and crashed into a ditch.
Hilliard luckily escaped unhurt. She knew that if she stayed in the car, she would certainly die in the freezing cold, which was -22ºF (-30ºC). So, she decided to walk to the nearest farmhouse to seek shelter, according to a report published by Montreal Gazette on Dec. 30, 1980. Leaving her hat behind, she took along her mittens and winter coat before embarking on the journey.
Unfortunately, there was nobody in sight at the farmhouse. Walking against the wind, Hilliard trudged to the second farmhouse, but the house was unoccupied.
Hilliard braved the blustery wind and snow until at last, she saw her friend Wally Nelson’s house. She fell a few times and crawled the last few feet till she got to the bottom of the driveway leading up to the house. She was filled with relief; however, her body could not stand the bitter cold for another minute, and she dropped to the ground instantly with her eyes still open.
She collapsed at the bottom of the driveway at around 1 a.m. after walking 2 miles (approx. 3 km) in the snow.
It was only six hours later at 7 a.m. before Wally Nelson found her. When Nelson opened his front door to leave home for work at the Fosston Locker Plant the following morning, he saw Hilliard lying on the ground like an icicle. She was literally frozen solid like a human ice sculpture. Her eyes were open and glassy.
Nelson thought Hilliard was dead. “What a shocker it was. There she lay—and only 15 feet from my door,” he told Montreal Gazette. “Her face was ghost-white and her body was stiff as pulpstick. I figured she was dead. But then I thought I heard a slight moan. I rushed her to the hospital.”
"The body was cold, completely solid, just like a piece of meat out of a deep freeze."But as she began to thaw out, they noticed she was breathing.
Hilliard was taken to the Fosston Municipal Hospital at 8 a.m. Doctors had never come across anything like it before and were at a loss at how to administer medication, as she was frozen rock solid. Injections could not penetrate her frozen body. Her body temperature was probably less than 80 degrees F (approx. 27 degrees C) as it didn’t register on a thermometer.
Her mouth was stiff and frozen shut so they could not administer oral medication. “None of her joints were moving. Her eyelids were frozen solid and her eyes didn’t respond to light.” Dr. George Sather told The NEWS. “She was frozen stiff, like a piece of meat out of a deep freeze.”
The doctors, however, did detect a faint and slow heartbeat of 8 beats a minute. “She breathed shallowly two or three times a minute and her heart beat faintly eight times a minute,” as per Montreal Gazette.
All doctors could do for Hilliard was give her oxygen and wrap her in electric heating pads with 102-degree F (approx. 39-degree C) circulating water around her body so as to raise her body temperature. “We held her hand and we kept calling her name, praying for a response,” her mother, Bernice Hilliard, said.
On the night of Dec. 20, 1980, 19-year-old Jean Hilliard’s car hit the ditch. She tried to walk for help. She was found in the morning in the front yard of a local cattle rancher — frozen solid as a log.
— MPR News (@MPRnews) January 25, 2018
Finally, at 1 p.m., Hilliard started showing signs of life. As the family kept talking to her gently, she finally came to and asked for water. Slowly but surely, she regained feeling in her hands and arms that night. By the 3rd day, she could move her legs.
To her doctors’ astonishment, no amputations were necessary, and prognostication of Hilliard losing both her legs was proven wrong. “It was a miracle. I’ve seen a lot of people frozen like that, but I’ve never seen a case where major amputation wasn’t required,” Dr. Sather said.
“I have never heard of respiration any lower than 12 breaths per minute, much less two or three. And I have only seen heart beats down in the 30s (per minute) right after heart attack,” he told Montreal Gazette.
Hilliard spent six days in the intensive care unit before being moved to a private room. On day 49, she was released from the hospital. Her icy ordeal was past, and she was ready to return home to her family.
This case is really strange—how did Jean Hilliard survive six hours in -22ºF and come out of it safely? Does she perhaps have a guardian angel looking out for her?
Hilliard’s unbelievable recovery might be deemed a “miracle” by her doctors. However, as Spartanburg Herald reported in January 1981, Dr. Richard Iseke, the then-associated director of the Boston Emergency Medical Center, said such “miracles” are not uncommon.
“There’s a term we have that says no one is dead until he’s warm and dead,” Dr. Iseke said. Surely, Hilliard was incredibly lucky to survive, but he added: “There are numerous case reports in the medical literature of people who have survived (with interior body temperatures) as low as 68 or 69 degrees.”
One other such “miraculous” case happened a few years ago on the morning of Feb. 21, 2015. Justin Smith, then-25, of McAdoo, Pennsylvania, came back to life weeks after he was found lying in the cold for almost 12 hours, according to the Washington Post. His body temperature dropped to below 68 degrees F. But unlike Hilliard, Smith’s pinkies and all of his toes were amputated due to frostbite.
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