Mystery of the Minnesota Woman Who Was Totally Frozen and Survived

March 17, 2019 Updated: March 17, 2019

In 1980, a Minnesota woman named Jean Hilliard was literally frozen stiff for several hours in subzero temperatures. No, it isn’t a hoax.

Hilliard collapsed on a 22-below-zero night as she was trying to seek shelter after a car accident.

Six hours later, she was found “frozen solid” and was brought to a hospital.

According to the Montreal Gazette in one of the first reports published at the time: “She breathed shallowly two or three times a minute and her heart beat faintly eight times a minute.”

Dr. George Sather in the report said that “I thought she was dead, but then we picked up an extremely faint whimper. We knew there was a person existing then.”

Jean’s chances of surviving were quite slim, and her body temperature didn’t even register on a thermometer, meaning her body temperature was less than 80 degrees F.

Snopes, the hoax-debunking website, who rated the story of Hilliard as “true,” featured this image, which has now been associated with Hilliard’s account

“There was no evidence of a pulse or blood pressure,” Sather’s brother, Dr. Edgar Sather, told the Gazette at the time.

“Her body was too frozen to find a vein to get a pulse.”

According to AP, it was too cold to give her an IV as “she was frozen too solid to penetrate the skin,” Edgar Sather said.

(The Montreal Gazette - Dec 30, 1980(
(The Montreal Gazette – Dec 30, 1980)

But she ended up making an unusual and miraculous recovery.

”At worst, I might lose a couple of toes,” she told AP at the time.

”I can’t explain why she’s alive,” said Dr. Sather, who helped treat the woman. ”She was frozen stiff, literally. It’s a miracle.”

About a month and a half later, Hilliard walked out of the hospital alive and healthy.

Sather added: ”The reaction didn’t appear until two or three hours after she started thawing out. The body was cold, completely solid, just like a piece of meat out of a deep freeze.”

Many of the stories about her recovery say that electric heating pads and oxygen tanks were responsible.

According to one account:

“Mrs. Erickson hurried to her office and made a phone call to the prayer chain chairman at the Baptist church where her husband is pastor. The prayer chain was set in motion.

The prayer chain was lengthening. Mrs. Erickson called the pastors of the Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Bethel Assembly churches in Fosston. They, in turn, called the chairmen of their prayer chain groups, who passed the word along.

During the first hours that the prayer chain was underway, my legs and feet, instead of getting darker as Dr. Sather expected, started to lighten and regain their natural color. One after another, the doctors and nurses filed in to marvel at the pinkish tinge appearing at the line of demarcation where the darkness started on my upper thighs — the place where Dr. Sather said he thought they might have to amputate.

The prayer chain spread to the nearby towns of Crookston and Bemidji, and into Grand Forks, North Dakota. Soon hundreds, then thousands of people were aware that a young woman had been brought in to the Fosston hospital frozen solid and was in desperate need of God’s miraculous healing.”

Dr. Richard Iseke said in 1981 that it’s not uncommon for freezing victims to make full recoveries. “There’s a term we have that says no one is dead until he’s warm and dead,” he said.

However, Hillard’s story isn’t unheard of, as the Washington Post published a story saying a Pennsylvania man, Justin Smith, almost froze to death. He was out in the cold for 12 hours after passing out, and his body temperature got to a frosty 68 degrees F.

RECOMMENDED