Many presumed that she would definitely die. She survived.
On December 20, 1980, 19-year old Jean Hilliard from Lengby, Minnesota was involved in a car accident which rendered it inoperable in sub-zero temperatures. It was bitterly cold and the engine couldn’t be restarted.
Hilliard decided to walk to her friend Wally Nelson’s house which was 2 miles (3.2 kilometres) away. She almost made it, but unfortunately collapsed just 15 feet outside from the door.
The temperature dropped to −22 °F (−30 °C) and Hilliard was found the next morning at 7am. Her body was literally “frozen solid”, after being out there in the cold for six agonizing hours.
She was immediately taken to Fosston Municipal Hospital.
THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE SITUATION
Her skin had become so hard that doctors couldn’t pierce it with hypodermic needles. The body temperature was too low to be registered on a thermometer. Her face was ashen and her solid eyes showed no response to light. The pulse was slowed to approximately 12 beats per minute. The presence of alcohol in her system was attributed to the fact that her organs remained unfrozen, thereby preventing permanent damage.
“She was so cold, it was like reaching into a freezer, like picking out a frozen stick of wood. Her face was absolutely white. Just this ashen, death look. We did hook her up to the monitor, and we got this agonal rhythm– like one beat. It was just like one and nothing. Then two. We knew that we had something, but that’s a death rhythm.”
-Dorothy Killian of the nursing staff
“She was severely frostbitten. None of her limbs would bend or move. And, really, things looked very grim. When a person gets frostbite, what we’re basically talking about is freezing of the limbs. That actually means ice crystals forming in the cells, and in so doing, they destroy many of the cells of the body. After the hands and feet maybe start the initial stages of frostbite and the core temperature of the body drops, the heart, the lungs, the internal organs of the abdomen, the brain, when those start to cool, it becomes more and more difficult for them to perform their functions, until finally they stop. At that point, the patient would more than likely die.”
-Dr. Ryan Kelly
The doctors were worried that even if Jean did regain consciousness, which again seemed like a remote possibility, she might have serious brain damage. Furthermore, the frostbite was so severe, that many thought that amputation was inevitable.
After hours of being warmed up an electric blanket and heating pads, Hilliard began to revive. Three days later, she was able to move her legs again.
Despite beliefs that what she had gone through would definitely cause death, Jean Hilliard was discharged after 49 days in the hospital.
She was reported to not having suffered an permanent damage to the brain or body.
“It was enough that she survived. That was a wonderful enough thing. But to have this added gain of not losing any fingers or toes, and in fact, just having what I guess would be minor scars, this is remarkable.”
-Dr. Ryan Kelly
Her survival and recovery was described as a “miracle”.