In December 1980, 19-year-old Jean Hilliard from Lengby, Minnesota had been on her way home one night when her car skid off the road into a ditch [1]. The roads were deserted on that cold winter night, and there was no way to get help. She decided to walk to the nearest house, but that hadn’t been a very wise decision. She hadn’t been appropriately dressed to walk in a bitingly cold temperature of 22 below zero.

Two miles away from the closest ranch house where her friend lived, she collapsed and wasn’t found until 7:00 am the next day. Upon arrival at the hospital, she was stone-cold and presumed dead, but the doctors got a heartbeat. Despite their initial verdict that she’d most likely suffer brain damage and would most likely need amputation on her two legs if she survived, she made a full recovery nearly two months later.

Frozen stiffer than a board

Speaking to MPR News, Jean said she recalled her boyfriend’s best friend lived down the road from where her car had slid into the ditch. She decided to take the risk and walk over there for help [2].

“I had gone into town and met some friends,” Jean said. “I headed home about midnight. I’d get over one hill, thinking his place would be there, and it wasn’t. I was more frustrated than scared.”

The moment she spotted the house, which was still a good two miles out, she blanked out. She must have regained consciousness at some point, because she said she crawled all the way to the front yard before going into severe hypothermia, freezing beyond her wildest imaginations. She lay there, frozen solid for 6 hours before her rescuer found her at 7:00 am the next day.

Wally Nelson, a cattle rancher and butcher said to MPR that he thought the girl was dead, but he noticed signs of life and acted quickly.

“I was so damn surprised when I saw that little hunk out in the yard,” he said. “I grabbed her by the collar and skidded her into the porch. I thought she was dead. Froze stiffer than a board, but I saw a few bubbles coming out of her nose.”

He took her to Fosston hospital, with the help of his companion, where her life was saved.

No one is dead until they’re warm and dead

The words above were spoken by David Plummer, University of Minnesota professor of emergency medicine. He says that he’s actually seen a lot of cases like Jean’s over the years.

“We have patients you can knock on like wood,” he said. “They feel rock solid frozen. That in no way dissuades us from the resuscitation attempt. And we do have a track record of success with that.”

The doctors at Fosston on that 1980 night were pessimistic about Jean’s case. They couldn’t get IV needles into her. They warmed her up with heating pads and she began to thaw. They believed that even if she recovered, she’d most likely be left with permanent brain damage and her legs would have to be amputated to prevent infection.

A couple of hours later, she suffered a serious convulsion but the doctors were able to stabilize her. Surprisingly, before the day ran out, she was speaking coherently and could recognize her family and friends.

49 days later, she walked out of the hospital on her own legs and with no permanent brain damage. This is what Dr. Plummer actually considers the miraculous part.

Life after nearly freezing to death

Jean became a media hotcake since that fateful day. She’s been featured on the Today show, which was a really big deal for her, and several other media big names have interviewed her as well. She said she was expecting her life to change dramatically, but she’s lived a very normal one since then. When asked what she saw when she was in freeze mode, she said: “It’s like I fell asleep and woke up in the hospital. I didn’t see the light or anything like that. It was kind of disappointing. So many people talk about that, and I didn’t get anything.”

She’s had no problems with her health that could be linked to the extreme hypothermia she suffered many years ago. Currently, she’s divorced with kids and works at a Walmart in Cambridge, Minnesota.

Lesson learned: Do not drive on icy roads on a cold winter’s night. If your car breaks down on a deserted road and your friends and family are too far away, call 911 for help. You are truly in a state of emergency at that point.

References:

  1. Woman Found Frozen Solid Makes Incredible Full Recovery. Julia Banim. Unilad.
  2. Frozen. Thawed. Not dead: Jean Hilliard’s amazing Minnesota story. John Enger. MPR News. January 25, 2018.
  3. Hypothermia. Staff Writer. Mayo Clinic. March 13, 2019.
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