This story was originally published on April 23, 2019, and has since been updated.
The week leading up to Christmas, people are usually running around in a hectic attempt to make sure every last gift is wrapped, letters are written, kids asleep — the list goes on. However, a different kind of Christmas miracle occurred in a small Minnesota town called Lengby.
On the night of December 20, 1980, 19-year-old Jean Hilliard got into a car accident. After spending the evening with some friends, she was driving home in her father’s Ford LTD — rear wheel drive, no anti-lock brakes — and slid into a ditch.
Hilliard knew a nearby cattle rancher named Wally Nelson. She had to act quickly so she attempted to find shelter at his place. After two miles, she spotted his house but after that, she says her memory goes blank.
A grim outlook
After a supposed six hours laying frozen in Nelson’s yard in 22-below weather, he noticed what he would soon discover was Hilliard early the next morning.
“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.” (1)
Nelson and another woman — whom he had brought home the night before — drove Hilliard to the hospital.
Doctors at Fosston Hospital kept breaking needles trying to get an IV into her frozen arms. Her pulse was a mere 12 beats per minute and her body temperature wasn’t even registering on a thermometer. Though doctors and other hospital staff didn’t give up.
They warmed Hilliard’s body with heating pads; a Christian hospital staff member got a pastor involved and began a prayer chain. In only a few hours, she regained consciousness and was chatting away soon after.
A miraculous survival?
The extreme events Hilliard experienced sound miraculous. Even Dr. George Sather, who helped treat the young woman, said: “I can’t explain why she’s alive. She was frozen stiff, literally. It’s a miracle.” (2)
However, according to Dr. Richard Iseke, who was the associate director of the Boston Emergency Medical Center in January 1981, it’s not unusual for freezing victims to make full recoveries. (3)
Dr. David Plummer, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Minnesota, confirmed that he has dealt with a dozen similar cases over the last decade.
“We have patients you can knock on like wood,” Plummer 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.” (4)
In an interview with MPR News, Plummer explained that our bodies cool down, the body requires significantly less oxygen as the blood flow slows down.
That said, the story of Jean Hilliard’s recovery is nothing short of amazing. In fact, it’s one that brought her on a tour of local churches and got her onto Tom Brokaw’s Today show in New York City, as well as an episode on the television show Unsolved Mysteries.
But, most importantly — aside from a few frostbitten toes — Hilliard has led a normal life with no health issues caused by that cold December night in 1980.
Stories like this one just go to show just how amazing the human body truly is…