Finding a girl frozen solid, he knew she was dead. But he was wrong.
Anyone who has ever spent time in Minnesota during one of its famously frigid winters wouldn't dream of going for a long walk at night, let alone without a hat on. One would risk freezing to death. But that's exactly what then 19-year-old Jean Hilliard of Lengby did on December 20, 1980. And as for freezing to death, well...
Of course, that wasn't how she had planned her evening. She was driving home after visiting a friend when her car skidded on the ice and lodged itself in a snowbank. She had spotted a farmhouse not far away, so didn't think she would need her hat and left it in the car.
The thermometer that evening was at -22°F, but to a hardy Minnesotan who has experienced temperatures well into the -60°s, that's no cause for panic. She didn't have far to go. Unfortunately, however, the residents at the nearby farm weren't at home. She decided to continue on to the next farm along the road.
But the second farm was also empty. Perhaps overestimating her hardiness, she trudged on. She walked another two miles in the subfreezing and snowy conditions. The cold began biting into her, making every step excruciating, but she had to keep going. Eventually, at one o'clock in the morning, she reached the driveway of Wally Nelson. That was when she lost consciousness.
For six terrible hours, Jean Hilliard lay unconscious and unseen in the snow while the ice-cold temperatures slowly, but surely, froze her.
Bright and early the next morning, as he was about to head off to work, Wally Nelson spotted the frozen figure in his driveway. “What a shocker it was,” he said. “There she lay — and only 15 feet from my door. Her face was ghost-white and her body was as stiff as pulpstick.” She was surely dead. But then he heard a faint moan.
He wasted no time loading Jean's hardened body into the backseat of his car and headed straight for the hospital.
Brothers George and Edgar Sather were the attending physicians at Fosston Municipal Hospital on that day. They too thought Jean was dead. Her vital signs were not registering; there was no evidence of a pulse or blood pressure, and her pupils were completely dilated. ''The body was cold, completely solid, just like a piece of meat out of a deep freeze,'' Dr. George Sather reported. But, like Wally Nelson, he heard "an extremely faint whimper" and knew there was hope of saving her.
Jean was treated with oxygen and placed under an electric heating pad. Intravenous feeding didn't begin until that afternoon because the doctors couldn't penetrate her frozen skin.
After a full day under the heating pad, Jean's body temperature returned to normal. "At first the doctors told me there wasn't much hope," Jean's mother recalled. "Then they said she'd survive, but she'd probably lose both her legs."
Surprising everyone, Jean didn't lose her legs. She didn't lose any limbs at all. In fact, she went on to make a full recovery. "I don't see how anyone with those vital signs could last that long, much less recover this way. It's incredible," Dr. Edgar Sather remarked. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see a young girl come back to life like this."
Jean's recovery lasted 49 days. When she had arrived at the hospital, her body temperature couldn't be measured because it was lower than the thermometer's minimum reading of 80°. However, a survival such as hers — while remarkable — isn't unheard of. The lowest recorded body temperatures ever survived without brain damage were in the mid- to high 50°s. Dr. Richard Iseke of Boston Emergency Medical Center said, "There's a term we have that says no one is dead until he's warm and dead."
Jean, who today owns a wedding dress store, is certainly exceptionally lucky in one key respect, that Wally Nelson was an early riser! There's no doubt that had he not rushed her off to the hospital when he did, this story would be a much sadder one.
Stay warm out there, folks!