Ice Woman

Jean Hilliard

Jean Hilliard

December 20, 1980. On bitterly cold morning in Lengby, Minnesota, a man opened his back door to find his 19-year-old neighbor, Jean Hilliard, laying in the snow. She was literally frozen solid.

The night before, Jean’s car had ran off the road and gotten stuck.  Jean was trying desperately to reach her neighbor’s house.  The temperature was twenty-five degrees below zero.

At the small local hospital, Dorothy Killian of the nursing staff was stunned: 

“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.”

Dr. Ryan Kelly was called in:

“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.”

Nurses tried to save Jean

Nurses tried to save Jean

The hospital staff was doing everything it could.  But Rosie Erickson, a hospital office worker, worried it wouldn’t be enough. She knew that Jean needed a miracle:

“I called the pastor of our church and I stated simply that Jean Hilliard from the Lengby area was brought into the hospital in a frozen condition, very critical, and that she needed prayer.”

With the blessing of the family, the word went out. A prayer chain started about 9:00 that morning.  Within 10 minutes, more than 30 people were praying for Jean.

The odds against Jean were enormous. But two hours later, Jean suddenly went into violent convulsions.  It was a good sign, but the danger was far from over.  Doctors worried that even if Jean regained consciousness she might have serious brain damage.  And the frostbite was so severe that amputating Jean’s legs seemed inevitable.  Then Jean regained consciousness:

“I woke up in the hospital about noon. Things were kind of hazy and people were asking me questions as to who I am and things like that.  And I couldn’t figure out why they were talking to me that way or why they were treating me that way. Of course, I knew these people. Of course I knew who I was. I mean, what’s the big deal?”

Sandra Klicker, Jean’s sister, was there:

“When Jeanie first came to and we knew that she was going to live, it was an extreme relief. But what was more miraculous to me was her legs recovering. Every time we lifted the sheet, we could see the white just moving down. The black was disappearing little by little, and to me, I still think that was just unbelievable.”

Jean spent 49 days in the hospital.  In defiance of everything her doctors knew about frostbite, she recovered completely.  Dr. Ryan Kelly was amazed:

“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.”

Jean credits her survival and astonishing recovery not only to the doctors and nurses who cared for her, but also to the friends and neighbors who prayed for her:

“There are other people across the nation that same night that were found in the same condition I was in. And they died. I just think without all those people that I might not have survived.”