19-Year-Old Jean Hilliard’s Unsolved Frozen Mystery

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Literature brims with stories of ‘medical marvels’, most of which tend to have a perfectly reasonable and often mundane story behind them, but some medical marvels are the real deal. Of these genuine medical miracles perhaps none is as fantastical and truly astonishing as the story of Jean Hilliard.

Hilliard was on route to a friend’s house in the winter of 1980 in the snowy state of Minnesota when her car skidded off onto an isolated gravel road. In the middle of nowhere, and with no vehicle, Hilliard had no choice but to brave the treacherous journey to her friend’s house which entailed walking for several miles in sub-zero temperatures as the snow lay thick on the ground. She made a valiant effort, but eventually, the snow proved to be too much for her, and she collapsed on the ground a mere sixteen feet from her intended destination.

When her friend, Nelson, opened the door at one o’clock in the morning he discovered Hilliard’s body. He said that she was quite literally frozen solid and as white as a ghost. He called the ambulance, and she was immediately admitted to hospital.

The doctors assessed Hilliard when she arrived, but she was so cold that normal thermometers were failing to even register a reading. They estimated that her temperature had fallen below -30 degrees Celsius and her heart rate had sunk to under twelve beats a minute. They couldn’t even insert a needle to aggressively heat her body because her veins had constricted to such an extent in the freezing cold temperatures. Instead, the medical staff wrapped her in a thermal blanket and simply hoped for the best. The doctors were gloomy about the prognosis. Even if she managed to survive, which they considered deeply unlikely, it was thought that Hilliard had suffered such extreme damage that she would have to be given a double limb amputation and she would suffer severe brain damage.

Then twelve hours later, something astonishing happened. Hilliard regained consciousness and asked for a glass of water. By that same evening, she had regained control of her hands and arms, and after three days she was able to walk again. After less than a week in an intensive care unit, she was discharged from the hospital. The doctors said that they couldn’t find any evidence whatsoever that her brush with death had caused her any long-term internal or external damage.

How Hilliard managed to recover so quickly still baffles medical professionals to this day. As one of her doctors, Dr. George Sather said, “I can’t explain why she is alive.”

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