Science & Tech

Woman survives being frozen 'completely solid' for 6 hours

Woman survives being frozen 'completely solid' for 6 hours

Jean Hilliard survived her extraordinary ordeal unscathed

(Fox 9)

We all know how it feels to be numb with cold, but very few of us have ever turned into an actual ice block.

And yet, one teenager was once described as being “completely solid, just like a piece of meat out of a deep freeze” by a doctor, after she spent hours passed out in the snow.

Jean Hilliard was returning home from a friend’s house in the early hours of New Year’s Eve back in 1980, when her car skidded into a ditch.

She wasn’t hurt but couldn’t move the car so, wearing little more than a winter coat, mittens and cowboy boots, Hilliard braved the -30C (-22F) Minnesota night air to seek help.

However, she soon slipped on the icy ground and lost consciousness. And for six hours, the 19-year-old’s body lay out in the unforgiving cold.

She was eventually spotted by her friend Wally Nelson, lying just a few steps from his front door.

"I grabbed her by the collar and skidded her into the porch," he recounted years later in a Minnesota Public Radio interview.

"I thought she was dead. Froze stiffer [sic] than a board, but I saw a few bubbles coming out of her nose."

Nelson rushed her to nearby Fosston Hospital, where doctors believed her to be a lost cause despite the occasional bubbles coming out of her nose.

Her heartbeat was registered at just 12 beats per minute, and her body temperature measured just 27C (around 80F) – a full 10 degrees below that of a healthy human, Science Alert reports.

And when medical staff tried to insert an IV cannula, they were faced with an unusual issue: her arm was frozen so hard, they couldn’t get the needle into her vein.

Indeed, staff reportedly broke several needles during their attempts before finally giving up and deciding that their best bet would be to thaw her, according to Historic Flix.

Hilliard was, therefore, swiftly covered in heat pads and, after a few hours, the 19-year-old began to stir.

She had not only survived being frozen, but her body was steadily returning to normal and by noon, she was talking again.

She was discharged seven weeks later with little more than some numb, blistered toes (which soon healed).

In other words, she seemed totally unaffected by her night as an ice block.

A local newspaper article hailing Hilliard's dramatic recovery at the time(Thirteen Towns newspaper, Fosston)

Since then, experts have struggled to identify how her body withstood being frozen – questioning whether she benefited from unique qualities in the makeup of her tissues or body chemistry.

However, others have pointed out that it is important to determine what exactly “frozen” means in this case.

Although low, Hilliard's core body temperature was allegedly still well above freezing and, as Science Alert notes, there’s a difference between feeling “chilled to the bone” and actually having solidified water in your veins.

Furthermore, the “stiffness” of Hilliard’s body is a common sign of severe hypothermia, in which increased muscle rigidity can be so severe, it resembles rigor mortis.

However, experts can now only speculate over whether Hilliard's “frozen” body was typical or strangely unique in its ability to withstand such an extreme change of state.

The one thing we do know is that she was very, very lucky – a fact that Hilliard later acknowledged.

Speaking to Fox 9 two years ago, the now mother-of-three said: "It was definitely a miracle that I survived."

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