Sometimes something so extraordinary happens, that it’s hard to believe it’s true. Many people believe in miracles because uncanny things happen with no explanation. One such event occurred nearly 40 years ago involving a young woman named Jean Hilliard. Somehow she escaped death and came back to life after being frozen alive in sub-zero temperatures.
A Terrible Car Accident
On Dec. 20, 1980, a very cold winter night, Hilliard was driving home from a friend’s house in Lengby, Minnesota, when her car veered off the road and wound up in a ditch. Hilliard was just 19 years old when she lost control of her vehicle.
What happened next would make anyone feel like they were doomed. Hilliard certainly was, but miraculously, she would come out of this alive. Though she would survive, it would come at the cost of nearly dying first. Her story is one that should not be forgotten and goes down in history as a medical marvel.
Minus 22 Degrees
Now, remember that this occurred in Minnesota, which borders on Canada and Lake Superior. It’s frigidly cold in the state. When Hilliard drove into the ditch the temperature outside was minus 22 degrees. Fortunately, Hilliard wasn’t hurt in the accident and was able to safely get out of her car.
But it’s unclear if that was the right thing to do. Maybe she should have waited for help from a passing vehicle? Things may have turned out much differently. However, Hillard decided to seek help. She walked on a gravel road towards the home of somebody she knew that lived nearby.
A Brutal 2-Mile Walk
Many people who live in cold weather climates prepare their vehicles for emergencies. Perhaps Hilliard didn’t take the proper precautions and didn’t have an emergency blanket, flares or other crucial lifesaving items packed inside. And in those days, there weren’t any cell phones to help during an emergency.
The reason why Hilliard started walking is because she was afraid she might freeze to death in her car. However, her friend’s house wasn’t particularly close to the accident. In fact, Hilliard had to walk over two miles in the snow with the wind blowing against her legs and body before she reached her destination.
Overtaken By Exhaustion
It’s unclear how long it took Hilliard to travel to her friend’s house. But it would certainly take much longer walking at night and in such cold weather compared to a warm sunny day. When Hilliard finally reached her friend’s driveway, she could no longer go on.
She had given it everything she had. Hilliard was so exhausted by the cold and overwhelmed by fatigue that she collapsed in the driveway and was unable to move. It was approximately 1 a.m. when she arrived. And as she lay down on the ground, she fell unconscious. Her body slowly started to freeze.
Frozen For 6 Hours
Hilliard’s body slowly started to freeze over the next six hours. Still unconscious, her body lay still and silent as the night turned to day, and her body turned into ice. Relief finally came at 7 a.m. Hilliard’s friend Wally went outside and was shocked to find her frozen on the ground.
He was convinced that Hilliard was dead because her white face resembled a ghost. At around 8 a.m., Hilliard was transported to Fosston Municipal Hospital. Doctors were perplexed by the case and were unsure how to revive her–if it was even possible. Everything they tried, failed.
Too Frozen For A Pulse
The outlook was grim, and Hilliard’s chance of survival was small. Her body temperature was so low, it didn’t register on the thermometer, indicating it was less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Dr. Edgar Sather, explained, “There was no evidence of a pulse or blood pressure. Her body was too frozen to find a vein to get a pulse.” Hilliard’s joints and other parts of her body were frozen solid and wouldn’t move. Hospital staff were unable to pierce her skin to insert a needle. Hilliard’s eyes did not respond to light stimulation. It seemed as though all hope was lost.
Doctors and nurses used warm and moist packs to try and warm Hilliard up and raise her body temperature. When it seemed like nothing was working, Dr. George Sather, Edgar’s brother, made an observation. He explained,“I thought she was dead, but then we picked up an extremely faint whimper. We knew there was a person existing then.”
There was an actual living person underneath the frozen carcass! At around 1 p.m., nearly 12 hours after Hilliard crashed her car and began her long walk to Wally’s house, she started making noises and asked for water. Her recovery was nothing short of astounding.
A Prayer Chain
After Hilliard woke up, electric heating pads and oxygen tanks were credited by many, in aiding the young woman’s recovery. However, many people believed the power of prayer is what really brought the woman back to life. In 1981, the tabloid Weekly World News, which is renowned for publishing fake news, claimed that God intervened to save Hilliard.
The article included quotes from her parents, claiming that prayer saved their daughter. Guide Post Magazine reported that a very large prayer chain involving several pastors from Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Bethel Assembly churches in the Fosston area helped save Hilliard’s life.
The Thawing Process
The prayer chain didn’t stop in Fosston. It grew and grew to neighboring towns such as Crookston and Bemidji and also to Grand Forks, North Dakota, reported Guide Post Magazine. It wasn’t long before hundreds and thousands of people became aware of Hilliard’s fight for life.
Many people joined in to ask God for help in healing the frozen-solid young woman. Somehow, Hilliard’s legs and feet, which Dr. Sather expected to get darker, stared to lighten up and return to their normal color. And the area on her upper thighs where doctors feared they would have to amputate turned pink.
No One Is Dead “Until He’s Warm & Dead”
Dr. Richard Iseke commented in the Spartanburg Herald in January 1981 that while Hilliard’s case seemed like a miracle, it isn’t uncommon for freezing victims to recover even after they’ve experienced a prolonged period of time without a heartbeat.
Iseke was the associate director of the Boston Emergency Medical Center, which had experience treating victims of hypothermia. He explained, “There’s a term we have that says no one is dead until he’s warm and dead.” He added, “There are numerous case reports in the medical literature of people who have survived (with interior body temperatures) as low as 68 or 69 degrees.”
According to Iseke, “The human body reacts to extreme cold much like a hibernating animal: internal activity is slowed, which dramatically reduces the cells’ demand for oxygen from the blood.” When Hilliard was finally revived, she was able to move her arms by the end of the day.
She could move her legs three days later. Incredibly, none of her limbs, or any other body parts, needed to be amputated. Despite her recovery, doctors decided to keep Hilliard in the intensive care unit for six days to monitor her progress. She was able to leave the hospital 49 days later.
Another Frozen Miracle
It’s not the only time a person frozen in time has come back to life. In 2015, a Pennsylvania man had a few drinks with some friends in the winter when he decided to walk home in subzero temperatures. Justin Smith, 26, blacked out and wound up in the snow for several hours.
The temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The following morning, Justin’s dad Don Smith found his son lying unconscious by the road. Don told WNEP: “He was blue his face, he was lifeless. I checked for a pulse, I checked for a heartbeat, there was nothing.”
Doctors Warmed Up His Blood
Don immediately called paramedics after finding his unresponsive son in the snow. The team administered CPR with chest compressions to try and revive him. They were unable to wake him but didn’t give up hope. Like Jean Hilliard, the medical staff wouldn’t give up on their patient because of the mantra, “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.”
When Justin arrived at the hospital, Dr. Gerald Coleman struggled to find an accurate body temperature reading. He transferred the man to a hospital that had access to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine that helps warm and oxygenates the blood and recirculates it back into the body.
Frost Bite & Possible Brain Damage
Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. James Wu from Leigh Valley Hospital at Cedar Crest wasn’t 100 percent confident that the machine would work to revive Justin. It was a long shot. However, within 90 minutes the man’s heart was beating on its own. Wu explained at a press conference, “With very low temperatures, it can preserve the brain and other organ functions.”
But while Justin’s heart was functioning normally, he didn’t wake up right away. There were still some major concerns. There was a fear that he would have serious brain damage. He also lost his toes and pinkies because of frostbite.
30 Days In A Coma
When Hilliard was rescued, she woke up within 24 hours. Justin took a little bit longer. He woke up about 30 days after he fell unconscious in the snow and lost his pulse. He was surrounded by friends and family when he opened his eyes and later went back to Penn State to earn a degree in psychology.
Justin told Fox29: “Next thing I know I’m waking up in Cedar Crest Hospital. Family was all around me. I was shocked. I knew my pinkies were gone; it could have been a lot worse. They went the extra effort and I can’t thank them enough.”
Toddler Wanders Off In Sub-Zero Temperatures
A two-year-old boy named Paulie Hynek wandered out of his family’s farmhouse near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the middle of the night in 2001. His father Mark told the operator, “I got a little boy that went out in the middle of the night. And he went outside and I don’t know if he’s alive or dead.”
His father found him around 6:30 a.m. It was 2 degrees below zero, and Paulie wasn’t breathing. “He was lifeless. When I picked him up, he was limp,” explained Mark. He told the operator, “There’s nothin, there’s nothin’. I’ve lost my boy.”
No Heartbeat Or Brain Activity
When the family first realized the toddler was missing, they feared he was dead. When Mark found his son, his body temperature had dropped to 60 degrees. A human’s heart stops beating at 72 degrees. Paulie was transported to the Mayo Clinic in a medical helicopter.
But similar to the previous cases, emergency responders would not give up on the little boy. Brad Grewe, director of the Emergency Room, noted immediately, “He was so profoundly cold.” Paulie wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a heartbeat or brain activity. They tried to warm him up with fluids and IVs. They also circulated his blood through a heart-lung machine.
Another Miraculous Event
Similar to Hilliard and Smith’s cases, many called Paulie’s survival a miracle. Cardiac surgeon Robert Wiechmann commented, “You can explain parts of it through science. There had to be a miraculous event to allow this to happen and be what it is today. There had to be some wonderful spirit inside this young boy.” B
ecause blood flow had been stopped for nearly three hours doctors worried that Paulie would have damage to his brain or internal organs. But he was healthy. Ten years later, his parents said he was “perfect.” But he has some nerve damage on the end of his fingers.
A Year-Old Baby Came Back To Life
Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images
In 2001, a 13-month-old baby from Canada miraculously survived freezing temperatures. Erika Nordby somehow crawled her way out of the back door of her family home in the middle of the night. Erika was only wearing a nappy.
By the time her mother Leyla found her a few hours later, Erika was frozen solid. Thankfully, the cell membranes of a baby’s tissue are more flexible and apparently Erika “died” at a temperature that she was able to be revived from, according to The Guardian. The outside temperatures were below freezing and Erika’s body temperature sunk to a mere 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Erika Was Lucky
Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images
Because she was a baby, Erika’s body was still developing rapidly. Because the cell membranes of her tissue are more flexible and are likely constantly regenerating, they are more likely to survive if ice fragments start forming within them.
Nancy Rothwell, a physiologist at the University of Manchester, told The Guardian, “But the big thing is being exactly the right temperature, and that was absolutely luck.” If it was any colder than it was the night Erika snuck out of the house, she likely would have not survived.
Karlee Kosolofski Wanted To Follow Her Dad
It was a brisk winter morning on February 23, 1994 – -22 degrees Celsius to be exact. Robert Kosolofski of Rouleau, Saskatchewan was getting ready to leave for his shift at around 2 A.M. and his then-two-year-old daughter Karlee wanted to go with him.
Instead, he sent her back upstairs to go back to bed with her mom. Soon, he was on his way out, but unbeknownst to him, Karlee didn’t follow his instructions. Instead, she followed him out the door. Robert didn’t notice that his toddler had followed him outside.
He Drove Off Without A Clue
Robert Kosolofski, assuming that his daughter had gone upstairs, drove off without seeing who had followed him outside. Unfortunately, the spring-loaded door shut behind Karlee, leaving her trapped outside.
“I still remember the light in the garage that I hadn’t shut off and I can remember clearly that I thought it could just wait until later – probably one of the worse decisions I’ve ever made. It was cold and story. If I’d taken two minutes, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But then again, maybe something worse would have happened,” Kosolofski told National Post in 2014.
She Froze In A Matter Of Minutes
Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
When Karlee went outside to find her dad, she was only wearing a ski jacket and boots over her nightgown. At two year’s old, she wasn’t tall enough to reach the door handle to get back inside, where her mother Karie was fast asleep.
That early in the morning, there was significant windchill and temperatures that morning was recorded at -22 degrees Celsius. Karlee’s body froze up in a matter of minutes. Her mother didn’t find her until six hours later. With Karlee completely frozen, it seemed that this wasn’t going to end well.
Karlee’s Mom Called In Help
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Later that morning, Robert got a call from his wife Karie. “She told me that Karlee had frozen. ‘She’s frozen solid; I found her outside.’ Karie came right out and told me that she wasn’t breathing. She was dead,” he told CBC.
Karie, who was trained in CPR, did what she could to no avail. She then called local nurses in town for help. Karlee’s body temperature at that point was 14 degrees Celsius – a mere 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, they weren’t sure that they would get their daughter back.
They Came At The Right Time
Barbara Alper/Getty Images
Karie Kosolofski called on the help of Caroline Peck and Linda Benoit, two nurses that worked in the area. They helped by warming Karlee’s torso with warm towels while they waited for the paramedics to arrive.
“That was important because it allowed us to start CPR. If they hadn’t done it, she would have been too frozen,” Brenda Fry told National Post. Fry was one of the paramedics who arrived on the scene. They swiftly took Karlee to the Plains Health Care center nearby. Still, they were unsure if their revival techniques would work out.
Karlee Wasn’t Breathing
Sadduldin Zaidan /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
When Karie found Karlee, she was so frozen that she wasn’t even breathing. On the way to the hospital, Fry inserted a breathing tube down Karlee’s throat, in addition to giving her heart medication.
“We wanted to get oxygen into what little blood we were pumping. We wanted to get oxygen to her brain,” Fry told National Post. Meanwhile, as this was going on, the weather had only gotten worse. At that point, there was a full on blizzard but the ambulance they were in was plowing through it.
Time Was Of The Essence
Terry Kane / Barcroft Media / Getty Images
The main goal was to get Karlee to the hospital as soon as possible. Robert, who had left work immediately after receiving Karie’s call, was trailing behind the ambulance with Karlee’s grandparents in tow.
“I kept looking at the speedometer and thought, ‘As long as they don’t slow down, there is a chance.’ The weather wasn’t that good, but thank God they didn’t slow down because I don’t know what I would have done,” Robert told National Post. The hospital, meanwhile, was expecting the worst. Soon they arrived at the Plains Health Center’s Emergency Room.
They Thought She’d Be Dead
OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Dr. Joy Dobson, an anesthesiologist in the ER, was running the Intensive Care Unit that day. She knew that Karlee and her family were on their way, but she expected that Karlee would be pronounced dead on arrival.
When they arrived, Dobson stood at the head of the stretcher that Karlee was on and suddenly, her little body gasped for air. At that moment, Dobson made it her mission to bring Karlee back to life. Including Dobson, there were about 20 people in the operating room on this life-saving mission. They warmed Karlee’s body with a heart and lung machine for hours.
Was It Divine Intervention?
John Moore/Getty Images
The efforts to revive Karlee were working. “I saw her come back to life. It was a very emotional event for everyone involved… Even if you’re not religious, you have to think that some greater force was at work when you hear all of the circumstances around that event,” Dr. Dobson recalled to National Post.
The surgeons regularly updated the Kosolofski family. Though she was recovering, Karlee had suffered third- and fourth-degree frostbite to her legs and she was likely to lose both of them. Luckily, they only had to amputate her left leg below the knee.
Like Breaking Your Legs Twice A Day
Patti Gower/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Though Karlee was able to keep one leg, she still had to undergo tons of surgery. Karlee was only two years old when this happened to her, which meant her body was still growing.
“Our doctor described it perfectly. She said, ‘It’s like breaking your leg twice a day every day,” Robert told National Post. “At one point, the bone in her thigh was going crooked, so what they basically did was cut out a wedge so that when it healed, it healed straight. They’ve had to lengthen the bone in her stump.”
People Didn’t Know The Facts
George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images
When Karlee’s story made international news, there was certainly an outpouring of support from all over Canada as well as the rest of the world in the form of letters and gifts.
Unfortunately, there were some people who didn’t know the whole story and thought that the Kosolofski’s were unfit parents. Robert told National Post that one older woman recognized him the first time he left the hospital. “She walked up to me and she hit me and she said, ‘I can’t believe they don’t take your kids away.’ People form opinions without knowing any of the details.”
Karlee’s Father Felt Guilty
Roy Antal/Leader-Post/National Post
It didn’t help that there were some people who thought Karlee’s parents were unfit to take care of her, considering what happened. Even though it was an accident, Robert still felt incredibly guilty for what happened.
“Even though you know intellectually that you can’t protect your child from everything and there really wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it, you still think that in your heart: ‘I should have done more.'” No matter how long Robert has had to live with the guilt, he should be proud knowing that Karlee turned out just fine in the end.
She Knows She’s Lucky
Jordan Nicurity/Montreal Gazettte
In 2009, Karlee Kosolofski told CBC that she was still alive. Speaking on what happened to her as a toddler, she says that she wishes she knew what happened. “It sucks that I can’t remember stuff, and I always have to be told. Not being able to remember still bugs me,” she said.
As she grew older, she didn’t let her disabilities hold her back from living a normal life. “I’ve always tried to make sure that I wasn’t different in any way. I’ve always fought to try and be as normal as everyone else,” she added.
She Is Excited For The Future
Regina Leader-Post/Bryan Schlosser/National Post
Now in her twenties, Karlee Kosolofski finished school and was living in Moose Jaw, Canada. At the time that she spoke to National Post in 2014, she was already looking forward to the future.
She had just recently gotten married to James Potts, whom she had met online and dated for three years. The newlyweds, at the time, planned to move to Illinois when Karlee’s health would allow it. But she still had to deal with a lot of pain from her leg amputation.
She Deals With A Lot Of Pain
David S. Holloway/Getty Images
“Right now, I have so much pain. I’m working on trying to numb the pain first and then be able to wear a prosthesis,” she told National Post. Even in her twenties, Karlee was due for plenty more surgeries, including one to fix the stump of her leg.
Though she had been fitted with a prosthetic leg, Karlee was unable to use it because her stump was too sensitive. Still, she doesn’t let it get her down. She also told National Post about her plans to be a stay-at-home mom. She even decided that she wanted to have two to three kids at some point.
How Are Doctors Able To Save Them?
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
With all of these people nearly freezing to death, it’s a wonder – and quite frankly, a miracle – that they have been revived. Doctors have been studying this phenomenon for years, as it could potentially lead to advancements in extending the shelf-life for organ transplants.
The mystery was potentially solved in a study with yeast and worms. They found that organisms can survive if the biological processes that keep them alive are temporarily slowed down. This includes depriving an organism of oxygen. While oxygen deprivation seems counterintuitive, there is a very scientific reason behind it.
AMY COOPES/AFP/Getty Images
According to a study reported by Live Science, depriving an organism of oxygen as it is freezing to death might actually save it. This is because the lack of oxygen halts chemical reactions in a body that help it function.
If an organism is first deprived of oxygen, it will start to be reanimated as it is re-warmed and oxygen is reintroduced into the body. “We have found that extension of survival limits in the cold is possible if oxygen consumption is first diminished,” Mark B. Roth of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center told Live Science.
They Only Appear Dead
ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
“There are many examples in the scientific literature of humans who appear frozen to death. They have no heartbeat and are clinically dead. But they can be reanimated… Similarily, the organisms in my lab can be put into a state of reversible suspended animation through oxygen deprivation and other means. They appear dead but are not,” Roth told Live Science.
This has apparently worked for all the people you just read about. But even more astounding is the fact that scientists have even gone so far as to revive species that have been frozen in time!
Scientists Revive An Animal Frozen 30 Years Ago
If you think reviving frozen humans is incredible, wait until you read about the work scientists have been doing with animals. According to scientists from Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research, they were able to revive the “tardigrade” animal that they found in Antartica.
The creatures are also known as “water bears” or “moss piglets” and are extremely tiny. They live in water and measure less than 1mm in length. They are able to thrive in extreme and hostile environments. They also have a particularly useful trait: they can slow or shut down their metabolic activities for large amounts of time.
No Defects Or Anomalies
Scientists found the tardigrades in moss plants in Antarctica in 1983. They removed and stored the creatures at -20 degrees Celsius, according to research published in Cryobiology magazine. Scientists were successfully able to unfreeze the creatures in May 2014, more than 30 years after they originally stored them.
Researchers were able to revive an egg and a living animal, the latter of which started moving and eating after about two weeks. In addition, 14 tardigrades were hatched. The tardigrades did not exhibit any defects or anomalies. In the past, scientists had successfully revived tardigrades after being frozen for nine years.