Back in 1980, a guy named Wally Nelson stumbled across the body of his friend, lying in the snow just a few meters from his door on a New Year's Eve morning in Minnesota.
Jean Hilliard, a 19-year-old girl, had his car stuck while returning to her parents' house after a night out. Dressed in nothing more than a winter coat, mittens, and cowboy boots, she set out into the minus 30 Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit) night air to seek her friend's assistance.
Hilliard's body lay in the cold for six hours, her body being "frozen solid" by several accounts.
Nelson would retaliates years later in a Minnesota Public Radio interview.
"I thought she was dead. The frozen lake she froze stiffer than a board," said the narrator. "I noticed a few bubbles coming out of her nose. "
Nelson's prompt reply might have prompted Hilliard to become one of the thousands of deaths linked to hypothermia every year. Instead, her story has become a part of medical legend and a scientific curiosity.
What are the implications of surviving being frozen solid?
Stories of individuals surviving frigid temperatures are unusual enough to be reported, but they aren't exactly rare either. In fact, medical specialists in cold climates have a saying: "Nobody is dead until warm and dead."
The realization that extreme hypothermia isn't necessarily the end of a life has become the basis of therapy in itself. Under controlled conditions, lowering body temperature can temper the metabolism and reduce the body's endless hunger for oxygen.
A chilled body can put the brakes on the whole dying process in medical situations, or on rare occasions elsewhere, for a long time.
Hilliard's account stands out because to the extreme nature of her hypothermia.
Forget about the fact that her body temperature was only 27 degrees Celsius, just ten degrees below that of a healthy human.She was reportedly frozen. Her face was ashen, her eyes were dark, and her skin was likely too painful to be punctured with a hypodermic needle.
"The body was cold, completely solid, like a piece of meat from a deep freeze," according to George Sather, the physician who treated her.
Hilliard's body was restored to health in just a few hours, and she soon recovered with only a few numb, blistered toes. She soon returned to live a normal existence unaffected by her sleep as a human popsicle.
The power of prayer aided her friends and extended family in her local area. But where does biology stand on this issue?
Water takes up a greater amount of space as a solid than it takes as a liquid. This expansion is bad news for body tissues caught in the cold, as their liquid contents risk swelling to the point of ruining their containers.
Even a few stray ice crystals that bloom in the wrong place can penetrate cell membranes with their needle-like shards, reducing extremities to blackened patches of dead skin and muscle, or what we commonly refer to as frostbite.
Various animals have evolved clever adaptations to deal with the dangers of sharp, expanding ice crystals in sub-freezing conditions. For instance, deep-sea fish known as Antarctic blackfin icefish produce glycoproteins as a natural antifreeze.
The contents of its cells are transformed into a syrup by flooding its body with glucose, thus preventing freezing and dehydration. Outside of their cells, water is free to transform into a solid, encasing tissues in ice and making them appear, for all purposes, as frog-shaped ice cubes.
It's difficult to say for sure how Hilliard's body withstands being frozen, even if there's nothing more to go on than external observations. Was there something different about her body chemistry? Or even the composition of her tissues?
Perhaps. In this case, what exactly does 'frozen' imply? Hilliard's core body temperature was reportedly still far below freezing, though it was hardly over freezing.There's a world of difference between a metaphorical 'chilled to the bone' and literal solidified water in the veins.
The fact that Hilliard's body felt solid is a common indicator of severe hypothermia, because muscle rigidity soars to such an extent that it can even resemble rigor mortis, the breaking of a dead body.
It's also unsurprising that her body was cold and white, and even her eyes appeared glassy and'solid'; the body will close off blood vessels under the skin to keep organs functioning, to the point a body will look ashen and remain remarkably cold to the touch.
We might even expect a bent needle or two for medical personnel who are persistent enough to try their luck with a smaller gauged hypodermic on heavily constricted veins.
We can only speculate whether Hilliard's 'frozen' body was typical, if shocking, or even strangely unique in its capacity to withstand such a severe state, with little to go on other than a few surprised statements.
The more we understand the amazing things the human body can accomplish, the less likely we will rely on good fortune to save people like hers in the future, and more on advances in medicine and rapid response.