The temperature in Chicago was —11 in the early morning hours today. That’s when two policemen found the frozen body in a gangway at 3108 South Vernon Avenue.
The body was that of a young woman. Later she would be identified as Dorothy Mae Stevens, age 23. Her skin was cold as metal, her eyeballs like crystal, her jaw and legs stiff. The two cops bundled her in blankets, and took her to Michael Reese Hospital for a post-mortem.
At the hospital, one of the staff heard a groan. Stevens was still alive.
Dorothy Mae Stevens
Her body temperature had dropped to 64 degrees, more than 30 degrees below normal. She was breathing at about four breaths per minute. Her blood pressure read zero.
Nobody had ever survived in such condition, so the doctors weren’t sure what to do. They decided to give Stevens blood plasma and the new wonder drug, cortisone. Raising the patient’s body temperature too quickly might be dangerous. So Stevens was put in a refrigerated room and gradually thawed out.
By evening Stevens’s body temperature read 80 degrees. She was able to tell her story. After drinking all day, she had passed out. She had been lying in the gangway about eight hours. “It was either God that saved me, or I’m the daughter of Dracula,” she said.
Doctors could only speculate why Stevens had not died. Reporters thought it was all the booze she had drunk—the alcohol acted like anti-freeze in a car’s gas line. That was too simple an explanation for Dr. Harold Laufman, the physician in charge.
“Alcohol may have dilated various blood vessels, making the chilling process much faster,” Laufman said. “Fast chilling is known not to be quite so harmful as slow chilling.” The doctor conceded that the alcohol probably did lessen the pain Stevens felt.
Stevens had a long, difficult recovery. Complications developed, and both her legs had to be amputated. She also lost nine of her fingers. Meanwhile, her remarkable story had become national news.
She finally went home from the hospital in June. By then Stevens could joke about her ordeal. “I’ll never be able to eat frozen food again,” she said.
Dorothy Mae Stevens lived another 23 years, dying in 1974.