Canadian Toddler Survives Sub-zero Cold

ByABC News

E D M O N T O N, Alberta, March 2, 2001 -- She wasn’t breathing, her heart wasn’t beating and her mother said she was “frozen stiff” when she found her lying facedown in the snow.

On a frigid Canadian night, 13-month-old Erika wandered outdoors in nothing but a diaper and T-shirt. But despite the little girl’s exposure to subzero temperatures, plastic surgeon Dr. Gary Lobay says “she almost certainly will walk again.”

Erika had been sleeping in a bed with her mother and a 3-year-old sister at a family friend’s house. The 25-pound toddler apparently got out of bed without waking anyone, opened a back door that had been left unlatched, and walked out into the snowy, frigid night.

It wasn’t until 3 a.m. that Erika’s mother, Leyla Nordby, discovered her daughter. “I just saw something lying in the snow. And I ran to the snow and I saw Erika on her belly. I picked her up. She was frozen. I ran in the house. I wrapped her in a blanket,” Nordby said.

Incredibly, no one knows how long Erika was out in the biting cold. It could have been anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours. When paramedics arrived shortly before 4 a.m., much of Erika’s tiny body — especially her legs and even her mouth — was frozen stiff. The emergency workers tried desperately to restore any sign of life.

Krista Rempel, the paramedic who carried Erika to the ambulance described the child as “very pale, very cold to touch and her extremities were almost hard, like blocks of ice, from what I can remember. Very, very hard and rigid.”

But Rempel had gone through this before. Seven years ago she helped rescue another freezing child — a 2-year-old. Because of that experience, Rempel and her partner, Jason Visscher refused to give up on Erika. Even though the child was so cold they couldn’t put a needle in her arm. “We put a needle in the bone of the leg and put fluid and medication through the marrow of the bone.”

The paramedics also had trouble getting a breathing tube into the child’s mouth. “There was basically a chunk of ice in there,” Visscher said. Rempel and Visscher performed CPR on Erika all the way to Stollery Children’s Health Center, and for another hour-and-a-half after they had arrived at the hospital.

The emergency room team that worked on Erika warmed her with a special blanket called a “Bair hugger.” The blanket pushes hot air onto the child and warms the child’s body from the outside in, according to Dr. Allan DeCaen, the physician who led the ER team.

DeCaen was stunned when Erika’s heart — which had stopped beating for at least two hours — started beating again.

How Did She Survive?

How did a toddler literally come back to life? DeCaen says the human body is very smart. The body will stop sending blood to nonessential parts of the body, DeCaen explains. “As long as they cool off fast enough, the body ends up having enough oxygen in the various parts of the body, such as the brain.

“It’s like being in a state of suspended animation.”

Basically, the faster the body ends up cooling down the better the chance there is more oxygen in the tissues. In these situations, doctors have a better chance of restarting the heart.

DeCaen says it’s tougher for adults to survive the sort of trauma that Erika endured, because it takes longer for an adult’s body to cool down.

DeCaen says Erika’s case is remarkable. He said there were “a lot of events lined up one after another that individually you can end up explaining away, collectively one can try to rationalize this but personally I look at this as pretty miraculous.”

Paramedic Krista Rempel agrees. “I think this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a miracle."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events