In a Christmas Miracle, Little Brittany Eichelberger Is Pulled Back from the Brink of a Cold Death

updated 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

At Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, hugging the doll that Santa brought her, 3-year-old Brittany Eichelberger lifts a bandaged hand to her face and swipes at the oxygen tubes in her nostrils. "Hurts," she whimpers. "Monsters are eating my hands and feet."

The pain, though, is the pain of life flowing back into Brittany's limbs. Around daybreak on Dec. 24, the toddler somehow turned the button-lock knob on the front door of her mobile home in Elkins, W. Va., and walked out into a snowstorm. When her parents, Melinda Eichelberger, 20, a fast-food restaurant cashier, and Steve Robinson, 21, an unemployed sales clerk, awoke at 9:30 A.M. and began searching for their daughter, Brittany had probably been out in 20°F cold for some three hours, clad only in underwear and a T-shirt. They found the 40-lb. girl lying unconscious in-the snow two homes away from hers—her feet and fingers darkened from frostbite. Her body temperature had plunged to 74°F, she had stopped breathing, and she was in cardiac arrest. "I was hysterical," says Melinda. "I kept thinking, 'I've lost my baby.' "

A neighbor was the first to give Brittany CPR; the paramedics who arrived 10 minutes later inserted a tube down Brittany's throat and began feeding her drugs to revive her heart. "We couldn't give her injections," says nurse Brenda Dailey. "Have you taken a steak from the freezer? She was that stiff and hard." Hypothermia had put Brittany into a kind of suspended animation, and even after she arrived at Davis Memorial Hospital in Elkins, two hours passed before doctors detected a pulse. After further treatment, she was moved to Pittsburgh, where she is expected to make a full recovery—and, even better, will probably have no memory of her third Christmas. "I just knew she would make it," says Steve. "She's always been a little fighter."

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