Home at last: Survivor Mischelle Hileman receives hero's welcome

Mischelle Hileman smiles and waves at well-wishers as she returns home from a long ordeal that began in November when she was lost in the woods for eight days. Photo by Kim Lamb

A hometown crowd lined the Main St. of Wallowa Friday evening as Mischelle Hileman, Wallowa County's true-life survivor, arrived home after 67 days in a Boise hospital. She was escorted by the flashing lights of a fire engine and greeted with signs, banners, balloons and cheers. Her smile could be seen lighting up the route up and down Main St. in a car driven by her father, Benny. It stopped long enough for mother Jan, who'd returned from Boise early, to hand Mischelle a bouquet of balloons, welcoming her home with a hug. "Did you hear her laugh? That's Mischelle," said the happy mom.

"It was awesome," said Mischelle Hileman Monday at the Wallowa Senior Center as she thought back to that after-dark welcome. "All I could say was, "oh my, oh my. I couldn't believe it to see so many people."

Hileman added, "There's no words to express how I feel about being home."Many people consider the fact that Mischelle Hileman is alive a true miracle. Her leg was injured in the rugged country northeast of Wallowa on a day long hunting trip and she was unable to make her way out. Suffering from asthma and later diagnosed with full-blown diabetes, she was the subject of an intensive eight day search at the end of October and the beginning of November, as temperatures took an unseasonable dip toward zero and the first snowstorm of the season hit the county. Even after the formal search and rescue effort was called off after six days, volunteers, led by friend Bill Lehr, forged on and finally found Hileman, frostbitten but still clinging to life after using every bit of survival skills she'd been taught through the years by her outdoorsman father.

"She was lost on a Sunday and she was found on a Sunday," said Jan Hileman, who called her daughter a very religious person.

"The good Lord was with me," Mischelle said Monday, adding, "I had enough time to talk with him."

Taken to St. Alphonsus Medical Center in Boise with her survival still uncertain, Hileman underwent a double amputation, losing both legs below the knee. She has been undergoing intensive rehabilitation at the hospital, lifting weights and building the body strength necessary to lift herself in and out of a wheelchair. Her mother said that it will probably be six months to a year before Hileman will be able to walk with a prosthesis, and she must return in three weeks for a week-long rehab session.

Described by family and friends as an outgoing, happy and warm-hearted person, Mischelle Hileman was surrounded Monday by friends at the senior center, where she often volunteered to help serve meals and lingered to play pinochle afterwards.

"No cards today," she told one man. "I'm not quite up to that yet."

Hileman, who graduated from Wallowa High School in 1982, said she first started volunteering for the senior meal site when it was in the old Odd Fellows hall on the edge of town while she was still in school. "I've been looking forward to this. I'm home. I'm thankful."

Hileman happily exchanged hugs and kisses with many of her senior friends, including Charles Trump, who spearheaded a hugely successful pie auction to help the Hilemans with medical expenses. Many others involved with the pie auction, such as Joe and Maxine Town, Joyce Skillings and center director Carolyn Pfeaster, were also on hand for Monday's homecoming.

Then there were people like Sally Weaver, who wrote Mischelle a 10-page letter from home every week, and Celene Gay, an EMT who was on duty when Hileman was carried out of the canyon and also co-owner with her husband of Wallowa's Shell Mercantile which generously donated food for the searchers.

HIleman said that she has two boxes filled with cards and letters from Wallowa County folks and well-wishers far beyond its borders. One group of 10 elk hunters from Milwaukie sent $10 each, with the stipulation it be spent by Hileman personally, rather than go into her medical expense fund.

Among those at the senior meal site Monday during Mischelle Hileman's homecoming was her grandmother, Inez Spoelstra, along with Rayford Guillory; both are 80 and plan to get married on Valentine's Day this year.

Bill Lehr, who is now considered one of the family and shared carpentry skills to make the Hileman home handicapped accessible before Mischelle's return, also showed up at the senior center.

Benny and Jan Hileman spent almost two months in a camper in Boise with seven dogs, including Mischelle's three, during their daughter's recuperation ordeal. "My 16-year-old Chihuahua won't leave my lap," said Hileman, laughing about how the little dog snapped at her father when he tried to move the dog.

Mischelle Hileman considers herself a very lucky woman, surrounded by family, friends and a community who loves her. While the healing from her ordeal continues, she has made no long range plans. "I'm just taking it one day at a time," she said.

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