Oleg Redko, a 32-year-old driver, spent an hour in temperatures well below 0oC trying to open his car door after the lock froze, without gloves or winter boots.
Absorbed in the task, he did not notice the cold.
Now, sitting on his hospital bed in the coal-mining city of Donetsk, a shocked Redko held out his white fingers and said he had been told they might have to be amputated because of severe frostbite.
Redko is one of thousands of victims of the hard freeze that has swept across Ukraine for the past 10 days, killing at least 112 people, many in the industrial eastern region.
His wife, Lyudmila, said she saw him from their apartment window wandering around in the street in confusion with his jacket open, typical signs of hypothermia.
Fearing the worst, she took her husband to the nearest hospital.
“They told me I had the most serious degree of frostbite and that they would have to amputate my fingers,” Redko said.
His feet were also frostbitten, but less seriously, and should heal.
His wife, a slim blonde woman in a sheepskin coat, sobbed in the corridor.
“They can’t amputate his fingers! He’s so young and he works as a driver, he won’t be able to work without fingers,” she said.
Doctors thought the young man’s case was so serious that they transferred him to the city’s burns unit.
Still in shock, Redko barely responded to questions from a nurse.
“The worst thing is that his hands were wet. He has really hurt himself badly,” the nurse said.
However, chief doctor Emil Fistal reassured the patient after examining his fingers, gently pulling away the dressings.
“Amputation is really a last resort,” he said. “It’s true that this is serious frostbite, but we will certainly be able to save these fingers.”
Redko’s case was not unusual. About 3,200 people have sought medical attention for frostbite and hypothermia and most have been hospitalized.
Fistal said Ukrainians do not appear to take proper care when temperatures fall even as low as minus-30oC.
“They put on their warm clothes, but leave off their gloves, even when it is minus-20oC and they forget how important it is to wear good shoes that are waterproof and not too close fitting” so as not to cut off the blood supply, he said.
Ukrainian authorities say they have done their best to reduce the number of cold victims by opening thousands of shelters for those living on the streets and closing schools on the coldest days.
The Ministry of Health also chalks up the high death toll to abuse of alcohol, which makes people less sensitive to cold.