Frostbite survivor collects warm gear for the homeless

Dec. 11, 2019
Frostbite survivor Alec Grimes poses with gloves, socks and coats he has gathered to give to homeless people.
Frostbite survivor, Alec Grimes, does a warm gear drive every year at his office at Johns Manville in Littleton to prevent others from getting frostbite. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

The young man is a Santa Claus for warm gear.

Colorful hand-knitted scarves, neon down jackets and dozens of pairs of insulated gloves and wool socks surround Alec Grimes in overflowing boxes and bags.

He collects the gear at his job at Johns Manville in Littleton to give away to homeless adults and children because the 25-year-old knows all too well what it feels like to be dangerously cold.

How you can help

Do you want to support Alec Grimes’ Bite Back Cold Weather Gear Drive?

To deliver warm socks, hats, gloves, mittens, coats, scarves or other warm gear to the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center for donation to homeless shelters, please contact Nancy Biaggi at [email protected].

Or, you can donate directly to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

Three years ago, Alec was visiting friends in Fort Collins on what turned out to be one of the coldest nights in the city’s history. With wind chills, it felt like 14 degrees below zero. Alec lives in Littleton, but had graduated from Colorado State University. He was hanging out with some buddies and staying at his brother’s apartment in Fort Collins.

Late on Dec. 18, Alec tried to walk about two miles to his brother’s place, wearing only canvas shoes and thin socks. His phone was dead, so he couldn’t call for help or use an online map. The colder he got, the more disoriented he became.

Finally, Alec made it to his brother’s place. But, by then, he had suffered severe frostbite and the toes on both of his feet were turning an eerie blackish purple.

A helicopter ride to save his toes from frostbite

Alec’s brother took him to the ER at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital. Doctors there feared he might have to have his toes amputated. But, they knew the region’s top frostbite experts were nearby at the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center in Aurora.

Frostbite survivor, Alec Grimes' feet. Both are purplish from frostbite.
Alec Grimes suffered severe frostbite on both of his feet. By the time he reached the hospital, lack of blood flow was turning both of his feet purple. Photo courtesy of Alec Grimes.

Getting Alec there fast could be critical to saving his toes. So the Poudre Valley team loaded Alec onto a helicopter and flew him to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

There, Dr. Anne Wagner and her team were poised to help.

“Time equals tissue. It’s the same concept as a stroke,” said Wagner, medical director of the Burn and Frostbite Center.

She researches frostbite and teaches doctors around the country how best to treat frostbite.

Wagner said Alec had a 70 to 90% chance of losing his toes.

But, her research has shown that patients have a much better chance of avoiding amputation if they receive a clot-busting drug called tPA within hours after their extremities begin to warm.

Headshot of Dr. Anne Wagner
Dr. Anne Wagner.

The drug, which stands for tissue plasminogen activator, also helps some stroke patients.

“The tPA breaks down clots so blood and oxygen can flow through damaged tissues,” Wagner said.

“The more quickly you start it, the better the outcome. One study that I did showed that for every hour of delay in starting tPA after the frostbitten limb has been re-warmed, there’s a 30% decrease in salvage,” she said.

Amputation is much more likely for those who don’t get help within 12 hours, Wagner said.

Paying it forward to keep others warm

Alec was extremely lucky that he got help fast. He spent some painful days in the hospital, but has recovered fully.

Wagner said frostbite can be just as painful as burns.

“Frostbite actually damages the tissues all the way to the bones. When the big nerves suffer significant damage and don’t get oxygen, that can cause a lot of pain,” she said.

Fortunately, Alec doesn’t suffer residual pain now. He has some red scars on both feet and is careful to dress warmly and wear good socks since his feet will be at greater risk for frostbite for the rest of his life.

Frostbite survivor, Alec Grimes, carries a bunch of coats, socks and gloves to his desk for his warm gear drive.
Alec Grimes holds a warm gear drive in November and December every year so others won’t have to suffer from frostbite like he did. He receives support from co-workers and supervisors at his employer, Johns Manville.

Most of all, Alec feels incredibly grateful that he survived a very challenging night and was able to avoid amputation. That’s why he launched his “Bite Back Cold Weather Gear Drive,” now in its third year.

Last year, Alec collected about four carloads of warm gear. This year, he’s on track to gather as much or more. His mom, who is a teacher, is also gathering gear at her school for the drive.

Prevent frostbite:

  • Always protect your core and your hands, feet and face from the cold.
  • Keep moving your toes and fingers.
  • Avoid getting hands and feet wet.
  • If your extremities get wet, try to dry them or get inside and warm up as fast as possible.
  • Bring extra socks, gloves and warm gear when you’re headed outdoors.
  • Seek medical help immediately if you think you’ve suffered frostbite.
  • Doctors can prevent amputation if they act quickly.

Alec and co-workers from Johns Manville will then deliver the gear to the Burn and Frostbite Center on Dec. 18, the anniversary of his injury. Later this winter, Alec will join UCHealth providers to distribute the gear to homeless shelters and advocacy centers for homeless people.

“I wanted to do this so other people don’t suffer,” Alec said.

He feels great compassion for all homeless people, but especially for children whose families are struggling.

“A lot of people don’t think about children being homeless,” Alec said.

One of his co-workers always buys several children’s coats, boots and gloves.

“That’s the neatest thing,” said Alec.

Dedicated to caring for others at a young age

He thinks he got his desire to give back from his folks, especially his mom.

“With her being a school teacher, she has passed that on to me. We’re caring and kind people,” he said.

So, the idea of a warm gear drive came naturally.

Alec is a customer service representative for Johns Manville. He has received great support from co-workers and supervisors thanks to a program for Denver area Johns Manville employees called JM STARS, which stands for Striving to Assist, Respond and Serve.

Frostbite survivor Alec Grimes sorts warm gear at his cubicle at Johns Manville in Littleton.
Alec Grimes hopes to donate at least four carloads of warm gear. He’ll deliver it to the UCHealth Burn and Frostbite Center on Dec. 18, the same date when he suffered frostbite three years ago. Alec and medical providers will then deliver the gear to homeless shelters.

The STARS program makes it easy for employees to seek help and recruit additional volunteers for causes that interest them. In 2018, the company logged more than 15,000 volunteer hours globally, including Alec’s efforts, according to a company spokeswoman.

Wagner said Alec is unique for dedicating himself to serving others at such a young age. (Alec also supports an annual golf tournament that benefits the Burn and Frostbite Center.)

“He is really smart and caring,” Wagner said. “It really touches us because one of our big missions is prevention. Alec has taken that concept and run with it. He’s an amazing kid, who is mature beyond his years.”

Right after Alec’s drive last year, Denver experienced a major cold snap and Wagner said advocates at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless immediately shared the gear Alec had gathered with people in need.

Along with dedicating himself to keeping strangers warm, Alec doesn’t hesitate to remind friends to bundle up.

“Be prepared and be really careful about the elements,” he said. “Make sure you stay warm and recognize the signs of frostbite.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.