If you’re hit by light­ning, there’s a nine in ten chance you’ll sur­vive. But what are the last­ing ef­fects of be­ing ex­posed to hun­dreds of mil­lions of volts?

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY CHAR­LOTTE HUFF FROM MOSAICSCIENCE. COM

Some­times they’ll keep the cloth­ing, the strips of shirt or trousers that weren’t cut away by the doc­tors and nurses. They’ll tell their story, shar­ing pic­tures and news re­ports of sur­vivals like their own or big­ger tragedies. Only by piec­ing to­gether by­s­tander re­ports can sur­vivors of light­ning strikes con­struct their own pic­ture of the pos­si­ble tra­jec­tory of the elec­tri­cal cur­rent, one that can ap­proach 200 mil­lion volts and travel at one-third the speed of light. In this way, Jaime San­tana’s fam­ily st itched to­gether some of what hap­pened one Satur­day af­ter­noon in April 2016, through his in­juries, burnt cloth­ing and, most of all, his shred­ded broad- brimmed straw hat. “It looks like some­body threw a can­non­bal l through it,” says Syd­ney Vail, a trauma sur­geon in Phoenix, Ari­zona, who saw Jaime af­ter he ar­rived by am­bu­lance, his heart hav­ing been shocked sev­eral times along the way as paramedics strug­gled to sta­bilise its rhythm.

Jaime had been horse rid­ing with his brother-in-law, Ale­jan­dro Tor­res, and two others in the moun­tains when dark clouds formed and be­gan head­ing in their direction. So the group started back, wit­ness­ing quite a bit of light­ning as they neared Ale­jan­dro’s house. But scarcely a drop of rain had fallen.

They had al­most reached the house when it hap­pened.

Ale­jan­dro doesn’t think he him­self was knocked out for long. When he ­re­gained con­scious­ness, he was ly­ing face down on the ground, sore all over. His horse was gone. The two other rid­ers ap­peared shaken but un­harmed.

Ale­jan­dro found Jaime on the other side of his fallen horse. The horse’s legs felt hard, “like metal”, he says. Flames were com­ing off Jaime’s chest. Three times Ale­jan­dro beat out the flames with his hands. Three times they reignited.

Only af­ter the paramedics ar­rived did they re­alise what had hap­pened – Jaime had been struck by light­ning.

JUSTIN GAUGER WISHES his mem­ory of be­ing struck by light­ning while trout fish­ing in Ari­zona wasn’t so vivid. If it weren’t, he won­ders if the anx­i­ety and lin­ger­ing ef­fects of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) wouldn’t have dogged him for so long. Some three years later, when a storm moves in and the flick­er­ing flashes of light ap­proach, he’s most com­fort­able sit­ting in his bath­room, mon­i­tor­ing its progress with an app on his phone.

An avid fish­er­man, Justin had been elated when the storm kicked up ­sud­denly that Au­gust af­ter­noon. Fish are more likely to bite when it’s rain­ing, he told his wife, Rachel.

But as the rain turned into hail, ­Rachel and their two chil­dren headed for the truck. When the pel­lets grew larger, Just in grabbed a nearby ­fold­ing chair and headed for the truck. Rachel was film­ing the storm from the front seat, plan­ning to catch her hus­band streak­ing back as the hail in­ten­si­fied.

Ini­tially all that’s vis­i­ble on the video is white – a blur of hail hit­ting the wind­shield. Then a flash flick­ers, the only one that Rachel saw that day, the one she be­lieves fel led her hus­band.

A crash­ing boom. A jolt ing, ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain. “My whole body just stopped – I couldn’t move,” re­calls ­Justin. “I saw a white light sur­round­ing my body – it was like I was in a bub­ble. Ev­ery­thing was in slow mo­tion.”

A cou­ple hud­dling under a nearby tree ran to Justin’s as­sis­tance. They later told him that he was still clutch­ing the chair. His body was smok­ing.

When Justin came to, his ears were ring­ing and he was paral­ysed from the waist down. “Once I fig­ured out I couldn’t move my legs, I started freak­ing out.”

De­scrib­ing that day, Justin draws one hand across his back, trac­ing the path of his burns, which at one point cov­ered roughly a third of his body. They be­gan near his right shoul­der and ex­tended di­ag­o­nally across his torso, he says, and then con­tin­ued along the out­side of each leg.

He holds up his boots, tip­ping them to show sev­eral burn marks on the in­te­rior. Those deep, dark roundish spots line up with the singed ar­eas on the socks he was wear­ing – and with the coin-sized burns he had on both feet.

The singed mark­ings also align with sev­eral nee­dle- sized holes lo­cated just above the thick rub­ber soles of his size 13 boots. Justin’s best guess – based on re­ports from the nearby cou­ple, along with the wound on his right shoul­der – is that the light­ning hit his up­per body and then ex­ited through his feet.



AL­THOUGH SUR­VIVORS fre­quently talk about en­try and exit wounds, it’s dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out pre­cisely what path the light­ning takes, says Mary Ann Cooper, a re­tired emer­gency

medicine doc­tor and long-time light­ning re­searcher. The vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of light­ning’s wrath is more re­flec­tive of the type of cloth­ing a sur­vivor has on, the coins they are car­ry­ing in their pock­ets and the jew­ellery they are wear­ing, says Cooper.

Light­ning is re­spon­si­ble for more than 4000 deaths world­wide an­nu­ally – ac­cord­ing to those doc­u­mented in re­ports from 26 coun­tries. Cooper is one of a small global cadre of doc­tors, me­te­o­rol­o­gists, elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers and others who study how light­ning in­jures peo­ple, and ide­ally how to avoid it in the first place.

Of ev­ery ten peo­ple struck, nine will sur­vive. But they could suf­fer a va­ri­ety of short- and long-term ef­fects: car­diac ar­rest, con­fu­sion, seizures, dizzi­ness, mus­cle aches, deaf­ness, headaches, mem­ory deficits, dis­tractibil­ity, per­son­al­ity changes and chronic pain, among others.

Sur­vivors typ­i­cally ex­pe­ri­ence changes in per­son­al­ity and mood, and some­times se­vere bouts of de­pres­sion. Cooper likes to use the anal­ogy that light­ning rewires the brain in much the same way that an elec­tri­cal shock can scram­ble a com­puter.

De­spite sym­pa­thy for sur­vivors, some symp­toms still strain Cooper’s credulity. Some main­tain that they can de­tect a storm brew­ing long be­fore it ap­pears on the hori­zon. That’s pos­si­ble, Cooper says, given their height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to stormy signs in the wake of their trauma. She’s less open to those who say their com­puter freezes when they en­ter a room.

Yet, even af­ter decades of re­search, Cooper and other light­ning ex­perts read­ily ad­mit that there are many ­un­re­solved quest ions, in a f ield where there’s lit­tle to no re­search fund­ing to de­ci­pher the an­swers.

Justin could move his legs within five hours of be­ing struck, and fi­nally sought help and test­ing last year for his cog­ni­tive frus­tra­tions.

Along with cop­ing with PTSD, he chafes at liv­ing with a brain that doesn’t func­tion as flu­idly as it once did. “My words in my head are ­jum­bled. When I think about what I’m try­ing to say, it’s all jum­bled up. So when it comes out, it may not sound all right.”

WHEN SOME­ONE IS HIT by light­ning, it hap­pens so fast that only a very tiny amount of elec­tric­ity ric­o­chets through the body. The vast ma­jor­ity trav­els around the out­side in a ‘flashover’ ef­fect, Cooper ex­plains.

Com­ing i nto con­tact w it h high-volt­age elec­tric­ity, such as a downed wire, has the po­ten­tial to cause more in­ter­nal in­juries, since the ex­po­sure can be more pro­longed. A ‘long’ ex­po­sure might be just a few sec­onds. But that’s suf­fi­cient time for the elec­tric­ity to pen­e­trate the skin’s sur­face, risk­ing in­ter­nal in­juries, even to the point of cook­ing mus­cle and tis­sue to the ex­tent that a hand or limb might need to be am­pu­tated.

So what causes ex­ter­nal burns? Cooper ex­plains, as light­ning flashes over the body, it might come into con­tact with sweat or rain­drops on the skin. Liq­uid wa­ter in­creases in vol­ume when it’s turned into steam, so even a small amount can cre­ate a ‘vapour ex­plo­sion’. “It lit­er­ally ex­plodes the clothes off,” says Cooper. Some­times the shoes, too.

How­ever, shoes are more likely to be torn or dam­aged on the in­side, be­cause that’s where the heat build-up and vapour ex­plo­sion oc­curs.

Steam in­ter­acts dif­fer­ently with cloth­ing de­pend­ing on its material. A leather jacket can trap the steam in­side, burn­ing the sur­vivor’s skin. Polyester can melt, leav­ing just a few pieces be­hind.

Cooper authored one of the first stud­ies look­ing at light­ning in­juries, pub­lished nearly four decades ago, in which she re­viewed 66 med­i­cal re­ports about se­ri­ously in­jured pa­tients, in­clud­ing eight that she’d treated her­self. Loss of con­scious­ness was com­mon. About one-third ex­pe­ri­enced at least some tem­po­rary paral­y­sis in their arms or legs.

Those rates might be on the high side – Cooper points out that not all light­ning pa­tients are suf­fi­ciently ­i njured that doc­tors write about their cases. But sur­vivors do of­ten de­scr ibe tem­po­rar y paral­y­sis, like Just in suf fered, or a loss of con­scious­ness, al­though why it oc­curs is not clear.

More is un­der­stood about light­ning’s abil­ity to scram­ble the elec­tri­cal im­pulses of the heart, thanks to ex­per­i­ments with Aus­tralian sheep. Light­ning’s mas­sive elec­tri­cal cur­rent can tem­po­rar­ily stun the heart, says Dr Chris An­drews, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in medicine and a light­ning re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Queens­land. Thank­fully, though, the heart pos­sesses a nat­u­ral pace­maker. Fre­quently, it can re­set it­self.

The prob­lem is that light­ning can also knock out the re­gion of the brain that con­trols breath­ing. This doesn’t have a built-in re­set, mean­ing a per­son’s oxy­gen sup­ply can be­come dan­ger­ously de­pleted. The risk is that the heart will suc­cumb to a sec­ond and po­ten­tially deadly ar­rest, An­drews says. “If some­one has lived to say, ‘Yes, I was stunned [by light­ning],’ it’s prob­a­ble that their res­pi­ra­tion wasn’t com­pletely wiped out and was re-es­tab­lished in time to keep the heart go­ing.”

An­drews’s re­search demon­strates how light­ning’s f lashover cur­rent can in­flict dam­age within the body. Dur­ing his stud­ies, An­drews shocked anes­thetised sheep with volt­age lev­els roughly sim­i­lar to a small light­ning strike and pho­tographed the elec­tric­ity’s path. He showed that as light­ning f lashes over, the elec­tri­cal cur­rent en­ters crit­i­cal por­tals into the body: the eyes, the ears, the mouth. This ex­plains why sur­vivors fre­quently re­port dam­age to the eyes

and ears. They might de­velop cataracts. Or their hear­ing can be per­ma­nently dam­aged.

Par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some is that, by pen­e­trat­ing the ears, light­ning can rapidly reach the brain re­gion that con­trols breath­ing, An­drews says. Upon en­ter­ing the body, the elec­tric­ity can hitch a ride else­where, through the blood or the f luid sur­round­ing the brain and the spinal cord. Once it reaches the blood­stream, An­drews says, the pas­sage to the heart is very quick.

Back in Ari­zona, Jaime San­tana sur­vived the im­me­di­ate light­ning strike. The fam­ily’s beloved horse did not. One pos­si­bil­ity, the trauma sur­geon Syd­ney Vail and others spec­u­late, is that the 700-kilo­gram steed ab­sorbed a good por­tion of the light­ning that nearly killed his 31-year-old rider.

An­other rea­son Jaime sur­vived is that, when he was struck, the neigh­bour who came run­ning – some­one who the fam­ily had never met be­fore – im­me­di­ately started CPR and con­tin­ued un­til the paramedics ar­rived. That CPR oc­curred im­me­di­ately is “the only rea­son he’s alive,” says Vail.

LIGHT­NING BE­GINS HIGH UP in the clouds, some­times 4500 to 7500 me­tres above the earth’s sur­face. As it de­scends to the ground, the elec­tric­ity is search­ing, search­ing, search­ing for some­thing to con­nect with. It steps, al­most stair-like, in a rapid-fire se­ries of roughly 50-me­tre in­cre­ments. Once light­ning is 50 me­tres or so from the ground, it searches again pen­du­lum-style in a nearby ra­dius for “the most con­ve­nient thing to hit the fastest,” says Ron Holle, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist and long-time light­ning re­searcher.

Prime can­di­dates in­clude iso­lated and pointed ob­jects: trees, util­ity poles, build­ings and oc­ca­sion­ally peo­ple. The en­tire cloud-to-ground se­quence hap­pens blind­ingly fast.

The pop­u­lar per­cep­tion is that the chance of be­ing struck by light­ning is one in a mil­lion. But Holle be­lieves that statis­tic is mis­lead­ing.

Holle doesn’t even like the word ‘struck’, say­ing it im­plies that light­ning strikes hit the body di­rectly. In fact, di­rect strikes are sur­pris­ingly rare. Holle, Cooper and other prom­i­nent re­searchers re­cently pooled their ex­per­tise and cal­cu­lated that they’re re­spon­si­ble for no more than three to five per cent of in­juries.

By far the most com­mon cause of in­jury is ground cur­rent, in which the elec­tric­ity cour­ses along the earth’s sur­face, en­snar­ing within its cir­cuitry a herd of cows or a group of peo­ple sleep­ing be­neath a tent.

So what should you do if you find your­self stranded a long way from a build­ing or car when a storm kicks up? Avoid moun­tain peaks, tal l trees or any body of wa­ter. Look for a ravine or a de­pres­sion. Spread out your group, with at least six me­tres be­tween each per­son, to re­duce the

risk of multiple in­juries. Don’t lie down, which boosts your ex­po­sure to ground cur­rent. There’s even a rec­om­mended light­ning po­si­tion: crouched down, keep­ing the feet close to­gether.

But don’t ask Holle about any of these sug­ges­tions. There’s no such thing as a light­ning-proof guar­an­tee, he says more than once. “There are cases where ev­ery one of these [strate­gies] has led to death.” In his cu­bi­cle at the con­trol cen­tre of the US Na­tional Light­ning De­tec­tion Net­work (NLDN) in Tuc­son, Holle has ac­cu­mu­lated stacks of fold­ers filled with ar­ti­cles and other write­ups de­tail­ing a seem­ingly end­less litany of light­ning-re­lated sce­nar­ios involving peo­ple or an­i­mals. Deaths and in­juries have oc­curred in tents, or dur­ing sports com­pe­ti­tions, or to in­di­vid­u­als hud­dled be­neath a golf shel­ter or a pic­nic shel­ter. In­stead, for sim­plic­ity’s sake, ev­ery­one from school chil­dren to their grand­par­ents these days are ad­vised: “When thun­der roars, go in­doors.”

On a se­ries of large screens lin­ing two walls of a room at NLDN’s of­fices, Holle can see where cloudto-ground light­ning is f lash­ing in real time, picked up by strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned sen­sors across the world. Satel­lite data has shown that cer­tain re­gions of the world, gen­er­ally those near the equa­tor, are light­ning-dense. Venezuela, Colom­bia, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo and Pak­istan all rank among the top ten light­ning hotspots.

BET­TER ED­U­CA­TION isn’t the only rea­son why light­ning deaths have steadily de­clined in the US, Aus­tralia and other high-in­come re­gions. Hous­ing con­struc­tion has im­proved. Jobs have moved in­doors. In the US alone, an­nual fa­tal­i­ties have fallen from more than 450 in the early 1990s to fewer than 50 in re­cent years.


There’s al­ways room for im­prove­ment, though. Ari­zona, for ex­am­ple, ranks high in the US when look­ing at light­ning deaths per state pop­u­la­tion. Holle’s the­ory is that peo­ple stay out­side longer in the desert as the rain isn’t nec­es­sar­ily heavy dur­ing storms.

Still, peo­ple in high-in­come coun­tries have it easy, com­pared to those in re­gions where peo­ple have no choice but to work out­side in all con­di­tions and light­ning-safe build­ings are scarce. In one anal­y­sis of agri­cul­tural-re­lated light­ning deaths out­side

the US, Holle learned that more than half of them oc­curred in In­dia, fol­lowed by Bangladesh and the Philip­pines. The vic­tims were young (early 20s for the men, early 30s for the women) and were work­ing in farms and paddy fields.


all af­ter­noon didn’t start to fall un­til Jaime’s sis­ter Sara and her hus­band Ale­jan­dro were driv­ing to visit Jaime in hospi­tal. Ale­jan­dro sat tense, hold­ing on to his ter­ri­ble knowl­edge. “All of this way, I was think­ing, ‘He’s dead. How do I tell her?’”

When they ar­rived, Ale­jan­dro was stunned to learn that Jaime was in surgery. Surgery? There was still hope.

Jaime had ar­rived at the Phoenix trauma cen­tre with an ab­nor­mal heart rhythm, bleed­ing in the brain, bruis­ing to the lungs and dam­age to other or­gans, in­clud­ing his liver, ac­cord­ing to Vai l. Sec­ond- and third-de­gree burns cov­ered nearly one-fifth of his body. Doc­tors put him into a chem­i­cally in­duced coma for nearly two weeks to al­low his body to re­cover, a ven­ti­la­tor help­ing him breathe.

Jaime fi­nally re­turned home af­ter five months of treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, which is con­tin­u­ing. “The hard­est part for me is that I can’t walk,” he says from the liv­ing room of his par­ents’ house. The doc­tors have de­scribed some of Jaime’s nerves as still ‘dor­mant’, says Sara, some­thing that they hope time and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion will mend.

“We’re liv­ing through some­thing that we never thought in a mil­lion years would hap­pen,” says Lu­cia, Jaime’s mother, re­flect­ing on the strike and Jaime’s mirac­u­lous sur­vival. They’ve stopped ask­ing why light­ning caught him in its crosshairs that April af­ter­noon. “We’re never go­ing to be able to an­swer why,” says Sara.

When the cou­ple re­turned home from the hospi­tal the day af­ter the strike, a pea­cock was perched on the rail­ing of the round pen where they work the horses. His colour­ful feath­ers flow­ing be­hind.

They had never seen a pea­cock in Ari­zona be­fore.

Sara looked up what the strik­ing bird sym­bol­ises: re­newal, res­ur­rec­tion, mor­tal­ity. They kept the pea­cock and later found it a mate. Now a fam­ily of pea­cocks fills one of the cor­ral stalls.

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