September 28, 2014

KNOCK ON WOOD (profanity alert):

The Body Electric : Every year, more than 500 Americans will be struck by lightning--and roughly 90 percent of them will survive. Though they remain among the living, their minds and bodies will be instantly, fundamentally altered in ways that still leave scientists scratching their heads. (FERRIS JABR, October 2014, Outside)

In popular culture, to be hit by a bolt of lightning is to suffer extremely bad luck. Rain, snow, and hail are largely indiscriminate: within a certain radius, everything is drenched, blanketed, or pelted. A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt is different. It blazes a discrete path through the sky. It appears to have choice. When lightning hits a human being, a survivor must reconcile not only what happened but why it happened. Why me? For most victims, it is not the unforgettable horror of an agonizing ordeal that haunts them--many can't even recall the incident itself; it's the mysterious physical and psychological symptoms that emerge, often long after their immediate wounds have healed and doctors have cleared them to return to their normal routines. But nothing is normal anymore. Chronic pain, memory trouble, personality changes, and mood swings can all follow an encounter with lightning, leaving friends and family members confused, while survivors, grappling with a fundamental shift in identity, feel increasingly alienated by the incomprehensible nature of their condition. Something happened in a single moment--something strange and rare, something unbelievable--and after that moment, everything has changed.

Even more confounding is that almost no one in the mainstream medical community can explain what's happening to them. Although many scientists have spent their careers examining the physics of lightning, only a handful of doctors and researchers have devoted themselves to the study of how lightning damages the human body. The incident rates are simply not high enough to warrant an entire subfield of science. Nearly everything we now know about treating lightning victims concerns the immediate wounds, many of which don't even require special medical knowledge.

Paramedics, often needing to treat victims who aren't entirely sure what has happened to them, receive brief training on how to recognize the common signs of a lightning strike. True entry and exit wounds are uncommon, but lightning typically leaves some kind of mark on the skin. One afternoon in 2009, a hiker named Becky Garriss awoke on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, sitting on a bed of pine needles, her back against a tree, as though she'd fallen asleep in its shade. Her right arm was paralyzed, pinned against her chest in a pledge of allegiance. Here and there, her pants were charred. Although she was disoriented and scared, she managed to hike more than ten muddy miles down Glastenbury Mountain to call for help. When she got to a hospital, doctors recognized lightning's smoldering touch on Garriss's right arm and leg. A bolt probably hit her directly, they told her.

Other survivors awaken into temporary blindness or deafness; sometimes the concussive force of the strike--or the electricity itself--ruptures eardrums. Some victims report the taste of metal on their tongues. Now and then, survivors develop strangely beautiful pink and brown bruises known as Lichtenburg figures, which look like intricate henna tattoos of branching fronds. These bruises likely trace the path of electricity that forced blood cells out of capillaries into more superficial layers of skin.

In rare instances, the surge of electricity is enough to stop a victim's heart and lungs. That's what happened to Michael Utley. But cardiac arrest is something any paramedic knows how to handle. Twenty minutes after Utley was struck, EMTs had arrived on the scene, strapped him to a gurney, and loaded him into an ambulance. They used a defibrillator to keep his heart going. Doctors at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital then spent more than five weeks caring for Utley before they determined that he was ready for rehabilitation.

After leaving the hospital, Utley spent months relearning to swallow, move his fingers, and walk. Rehab was just the first chapter of his ordeal, however. In his previous life, Utley was a successful stockbroker who often went skiing and windsurfing. Today, at 62, he lives on disability insurance in Cape Cod. "I don't work," he says. "I can't work. My memory's fried, and I don't have energy like I used to. I aged 30 years in a second. I walk and talk and play golf--but I still fall down. I'm in pain most of the time. I can't walk 100 yards without stopping. I look like a drunk."

Lightning also dramatically altered his personality. "It made me a mean, ornery son of a bitch. I'm short-tempered. Nothing is fun anymore. I am just not the same person my wife married," says Utley, who is now divorced. Like many survivors, Utley sees his fateful union with lightning as more than just a close call he was lucky to survive. It marks a moment in which he was split from himself.

Posted by at September 28, 2014 9:33 AM

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