© Mitch Dobrowner 2014

The Body Electric

Summer skies in the U.S. generate 50,000 lightning flashes per hour. 240 thousand people worldwide are injured by that lightning evey year. Photo: Mitch Dobrowner

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.

Michael Utley does not remember much about his death. 

Over the years, he has woven together a narrative of what happened using threads collected from witnesses, friends, and family. On May 8, 2000, Utley, a 48-year-old stockbroker, was golfing with his coworkers Dick Gill and Bill Todd, along with their friend Jim Sullivan, in the village of Pocasset, Massachusetts, about three miles south of the Cape Cod Canal. Shortly after lunch, the dark clouds that had been mushrooming in the distance all morning were hovering close enough to merit the bleating of the course’s storm horn—time to clear the green.

Gill, Todd, and Sullivan immediately headed toward the clubhouse. Utley walked back to the hole and returned the flagstick. Seconds later, the guys in front heard a thunderous crack and turned to see Utley stumbling to the ground, tendrils of smoke curling off his body. Their friend had collapsed in a single perplexing instant. His shoes were several feet away from his body; his fingers looked like they had been flambéed; his eyebrows and wavy chestnut hair were wiry and crisped. Gill, an ex-Marine who had recently taken a refresher course in CPR, ran to Utley’s side, began blowing air into his lungs, and instructed Todd to perform chest compressions. As Sullivan rushed off to get help, the clouds unleashed a deluge of rain and hail.

Utley cannot recall any of this. Not the arrival of the paramedics, nor having his heart restarted in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. His first memory after leaving the golf course is of waking up in a different ambulance, tubes down his throat, monitors everywhere, and a paramedic in a blue smock at his feet.

“Where am I?” Utley rasped.

“You’re on your way to rehab,” the paramedic said.

“What the fuck happened?”

“You were struck by lightning 38 days ago.”

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.

On a typical summer afternoon, thunder-clouds above the continental United States generate an average of 50,000 lightning flashes per hour. Two-thirds of these stay near the heavens. They pierce the sky with branching networks of blue and white fire, or strike out a short distance in thin tongues of electricity, or illuminate clouds from within like muffled firecrackers. The remaining minority of lightning bolts, however, find earthbound targets—a church steeple, a telephone pole, a tree.

Even rarer are bolts that directly strike and kill humans. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these fatalities in the U.S. happen in June, July, and August, the months when thunderstorms are more prevalent and the greatest number of Americans are recreating outside. According to a recent National Weather Service analysis, fishing, boating, swimming, and camping put the most people at risk each year. Last July, two visitors in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park were killed by separate strikes on the same weekend.

When people and lightning meet, however, death is an unlikely outcome. Roy Cleveland, a ranger at Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, survived a record seven strikes between 1942 and 1977. This fact appears to defy logic. An average lightning bolt carries 500 megajoules of energy—enough to instantly boil 250 gallons of water. It heats the air it zips through to five times the surface temperature of the sun. Still, around 90 percent of lightning-strike victims survive. Over the past three decades, lightning has killed an average of 51 people per year in the U.S. but left more than 500 injured and alive.

Becky Elizabeth Garris struck by lightning
Lightning survivor Becky Garris.   Photo: Ethan Hill / REDUX Pictures

One explanation is that lightning strikes are fundamentally different from the more common high-voltage electrical accidents in the home or workplace that people mistakenly compare them to. When an electrician inadvertently grabs a live wire, far less current typically seizes him than is contained in a lightning bolt, but it does so for a longer duration. The surge of current causes victims to lose control, rendering them unable to let go. After a few seconds, the electricity coursing through the body has enough time to sear internal organs and interrupt the heart. Lightning strikes, lasting less than a half-millionth of a second, often scorch the skin but don’t cause internal burns.

Just as crucial, most of the electricity in a lightning bolt does not pass through the body. Rather, it dissipates over the skin in what’s known as a flashover. Vernon Cooray, a lightning scientist at Uppsala University in Sweden, explains the phenomenon by contrasting the ways a human body and a tree react when struck. Both trees and people are filled with a soup of water and minerals that conduct electricity pretty well. But because trees are covered in dry, inelastic bark, lightning traveling through the trunk has no escape route. It must stay its course. In the process, it superheats the water and sap inside the tree into explosive steam, which can rip apart the trunk and branches.

Compared with tree bark, human skin is much more pliant and moist. Sweat and rainwater make it extra conductive, providing an alternate external path for voltage. Most of the electricity can pass over strike victims rather than coursing through them. “The path through the body has much greater resistance than the path around the body,” says Vladimir Rakov, a University of Florida researcher and one of the world’s leading authorities on lightning physics. “Current always chooses the path of least resistance.”

A flashover can still do damage indirectly. The electricity crackling over the surface of the human body singes clothing, vaporizes sweat and moisture into scalding steam, and renders metal objects like belt buckles, keys, and jewelry so hot that they burn the skin. Occasionally, all that steam even blows victims’ shoes and socks off.

The best advice for people who find themselves outside during a lightning storm is simply to get inside, either a home or a vehicle. Yet even buildings aren’t completely impervious to lightning strikes. You’ll want to stay off the telephone, out of the shower, and away from sinks. Lightning can pass through landlines, plumbing—metal pipes and faucets—and all manner of electrical wiring. Last February, it ruptured gas pipes in the crawl space of a house in Steuben County, Indiana. A kitchen appliance then ignited the vented gas, causing a massive explosion. The only family member home at the time was the dog, Boomer. A neighbor rescued him from the rubble after he was sent flying from the house in his crate.

One common type of lightning encounter, responsible for 20 to 30 percent of injuries, is a side flash or splash, when lightning leaps from one grounded object to another—from a building to a person, from a tree to a horse, or even from a person to another. In nearly all these incidents, too little electricity enters the body to be lethal. A direct strike almost always delivers more current inside a person, making it much more deadly. A strike like the one Utley suffered probably should have killed him, too. Had his friends not performed CPR so quickly, he wouldn’t be alive today.

For Utley, getting adequate treatment after he recovered was a struggle. He was eventually fortunate enough to find a few doctors who helped him cope with the long-term symptoms, but along the way he met many medical experts who understood little or nothing about the kind of injuries 
he sustained.

“Finding a doctor who knows anything about a lightning strike is next to impossible,” says Tamara Pandolph-Peary, 46, who was struck by lightning in August 2010, in the parking lot of the Springfield, Illinois, Men’s Warehouse where she worked.

Following her accident, Pandolph-Peary forgot how to use everyday objects, like a potato peeler; she could no longer get from point A to point B in her hometown; she suffered migraines and fatigue; she tripped over her sentences or suddenly lost the ability to understand what other people were saying; she was often dizzy and off-balance; she had tremors and chronic pain, and would unpredictably lose control of various body parts; and every now and then, when her nerves were on fire, even the slightest touch was painfully intense.

“I struggled with the ‘Why me?’ initially,” she says. “There was a time I was angry. There was a time I really missed who I used to be. I think I got past that part. You can be angry and hold onto that, and it can ruin everything you have left.”

Mary Ann Cooper, professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of the few medical doctors who have attempted to investigate how lightning alters the brain’s circuitry. A no-nonsense, bespectacled woman with a short-cropped bob of silvering strawberry hair, her fascination with lightning dates to childhood. “My dad swore his kids were not going to hide from thunderstorms in the closet or under the beds,” Cooper, now 65, recalls. “It was like the Fourth of July for us whenever we had a thunderstorm. We always watched them.”

In the seventies, a friend of a family member suffered a high-voltage electrical injury. Knowing that she was about to start medical school, Cooper’s friends started asking a lot of questions about how electricity harms the body and what to do about it. She began to investigate, and later, while still in school, she started lecturing about the burns people suffer due to industrial electrical accidents. At one talk, a member of the audience asked about lightning injuries. Cooper looked for relevant information in emergency medical textbooks but found nothing, so she decided to fill the gap herself.

Over the past three decades, Cooper has written articles on lightning safety, helped set up websites for survivors, and published many academic papers. A link on her UIC page points visitors to most of her work on the topic, including studies with esoteric titles such as “Electron Paramagnetic Resonance Spectroscopic Evidence of Increased Free Radical Generation and Selective Damage to Skeletal Muscle Following Lightning Injury.” Acquiring the funds and lab space for controlled experiments has been difficult. Much of Cooper’s work is based on observations, medical examinations, and mathematical models. Survivors often get in touch with her, and she has interviewed many of them in detail, looking for clues to how lightning wreaks its peculiar form of havoc.

Her typical case study might be someone like Phil Broscovak. In August 2005, Broscovak, his wife, their three young children, and Broscovak’s nephew and his girlfriend went camping in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, where ancient granite burgeons and spires from the earth. On August 13, after a campsite breakfast, the group decided to climb Edward’s Crack—a long, vertical fracture in a giant slab known as Walt’s Wall. There was nothing ominous in the skies when they began their ascent, merely a few scattered clouds. Shortly before noon, however, claps of thunder echoed in the distance, and a gray veil of unfriendly weather descended. By the time Broscovak managed to get everyone but himself back on the ground, it was raining and the thunder sounded much closer. He was in the process of retrieving gear from the wall of rock when his rope tangled in a bush. Oh God, he thought, scrambling across the slippery granite. It’s Ben Franklin all over again. After Broscovak ripped out the shrub by its roots, his rope got caught a second time, in a small crevice. While he was trying to undo the knot, it happened.

An immense blast of light. A sound like a grenade exploding in his head. A pain like a thousand wasps stinging him from within. A gelatinous blue plasma enveloping his body. And his leg jerking away as though pulled by invisible marionette strings. This is what Phil Broscovak remembers.

The lightning bolt hit Walt’s Wall just a few feet from Broscovak, splashed into his leg, and surged over his body, possibly exiting through a shoulder blade. The shock flung him from the rock and briefly knocked him unconscious. He awoke, dangling from his ropes and harness, to the screams of his terrified family 170 feet below. Spotting a patch of scorched rock beside him, he recalled the light and pain and realized what must have happened.

“I’m OK! I’m OK!” he yelled to his family. All he could think about was getting down to them as fast as he could. When he did, they rushed back to the car to wait out the storm. Although several people insisted that Broscovak go to the hospital, he didn’t think it was necessary. “My wife was the kind of person who would go to the doctor at the drop of a hat,” Broscovak says. “I’m the kind of person who has to have ribs poking out of my chest. I really did not take it seriously at the time.”

The next morning, however, he couldn’t stand straight. Any movement was painful. Every hair follicle seemed to ache. Far more troubling than the pain and soreness was the dramatic fluctuation of his mental acuity. Ever since the strike, Broscovak has slipped in and out of what he describes as fugue states. When the mists descend, he has trouble remembering even the simplest facts. Sitting at his computer, he’ll think one word and write another or will be incapable of understanding what he just typed on the screen. “I consider myself a very articulate person, but on a couple occasions I broke down in tears because I couldn’t remember how to spell the word the,” Broscovak tells me. He has struggled with insomnia, become hypersensitive to everyday sounds, and suffered from tinnitus. “I would rage and scream and stomp my feet. It was irrational, and no one would understand it. Those fugue states were a contributing factor to the end of my marriage.”

Broscovak, like many survivors, has also endured symptoms that are remarkably similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Once, during a rainstorm after his divorce, he pulled into his driveway, called his roommate from the car, and insisted that she open the front door of their house so that he could dash inside as quickly as possible. Two years after the strike, while climbing Taylor Canyon in Colorado on another family camping trip, the sound of distant thunder terrified Broscovak so much that he refused to climb any farther and ended up on the floor of a cave in the fetal position, crying, for 45 minutes. “It was devastating,” he says. “It was a nervous breakdown. I thought I would never climb again.”

Now and then, Broscovak, 57, told doctors about the lightning strike and fugue states, but generally they didn’t take him seriously. “I would always bring up that I was struck by lightning, and they would just say, ‘Oh, that’s curious.’ ” Since the accident, Broscovak’s symptoms have become more manageable. A sinewy, bearded man with tan skin and green eyes, he has returned to climbing. Ironically, he has also continued his longtime career—as an electrician. (“In those situations,” he explains, “I control the electricity.”) Like Pandolph-Peary, he owes his recovery primarily to time, not medical interventions.

Time, meanwhile, hasn’t led to any significant research breakthroughs to explain his condition. After more than three decades of examining lightning victims, Mary Ann Cooper still can’t definitively 
say what causes the chronic symptoms experienced by survivors like Broscovak, Pandolph-Peary, and Utley. But she has some ideas.

Phil Brocovak struck lightning survivor
Lightning surivivor Phil Broscovak.   Photo: Ethan Hill / REDUX Pictures

The evidence suggests that lightning injuries are, for the most part, injuries to the brain, the nervous system, and the muscles. Lightning can ravage or kill cells, but it can also leave a trail of much subtler damage. Cooper and other researchers have speculated that chronic issues are the result of lightning scrambling each individual survivor’s unique internal circuitry. She points out that even tiny amounts of electricity zipping through the body can permanently alter the behavior of neurons and other cells, which, in order to function correctly, depend on carefully orchestrated changes in the number of charged particles on either side of their membranes.

One of Cooper’s studies seems to support this theory. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which traces blood flow in the brain, Cooper found statistically significant differences in brain activity between lightning-strike victims and healthy people as they performed mental-aptitude tests inside the scanner. Her results have been published, but she isn’t currently pursuing funding for further research. It’s just not important enough to most doctors and scientists, she says. These days she’s more focused on helping build awareness and preventing lightning injuries than looking into long-term symptoms.

Faced with a medical community largely unable to help them, survivors frequently turn to one another. The U.S. is home to at least two conferences of lightning-strike survivors each year—one in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the other in Lynchburg, Virginia. In November 2010, I spent a couple of days at the Lynchburg conference. Each morning, attendees who had been injured by lightning or other electrical accidents gathered at a brick building owned by the American Legion. The first day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and silent prayer. Then, one by one, survivors stepped up to the podium and shared their stories.

A man in a bright orange shirt explained how he lost both his arms to an accident with an electrical cable. Others described the confusion they felt after recovery. Antoinette Palmisano spoke of the day in 1991 when she was struck by lightning inside a home office in Syracuse, New York. Lightning surged through the house’s electrical wiring, leaped out of a panel of switches like a poltergeist, seized Palmisano’s body, and threw her ten feet across the room. Today, Palmisano still suffers from acute fatigue and has trouble remembering simple information. She plasters her home with Post-it Notes and places timers in every room. The scribbled instructions and alarms remind her about appointments, errands, and daily tasks that most of us easily juggle in our heads.

One of the first people I met in Lynchburg was a woman in a wheelchair who told me her name was Butterfly. She was wearing a loose purple shirt, khakis, weathered hiking boots, two pairs of sunglasses—one of which had cartoon eyes on the lenses—and a dream-catcher necklace. Butterfly claimed to have been struck by lightning on three separate occasions in the span of 41 years. Her body often quivered uncontrollably. She said she could no longer walk, that she had lost all ability to detect temperature, and that she felt like her bone marrow had evaporated, leaving her brittle. She stressed the importance of potassium supplements for survivors. She also admitted that the official diagnosis she received from doctors was conversion disorder, in which bodily symptoms are the manifestation of psychological stress rather than the result of physical damage. A few doctors had suspected her of malingering.

Listening to other, similarly curious accounts, it became clear that some lightning-strike survivors fabricate or exaggerate parts of their stories—whether intentionally or not. A few claimed to have suddenly developed bizarre powers after the strike. I have spoken with survivors who are adamant that they give off energy that somehow shortens the lives of electronic devices or makes streetlights go dark when they walk beneath them, that they can sense an approaching thunderstorm, or that lightning is more attracted to them than to people who have not been hit.

Michael Utley lightning struckbylightning.org struck by survivor golf course coma
Lightning survivor Michael Utley.   Photo: Ethan Hill / REDUX Pictures

To some survivors, these more outlandish claims only serve to reinforce the idea that their very real issues are suspect, too. “I have met people who say they have been struck three times and say the can see the future, play the piano, fuck all night long,” says Utley. “It’s all bullshit.”

About a year into his recovery, Utley attended his first survivors’ conference in Tennessee. There he met Dr. Cooper, who asked him to help launch the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s first official lightning-safety awareness week, which kicked off in June 2001. Its maxim: “When thunder roars, go indoors.” The next year, Utley created Struckbylightning.org—a website devoted to educating people about preventing lightning injury—and started regularly speaking at schools and to Boy Scout troops and doing guest spots on televised weather reports. He continues to make educational outreach a priority, but he has not attended a survivors’ conference in quite some time.

“When I first got hurt, the conferences were the best thing in the world,” Utley says. “You’re out there saying, ‘I was struck by lightning,’ and most people don’t get it. These people understood. But as you get better, you tend not to go to them.”

Utley has trained his mind on the future. Despite the personality change and relentless pain—despite the hunger for an explanation that would make sense of it all—he no longer fixates on a “why” that probably doesn’t exist. You might wonder if you were chosen by that bolt, you might be suffering from mysterious symptoms, you might feel like an entirely different person, but it’s best not to ask why. “Yeah, I was pissed at first—I was pissed at the whole world,” Utley says. “I woke up and I couldn’t walk, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t do anything. What happened, and why? Why did I get struck and not the three guys 15 feet away from me? There’s no rhyme or reason. You can ask questions all you want, but it’s like yelling at the ocean. It does not answer back.” 

Ferris Jabr (@ferrisjabr) is a contributing writer at Scientific American. He lives in New York City.

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