Spend a summer in Colorado, and you’ll feel it. It begins with a subtle shift of the wind and a gradual darkening of the clouds. Linger outside, and peals of distant thunder grow to a sky-splitting volume. The air crackles with electricity, buzzing between shoelaces and lifting arm hair into a static-y stiffness. It’s only a matter of time before the electric charges overwhelm the clouds and flash to Earth in terrifying, 50,000-degree bolts. And every year, those bolts find people—hikers, boaters, picnickers, softball players, people walking their dogs—along the way.
Most Coloradans dread a direct zap, but instant death by lightning bolt is hardly the most likely outcome to fear. Lightning kills only one out of 10 strike victims outright, usually from cardiac arrest, leaving the other 90 percent alive but at risk for a lifetime of mysterious, debilitating symptoms, for which there is no specific treatment. “Lightning can cause injuries to every single organ system and neurological system in the body,” says Dr. George Rossie, a Denver neuropsychologist and member of St. Anthony Hospital’s Lightning Data Center. “And it’s impossible to predict which organ systems will be affected.” Survivors’ experiences vary wildly: Some escape with relatively minor injuries, while others battle serious, long-lasting trauma to the brain and nervous system. These survivors may face cognitive and memory deficits, nerve damage, chronic pain, seizures, and personality changes. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety are common. Some survivors can no longer function in their careers, and personal relationships often become a casualty of the strike. “It can be a devastating injury to the person and to the family,” says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, an expert in lightning injury and professor emerita at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She says that having an understanding physician who is willing to work with the patient to find a successful treatment method—from cognitive or physical therapy to pain medication—is essential to recovery.
Mountain weather, great swathes of exposed high country, and a fanatically outdoorsy population combine to make the Rocky Mountain region ground zero for lightning deaths and injuries. Wyoming and Colorado ranked number one and two, respectively, for fatal strikes per million residents from 2002 to 2011, and Colorado alone accounts for 141 deaths over the past 52 years (making us the state with the fifth-highest body count, behind several southern states with much more frequent lightning flashes). Experts estimate that there are 10 injuries for every reported fatality, making lightning a serious concern for Coloradans. “People realize that it’s very dangerous,” says strike survivor Betsy Smith. “But do they realize how careful they need to be? Definitely not.”