After Shock

Colorado and Wyoming rank at the top of the list for lightning-strike fatalities in the United States. It’s scary stuff. But dying from a bolt of electricity may not be nearly as frightening as surviving one.
January 2013


The Hot Route

Struck on: August 13, 2005  |  Vedauwoo, Wyoming

Phil Broscovak can pinpoint the exact instant his life turned upside down: 12:38 p.m., August 13, 2005, just after a lightning bolt blasted him off a sheer rock face, leaving him dangling in midair.

The Louisville electrician and longtime climber, now 55, had taken two of his kids and a nephew to Vedauwoo, a popular climbing spot just over the Wyoming border, for a day on Edward’s Crack. Broscovak’s nephew, Barry, the last climber to tackle the route, was nearly finished when thunder rumbled to the west. Broscovak got the group to safety, then tied in and climbed back up to retrieve their equipment.

He remembers traversing 60 feet to a permanent anchor just before the skies erupted and a tangled rope halted his descent. “All of a sudden, the storm was on me,” he says. Up to a billion volts of electricity struck the rock eight inches from Broscovak’s head, then arced to him: “It felt like being stung by 10,000 wasps from the inside out.” As he fell, Broscovak was dimly aware of a bluish glow surrounding his body. Then he hit the end of the rope and blacked out. It got worse. “I can’t describe how much pain I was in,” he says. “When you get a pulse of electricity, every muscle fires simultaneously—you’re flopping around like a cancan dancer. The next day, I couldn’t stand up straight.” Still, Broscovak didn’t head to the emergency room; having been battered and bruised on climbs in the past, he thought he could simply “push through.”

Horrific as it was, the trauma from that day marked only the beginning of an arduous, seven-year struggle to overcome the damage done to his nervous system. “It’s very much a traumatic brain injury,” Broscovak says. Electrical shocks of that magnitude can injure the central, autonomic, and peripheral nervous systems, wreaking havoc on everything from memory to temperature perception to language usage. Broscovak experienced the gamut of symptoms during his enduring bout with what he calls “lightning malaria”: periods of near normality interrupted by unpredictable, Jekyll and Hyde–like transformations. During these fugue states, which lasted for several days at a time, he became hypersensitive to sound. Basic words would elude him when he tried to write or speak. He alternated between crippling insomnia and days when he couldn’t force his eyelids to open. His perception of body temperature went off the rails—probably due to an injury to the hypothalamus portion of the brain—leaving him swaddled in blankets on sweltering days and sweating in subzero weather.

Not surprisingly, these fugues left him agitated, irritated, and exhausted—and his relationships suffered for it. “He’d have mood changes when the weather was changing,” remembers Broscovak’s daughter, Amber, who was 11 when he was struck. “It was scary. He’d get really angry and upset. At the time, I didn’t really understand why it had such an effect on him.” Broscovak’s marriage also fell apart in the aftermath. “The strike was a huge factor in my divorce,” he says.

At first, Broscovak suffered largely alone. Not realizing the severity of his injury, he didn’t seek immediate medical attention; it took him months to tie his bizarre symptoms to the strike. “I thought I was just working too hard,” he says ruefully. Even when he made the connection, “Doctors would blow it off,” he says. “You’re thrown out on your own.” What did finally help was getting in touch with other lightning-strike survivors through online forums and support groups. Through them, Broscovak learned he wasn’t going crazy—and he wasn’t alone. “It really does change you,” he says. “It’s an invisible burden. People don’t understand—there’s no sympathy for people hurting.”

Over the next seven years, the fugue states lessened in frequency and intensity until they almost disappeared. (Broscovak attributes much of his recovery to blue-green algae and fish oil supplements, though University of Illinois-Chicago’s Dr. Mary Ann Cooper cautions that there’s currently no scientific evidence for their effectiveness.) Today, though he still experiences symptoms, they’re much milder. One afternoon last July, nearly seven years after his brush with death, Broscovak was guiding a client on Boulder’s Flatirons when a thunderstorm stalled in the air just east of town. “I was nervous, but I kept it together,” he says. “Emotionally, that was a huge step for me.”