Feature

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

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.”

 

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.”

 

Back from the Brink

Struck on: July 17, 2006  |  Marble, Colorado

Brock Neville was 15 years old the day a lightning bolt stopped his heart. It was July 17, 2006: He remembers hiking into the Lead King Basin near Marble, Colorado, with his aunt, uncle, and the Wooldridges, a family of friendly Denverites they’d met earlier that week. He recalls snapping photos of columbine-choked meadows as he went, and remembers the sudden deluge at 12,000 feet that forced him under a tree for cover. He knows he leaned against the trunk as he pulled on a rain shell. But after that, nothing. His memory goes blank.

Neville’s aunt and uncle filled him in on the rest a few days later. A Kansas native, Neville didn’t know that lightning can travel from a treetop into a nearby human body—which is exactly what happened when the storm’s first flash struck the tree he was leaning on, flowing into him through his right hand. The force of the strike knocked everyone in the group to the ground and temporarily paralyzed his uncle, Chad Mohr, from the waist down. But only Neville’s heart skittered to a stop.

Charlie Wooldridge remembered CPR from his Boy Scout days. The Denver artist rushed to Neville’s side and pumped life back into him for 20 minutes, until his pulse finally stabilized. After Wooldridge and his family left to get help, Neville’s uncle saved his life a second time, 30 minutes later, by forcing the pooling blood and fluid out of Neville’s lungs using the Heimlich maneuver.

“The first thing I remember is seeing my mom and dad crying their eyes out in the hospital,” Neville says. “The doctors didn’t think I would make it.” He was in bad shape: Besides the damage to his heart and lungs, the lightning had ruptured Neville’s right eardrum, burned his right retina, and left him covered in chicken pox–like skin burns. “I had a watch on my right arm, and it burned a perfect watch shape into my wrist,” he says.

After three days in Glenwood Springs’ Valley View Hospital, Neville’s doctors let him go home. “But it was three months before I could get up and do anything,” he says. “It was a struggle for me to walk 100 feet to the mailbox. I’d come back and be so exhausted I’d have to sleep the rest of the day. It felt like the worst case of mono ever.”

But Neville, now 21 and a senior agronomy major at Kansas State University, was lucky: After about six months, he made a near-complete recovery. Of course, some effects do persist. Since the strike, he’s been allergic to metal; jewelry or a watch against his skin makes him swell and itch. Still, he’s not complaining. “It’s a miracle that I’m still here,” he says.

His experience with the raw force of lightning initially made him fear thunderstorms. A few years of distance from the incident has given him a new perspective. In fact, he’s become downright obsessed with the type of weather that almost killed him. “I’m completely in love with storms now,” Neville says. “I’m often outside, taking pictures of lightning. It’s neat to look at that phenomenon and know that I survived it.”

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Research | Local Expertise

Colorado’s epicenter for lightning Information

For 21 years, the Lightning Data Center at St. Anthony Hospital has worked to demystify the injuries and experiences of lightning-strike victims. Comprised of doctors, meteorologists, and even a lightning photographer, this interdisciplinary group gets together monthly to discuss case studies and meet with strike survivors. For more information on the center, email Ken Langford, president of the Lightning Data Center, at [email protected]

 

A Climber’s Nightmare

Struck on: July 21, 2010  |  Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

A rock ledge at 13,600 feet ranks among the worst places to be during a thunderstorm. But that’s where Betsy Smith, now 28, found herself stranded when a fast-moving storm cut off her group’s route on Wyoming’s Grand Teton at 10:30 a.m. on July 21, 2010. Smith and her group—boyfriend Alan Kline and two friends—didn’t know it at the time, but 13 others were also trapped on the peak, setting the stage for the largest rescue operation in Grand Teton National Park’s history.

With the risk of retreating back across the knife-edge ridge too high to attempt, Smith and her group huddled together on the ledge as the storm buzzed around them. “It was torture listening to the static start to build,” Smith says. “The only thing that would release it was lightning. For three hours we wondered what would release it. Our gear? The top of the mountain? Or us?”

Kline was the first to be hit, losing consciousness for a few seconds. Then one or two bolts—no one is sure how many—struck Smith. She fell back, crippled by pain and completely paralyzed. “I was convinced my body had become soup inside my clothes,” she says. It took 45 minutes for mobility to return enough for her to handle being lowered down the mountain on Kline’s makeshift rappel. Kline ferried the group 1,000 feet down to the Upper Saddle, where they met rescuers and eventually took helicopters down the mountain.

Burns were Smith’s most severe injuries. Doctors performed a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure in her left arm, slicing a four-inch-long cut above a burn encircling her wrist (where her watch had been); it had swollen enough to cut off circulation to her hand. Smith’s right index finger—already necrotic from another burn—had to be amputated. She left the hospital with both arms bandaged and splinted across her chest. Whether she’d regain full range of motion was anybody’s guess.

Fortunately, Smith’s physical recovery progressed well: Therapy helped restore most of her arm strength, and skin grafts returned her left arm to near-normality. Her phantom finger, nicknamed “Thelma,” still tingles occasionally. But the invisible wounds lingered on. “Right after the accident, I had nearly debilitating depression,” Smith says, citing the perfect storm of pain medication, the uncertainty of her injuries, and having to leave the Montana home she loved to accept help from Kline’s family in Connecticut. Enrolling in nursing school six months later got her back on track. “Even today, I have to stay very busy and on task,” she says. “I just keep on swimming.”

To this day, flashbacks intrude on Smith’s consciousness. “Everything replays over and over. I can’t get away from it,” she says. “People seem shocked when I tell them I think about it multiple times every day.” Despite it all, Smith still goes climbing. “Mountain weather is mountain weather,” she says with a shrug. “But I’m a bit more picky about the forecast now.”

 

Lightning 101

What you need to know to stay safe.

The National Weather Service’s tagline—When thunder roars, go indoors!—nails the single best way to protect yourself. Don’t worry about calculating the storm’s distance from you; if you can hear thunder, you’re already within strike range. Below, a few more tips to consider. 

DO seek shelter in a hard-topped car if a safe building is unavailable.

DON’T linger in garages, picnic shelters, covered patios, or tents. Such structures provide no protection.

DO check the forecast and monitor the weather if you’re coaching (or attending) an athletic event. Coaches should postpone play and take shelter as soon as they see lightning or hear thunder.

DO wait 30 minutes after the last roll of thunder before going back outside.

DON’T stand near tall, isolated objects, like trees or telephone poles. Lightning tends to strike the tallest object in an area and can jump to your body.

DO climb early to avoid common afternoon thunderstorms. Plan to be off of high peaks and below treeline by noon, especially June through September. 

DON’T be the tallest object around if you’re stuck outside during a storm. Avoid ridgelines, summits, cave entrances, or meadows. Better bets: uniform stands of trees and ravines. 

DO spread out if lightning is striking nearby so that one bolt won’t incapacitate your entire group.