“It looks like somebody threw a cannonball through it.”
Sometimes they’ll keep the clothing, the strips of shirt or trousers that weren’t cut away by the doctors and nurses. They’ll tell their story, sharing pictures and news reports of survivals like their own or bigger tragedies. Only by piecing together bystander reports can survivors of lightning strikes construct their own picture of the possible trajectory of the electrical current, one that can approach 200 million volts and travel at one-third of the speed of light.
In this way, Jaime Santana’s family stitched together some of what happened one Saturday afternoon in April 2016, through his injuries, burnt clothing and, most of all, his shredded broad-brimmed straw hat. “It looks like somebody threw a cannonball through it,” says Sydney Vail, a trauma surgeon in Phoenix, Arizona, who saw Jaime after he arrived by ambulance.
Jaime had been horse riding with his brother-in-law, Alejandro Torres, and two others in the mountains when dark clouds formed and began heading in their direction. So, the group started back, witnessing quite a bit of lightning as they neared Alejandro’s house. But scarcely a drop of rain had fallen.
They had almost reached the house when it happened.
Alejandro doesn’t think he was knocked out for long. When he regained consciousness, he was lying face down on the ground, sore all over. His horse was gone. The two other riders appeared shaken but unharmed.
Alejandro found Jaime on the other side of his fallen horse. The horse’s legs felt hard, “like metal”, he says. Flames were coming off Jaime’s chest. Three times Alejandro beat out the flames with his hands. Three times they reignited.
Jaime had been struck by lightning.
“My whole body just stopped – I couldn’t move.”
Justin Gauger wishes his memory of being struck by lightning while trout fishing in Arizona wasn’t so vivid. An avid fisherman, Justin had been elated when the storm kicked up suddenly that August afternoon more than three years ago. Fish are more likely to bite when it’s raining, he told his wife, Rachel.
But as the rain turned into hail, Rachel and their two children headed for the truck. When the pellets grew larger, Justin grabbed a nearby folding chair and raced for the truck.
Then came a crashing boom. A jolting, excruciating pain. “My whole body just stopped – I couldn’t move,” recalls Justin. “I saw a white light surrounding my body – it was like I was in a bubble. Everything was in slow motion.”
A couple huddling under a nearby tree ran to Justin’s assistance. They later told him that he was still clutching the chair. His body was smoking.
When Justin came to, his ears were ringing, and he was paralysed from the waist down. “Once I figured out I couldn’t move my legs, I started freaking out.”
Describing that day, Justin draws one hand across his back, tracing the path of his burns, which at one point covered roughly a third of his body. They began near his right shoulder and extended diagonally across his torso, he says, and then continued along the outside of each leg.
He holds up his boots, tipping them to show several burn marks on the interior. Those deep, dark roundish spots line up with the singed areas on the socks he was wearing – and with the coin-sized burns he had on both feet.
The singed markings also align with several needle-sized holes located just above the thick rubber soles of his size 13 boots. Justin’s best guess – based on reports from the nearby couple, along with the wound on his right shoulder – is that the lightning hit his upper body and then exited through his feet.
What happens if you get struck by lightning
Although survivors frequently talk about entry and exit wounds, it’s difficult to figure out precisely what path the lightning takes, says Mary Ann Cooper, a retired emergency medicine doctor and long-time lightning researcher. The visible evidence of lightning’s wrath is more reflective of the type of clothing a survivor has on, the coins they are carrying in their pockets and the jewellery they are wearing, says Cooper.
Lightning is responsible for more than 4000 deaths worldwide annually – according to those documented in reports from 26 countries. Cooper is one of a small global cadre of doctors, meteorologists, electrical engineers and others who study what happens if you get struck by lightning, and ideally how to avoid it in the first place.
Of every 10 people struck, nine will survive. But they could suffer a variety of short- and long-term effects: cardiac arrest, confusion, seizures, dizziness, muscle aches, deafness, headaches, memory deficits, distractibility, personality changes and chronic pain, among others.
Survivors typically experience changes in personality and mood, and sometimes severe bouts of depression. Cooper likes to use the analogy that lightning rewires the brain in much the same way that an electrical shock can scramble a computer.
Despite sympathy for survivors, some symptoms still strain Cooper’s credulity. Yet, even after decades of research, Cooper and other lightning experts readily admit that there are many unresolved questions, in a field where there’s little to no research funding to decipher the answers.
Justin could move his legs within five hours of being struck, and finally sought help and testing last year for his cognitive frustrations.
Along with coping with PTSD, he chafes at living with a brain that doesn’t function as fluidly as it once did. “My words in my head are jumbled. When I think about what I’m trying to say, it’s all jumbled up. So, when it comes out, it may not sound all right.”