Surviving a lightning strike
Luke Elliott was 32 when a routine job fixing a fence on his father’s northern Queensland property changed his life.
The repair was being made during a thunderstorm when, without warning and some distance away, lightning struck the wire he was holding. In seconds a powerful electrical current had travelled along the wire and surged through Elliott’s body.
“First thing I felt was a stinging pain in my right hand and then an electric current shot up my arm and threw me back off the fence,” he recalls.
“I blacked out and the next thing I remember is holding my right elbow and calling for help. It was like everything was moving in slow motion.”
The Australian Bureau of Statistics over the past 10 years to 2017 shows an average of two deaths a year from lightning strikes, but no reliable national figures exist on survival rates.
How the resulting injuries affect survivors over the short and long term, and why ongoing health issues are often delayed, is not widely understood by the medical profession.
Lightning is created by the electrical discharge between positive and negative ice particles within a cloud as they grow, collide and break apart during a storm. Lightning flashes between the clouds and ground are each composed of a series of strokes with an average of four totalling about 4000 watts, according to NASA scientists, which is equal to the energy used to power 400 light bulbs for one hour.
NASA estimates lightning is responsible for about 24,000 deaths each year worldwide with 240,000 people suffering injuries, and millions of dollars in damage to property.
Brisbane GP and electrical engineer Dr Chris Andrews developed an interest in lightning in the 1980s when, in his other role as a Queensland University associate professor, he took part in research to reduce lightning strikes through landline phone wires.
“I’ve treated people from all around Australia,” he says. “They usually come to me when other clinicians fob them off as malingerers or simply don’t have the experience to treat them.”
Andrews has treated about 60 survivors and is often called on for medico-legal assessment for compensation or litigation.
He says deaths are largely due to direct strikes, which pack an intensity that stops the heart. Survivors are usually victims of indirect strikes. “These include contact with a struck object like a tree or a pole as well as side flashes when somebody is standing close to a struck object and the current arcs across to the person.”
Indirect strikes can also occur when lightning strikes the ground and the current transmits out through the earth. If somebody is standing nearby, the current can run through them. “Typically, it moves up one leg and down the other and that can happen just standing in a field near a strike,” Andrews says.
Common ongoing problems he sees from lightning injuries are muscle and nerve pain, muscle spasms, visual disturbances, electric cataracts caused by the bright flash of light, intense fatigue and diminished concentration.
Cognitive impairment can also be significant. “Auditory learning strategies, for example, are often affected, leaving survivors with difficulties learning new things from verbal instructions,” Andrews says.
“Survivors often become withdrawn and depressed. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder is a well-known mix among this type of patient.”
But the causes of mental health issues are not clear. “We are not sure whether the depression is a reaction to their health problems or whether there is a cerebral disturbance in chemical terms,” he says.
Andrews says social withdrawal is often accompanied by a personality change that sometimes leads to relationship breakdowns.
Luke Elliott – a false name requested to protect anonymity – is now 45 and has been left with serious long-term impairment.
When workmates took him to hospital on the day of the storm, the only visible sign of injury was a white sear mark across his right hand due to the wire burn. However, the full extent of the damage soon became apparent.
He was unable to return to farm work and is now on a disability pension. He still experiences muscle twitching that develops into spasms, as well as shooting nerve and muscle pain along his right arm for long periods throughout the day. He also has a loss of touch sensation in his right arm.
Elliott’s neurological damage is just as debilitating. At the time of the trauma he took care of the family’s intricate business accounts but after the accident that was no longer possible. He has lost the ability to concentrate for any length of time and finds it difficult to follow the drift of conversations.
Andrews says wide-ranging damage to the body similar to that suffered by Elliott is not surprising.
“Humans have a rich source of blood vessels that supply the muscles and nerves and they are very good electrical conductors,” he says. “So the various structures around muscles and nerves can be potentially damaged by a lightning strike.”
In the United States, Florida’s geography makes it the country’s lightning capital. It is surrounded by two warm bodies of water that push hot air inland on the sea breeze, which then rises to form thunderclouds. Last year, seven people died from lightning strikes in the state; since 2007 there have been 59 deaths.
Floridian Lawrence Dunn, 55, was about to enter the Doctors’ Memorial Hospital in Perry on June 4, 2017 when he was knocked unconscious by a bolt of lightning. The weather was overcast but not raining. “It sent me 15 feet [about five metres] into the air and back down onto the concrete where I began seizing,” he says, recounting the incident from hospital CCTV images he had viewed.
Dunn woke up three days later in intensive care.
“My initial thought was that I’d been hit by a car. I had intense pain in my hand and my back and my body was covered with painful red, itchy blotches,” he says. “I couldn’t speak because of the tube in my mouth and I had stopped breathing multiple times following the strike.”
Dunn says the hospital sent him home with no recommendations, follow-up consultations or information on what to expect. He could not speak without stuttering and repeating his words.
“Sleep evaded me for over a month. I ached and my muscles seized. I couldn’t keep my balance when I walked and had to hold on to the wall. Nothing made sense and my mind wouldn’t work. The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville has been a godsend, as the doctors there have treated my type of injury before, although they admit they still don’t understand what happens internally when the electrical current hits the body.
“The dizziness has been the biggest problem for me as I now can’t drive and even riding in the car is uncomfortable. I close my eyes and wear dark glasses. I now get terrible headaches when a storm front approaches.”
As a researcher, Chris Andrews is intrigued by the delayed symptoms remote from the point of lightning contact and in 2017 he co-wrote a paper exploring this topic.
“We put together ideas of chemical changes, which happen in most of the body after a strike that circulate to other parts of the body, like the brain and heart, implicating various chemicals such as glutamate and cortisol,” he says. “But it’s still a bit of a jigsaw.”
Andrew says in his experience symptoms tend to get worse over a period of about 12 to 18 months and then improve and reach a plateau about the three to four-year mark. But, he continues, “I rarely see all of the symptoms disappear completely.”
Andrews says the only guaranteed protection from a lightning strike is to seek proper shelter during a storm and to wait at least half an hour after it has passed before being exposed to the elements.
He maintains there are only two safe places to be during a thunderstorm: in a substantial building away from windows that could shatter with a strike or in a fully enclosed vehicle. “Yet you still see people on the beach or sheltering near trees, which is one of the worst places to be,” he says.
Andrews believes lack of public education and the peddling of myths contribute to injuries and death.
“If there is one myth that needs dispelling, it’s the belief that it is dangerous to touch a person who has been struck by lightning. This is quite false and inhibits people from administering CPR, which may be lifesaving.”
And while survival is, of course, key, for Luke Elliott the battle to cope with the aftermath of his freakish accident 13 years ago continues.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Shocking mysteries". Subscribe here.