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Colorado students of lightning try to stem strikes

Jennifer Brown
The Denver Post,Staff

The lights went out when Garry Rudd reached for his pitchfork.

Next thing he knew, the Buena Vista man felt as though his skin were burning. Disoriented and wobbly, Rudd crawled into the irrigation ditch he had been mucking and lay in the water to quench the burn.

The pitchfork – struck by a lightning bolt that blasted from a blue, cloudless sky – shattered into 50 pieces.



That was 10 years ago, and even now, the aftershocks of that lightning bolt still pervade Rudd’s life: migraines, seizures, anxiety and a frustrating difficulty in adding and subtracting, even though he was once a physics whiz.

Though Colorado doesn’t have the most strikes, it is among the most dangerous lightning states, with four deaths in 2008 and one so far this year. It’s also home to one of the largest lightning-research centers in the country – a group of doctors, storm chasers, electrical engineers and meteorologists with a fascination about the bolts that shoot out of the sky packing 20,000 amps and heat three times more intense than the surface of the sun.



The members of the Lightning Data Center, based at St. Anthony Hospital in Denver, have interviewed numerous lightning victims during the past 17 years in hopes of preventing strikes and improving treatment for survivors. Doctors around the globe seek their advice.

“There are a lot of mysteries that remain to be solved,” said Dr. Michael Cherington, a retired neurologist who started the lightning center in 1992. “They usually involve healthy people out enjoying their healthy activity when their life is changed tragically.”

The group began after Cherington published an article about his first lightning-strike patient, a bicyclist paralyzed because of spinal-cord damage. The article attracted interest from meteorologists and others, and soon, the group began meeting once a month for lunch and lightning talk. Now, there are about 150 members.



Much of the group’s focus is on the lingering, neurological effects of a lightning strike – complications that can last for weeks or for the rest of the patient’s life. About 10 percent of strike victims die, typically of cardiac arrest, according to the group’s research.

Those who survive sometimes must cope with personality changes, memory trouble, and poor coordination and balance. Some patients develop depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, panicking at the sound of thunder.

“It is a big psychological trauma for God to sneak up behind you and clobber you with a lightning bolt,” said Dr. George Rossie, a neuropsychologist who is part of the group. In the past decade, he said, doctors have developed a greater awareness of the scope of lightning’s long-term consequences.

Among the mysteries studied by the Lightning Data Center is a tale that starts with four guys on a golf course.

Lightning struck near them. Three survived and one dropped dead.

The most likely reason is that the golfer who died happened to get hit by the electrical shock at the fraction of a second when his cardiac rhythm was most vulnerable. Basically, his heartbeat was at its weakest point: phasing back to a polarized state – a state of charge – from a state of discharge.

Another case studied by the group involved a a Vail bicycle rally participant who was struck under a cloudless sky. The man suffered brain damage.

Atmospheric physicists were able to track the lightning strike to the cloud it came from, which was on the other side of Vail Mountain, not even visible in the city.

Lightning usually connects cloud and ground in a nearly straight line, but sometimes it can travel for miles.

“This is the so-called bolt from the blue,” Cherington said.

The group often hears firsthand accounts from lightning-strike survivors, including a man who, seven years after lightning shot through his body and melted the rubber soles off his shoes, does not get REM sleep. He is always exhausted.

Hundreds of lightning survivors with similar neurological troubles, including Rudd in Buena Vista, belong to a North Carolina-based national support group.

Rudd couldn’t walk for four days after being struck in 1999.

He spent months in physical therapy, and at first, he couldn’t get his brain to tell him to perform the simplest tasks, such as picking something up from one side of a table and putting it on the other side. His brain seemed to stall like it had a pause button – when he watched a plane fly overhead, it would skip across the sky instead of glide.

Rudd, a blacksmith, spends $700 per month on medication to prevent seizures.

Shane Smith became suicidal and lost his memory after lightning struck him as he climbed Horsetooth Rock near Fort Collins in 1997. The bolt melted his sunglasses and rotated his pelvis, pushing the top of his spine into his head.

“I heard a humming noise and my hair stood straight up,” recalled Smith, now 44. “The lightning hit the rock I was standing on and went through my body.”

A woman hiking with Smith said his skin turned white and his eyes bugged out. It took him five years of psychotherapy and homeopathic medicine to get better.

Besides research, Lightning Data Center members focus on prevention. One big tip: Hike in the morning to avoid summer afternoon thunderstorms.

Such advice could have prevented a terrifying day for the Jacobs family of Jefferson, Iowa.

The family was hiking to American Lake in Aspen the afternoon of July 6, 2008, when a storm rolled in, sprinkling them with rain. Allen Jacobs, his wife, Peggy, and their four teenagers took shelter under a stand of trees.

“We were looking at this nice mountain meadow, and then the next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground face-first,” Jacobs said.

The whole family was thrown down by the lightning bolt, but the youngest, 15-year-old Elizabeth, didn’t get up. They revived her after spending 30 minutes performing CPR, then she walked about 2 miles down the trail to an ambulance, on wobbly, numb legs.

Authorities suspect lighting struck the ground near the family and splattered.

“God was watching over us, without a doubt,” Jacobs said.

One of the Lightning Data Center’s latest projects is safety-tip posters that members intend to post at trailheads nationwide. Another idea is to create a portable faraday cage, similar to the aluminum bag firefighters use, that hikers could carry in case of a sudden storm.

“That idea came out of our group,” said Ken Langford, a lightning photographer who says he joined the center because he “didn’t want to get killed trying to take a picture.

“That’s what makes our group cool.”

Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593 or jenbrown@denverpost.com


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