Struck! Imagine being struck by lightning and living to talk about it

Karen McNulty

Storm clouds were gathering as Toy Trice headed onto the high-school football field for practice one fall day in 1991. What happened next was a complete surprise. A lightning bolt tore through Trice’s helmet. Witnesses say heat from the flash scorched the teen’s jersey, turned his sweat to steam, and blew his shoes off his feet!

Worst of all, Trice stopped breathing. The huge surge of electricity probably disrupted the part of his brain that controls breathing. Or the electricity may have temporarily paralyzed the nerves and muscles he needed to inhale and exhale.

Fortunately, students and coaches nearby rushed to Trice’s rescue. By restoring his breathing and rushing him to the hospital, they saved his life.


Lightning can have devastating effects because “your whole body runs on electricity,” explains Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, who has studied many lightning-strike survivors. Your nerves and all the cells in your body are filled with chemicals that have tiny electric charges. Small changes in electrical energy are what allow cells to communicate and do other jobs. Add a lightning bolt with enough energy to flash on every lightbulb in your town, and your body’s systems go into overload (see chart, right).

In many lightning victims, the electrical surge causes all the nerves to send signals at once. In response to the signals, “muscles tighten suddenly and make your body fling itself,” Dr. Cooper says. Gretel Ehrlich, who was struck while walking with her dogs, remembers waking up “in a pool of blood, lying on my stomach some distance from where I should have been.” Painful as this “electric body toss” was, it may have saved Ehrlich’s life. “Doctors think my heart stopped [when I was struck],” she explains, “and landing hard started it beating again.”

Most of the 500 or so people who are struck by lightning each year in the U.S. do survive, says Dr. Cooper. “Lightning is not good at killing you because it flashes so fast,” she says. Most of the electricity races over your skin. It may blow your clothes off, but chances are you won’t end up with fried hair and crispy skin. Lightning usually moves too fast to cause severe burns.

Electricity can get inside you–through your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. But it “races in and out faster than you can blink,” Cooper says, so it doesn’t have time to build up much heat. (In contrast, if you are electrocuted by high-voltage wires, the current continues to flow. That often results in severe burns to internal organs.)


Still, about 100 Americans a year do die from lightning strikes. And those who survive may take a long time to recover. So what can you do to avoid being zapped?

* Listen to weather forecasts for severe thunderstorm watches or warnings.

* Locate a substantial building where you can go for shelter from the storm.

* Don’t wait until you feel it start to rain,

* Dr. Cooper warns. “Fatal lightning may strike as far as 10 kilometers (6mi) in front of the storm, seeming to come out of the clear blue sky.”

* Lightning can also travel through pipes and wires, so even when inside, avoid touching metal pipes and appliances and talking on the phone.

* You can seek shelter inside an all-metal car (not a convertible). Lightning will flow over the car’s metal body but won’t come inside.

* If you are stuck out in the open, avoid high places, water, and tall objects. These attract lightning.

* If no shelter is available, make yourself as small and short as possible by crouching in a ball.

* If you are with someone who is hit, you can give first aid. Forget about the myth that people who’ve been struck by lightning are still “charged up.” Rescuers saved Toy Trice’s life. By learning how to restore a person’s breathing and heartbeat, you could save someone too.



Brain Lighting can damage the brain, including centers that

control breathing, heartbeat, and other body functions.

Eyes, ears, Lighting often enters the body through these openings, nose, mouth which are wet enough to conduct electricity easily. The

intense heat, light and electricity can cloud vision, rupture

eardrums, and cause other problems.

Heart Lighting may paralyze the heart muscle and/or interfere

with brain centers that regulate the heartbeat.

Skin Lightning usually follows the path of sweat along the skin

surface and sometimes causes minor to moderately severe burns.

Being thrown as a result of lightning can result in cuts and


Nerves, muscles Electric current causes all nerves to “fire” and all muscles to

contract at once; the victim is usually thrown by these

sudden contractions.

Bones The explosive force of lightning can break bones. Fractures

may also occur if the person is thrown by lightning-induced

muscle contractions.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Scholastic, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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