Two fishermen in a small metal skiff in Barnegat Bay are struck by lightning. The bolt hits one man's metal fishing rod, then jumps to his jacket zipper, killing him. His companion is knocked unconscious but recovers with no ill effects.
Three golfers in North Carolina, caught in a sudden storm, run to a rain shelter. Lightning blasts the shelter. Casualty list: one man untouched, one man dazed and burned, his clothing shredded and a shoe torn off, one man dead.
Freak accidents? Not according to insurance companies. Their statistics show that in the U.S. an average of 300 persons a year, a good percentage of them sportsmen, are killed by lightning—more than by any other natural disaster.
Many of these people need not die. As Dr. Helen B. Taussig, professor emeritus of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, puts it, " 'Death' from lightning may be a highly reversible death." Prompt and prolonged treatment of the "dead" can bring them back to life.
Lightning packs such a punch—up to one billion volts traveling about 30,000 times faster than a bullet—that when it zaps a man, it blows out his whole system. Dr. Taussig suggests in an article on the subject in the American Scientist that: "The cessation of all metabolism in all cells, including the brain cells where respiratory narcosis is known to belong, is so instantaneous that apparently the onset of the degenerative processes is delayed." So the lightning victim may get a long count—and doctors do not know for sure just how long—before his body cells begin to die.
When lightning strikes a group of people, knocking some unconscious and "killing" others, "you should forsake the living for the 'dead,' " asserts Dr. Taussig. "Those who are still breathing will in all probability recover. The person who is not breathing is the one who needs your help."
If you feel a pulse, give the victim mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration. If there is no pulse, give him cardiopulmonary resuscitation—oxygen will do no good if the blood does not circulate it to the brain. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is a technique that combines artificial respiration with an external rhythmic pressure on the heart. If you do not know this technique, try arm-lift chest resuscitation. This may put enough pressure on the chest to squeeze the heart into pumping blood or, better still, may restart the heartbeat. When you feel a pulse, change to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and keep at it, for hours if need be, until the victim can breathe on his own or you can get him to a hospital respirator.
How does it feel to be struck by lightning? William Schwandt of Grand Rapids knows. He was working under his car in his backyard this summer when a bolt struck a tree, ran down a chain hoist hanging from a limb and jumped to the car. "When it got me, it felt like my whole arm was on fire," Schwandt said. "I was putting some bolts on the drive shaft and looked up at the wrench. It lit right up. My arm got hot and that's all I remember." Schwandt was knocked unconscious but recovered in a few minutes with no ill effects.
Schwandt's experience was fairly typical of most survivors. When the shock hits, victims are knocked cold for varying periods of time. After they come to, they complain of numbness and paralysis in their arms and legs, which lasts from seven minutes to several hours. Recovery is generally complete. The only long-term damage occasionally seen is to eyes and ears affected by the light and electricity of the bolt or the blast of the thunderclap.
Obviously, the best idea is to stay out of the way of lightning, which may mean curtailing your sporting instincts. Remain close to the clubhouse or any other large shelter when it looks like a lightning storm may be developing. And do not rely on the appearance of the sky as an indication of danger. Lightning can strike from a partly cloudy sky as well as one full of thunderheads. A good way to estimate the electromagnetic field present in the atmosphere is to turn on your radio to the AM band and turn the volume up. Heavy static indicates excessive electrical activity.