Life of a lightning strike survivor

Two lightning strike survivors tell News 6 what life is like

By Ginger Gadsden - Anchor

ORLANDO, Fla. - Central Floridians are all too familiar with thunderstorms and the lightning they can bring -- and all it takes is one strike to change a life.

Nearly two years ago, an 11-year-old boy from Georgia was fishing in Daytona Beach Shores when he was hit, leaving his baseball cap shredded.

[Read: NOAA Lightning Strike Survivor Stories]

Then, in January, 55-year-old James Church was fishing off the Ponce Inlet Jetty when a bolt hit his pole. He lost two fingers, but said he's fortunate it didn't cost him more.

But what are the effects years after someone has been struck?

Robert Ireland said he was struck 30 years ago in Chattanooga, Tenn. A storm came through and he was inside trying to unplug his TV when a lightning bolt blasted the antenna outside his house.

"I took that lead off the TV and dropped it on the floor, and then I was going to hook up the rabbit ears so I could still see what was going on with the weather," said Ireland. "It jumped off that antenna lead to my right foot, came up my left knee into the TV picture tube and down my arm, down the rabbit ears and it blew the TV set. The next thing I remember after that, I was standing on the other side of the room, kind of, 'Oh, wow.'"

While his physical wounds healed, Ireland said he knew something about him had changed. This once energetic young man said he was now constantly fatigued.

[Read: Lightning Safety InstituteLightning Injury Research ProgramLightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International

"I worked for myself at the time as an electrician, and I really struggled and tried to work. For a year, I struggled hard, then kept breaking down and, what have you, and I finally just had to close up there, sell my property and came back to Orlando," said Ireland. "I could start a good day's work, but within an hour or two, just very tired. I just couldn't do it."

He said that at the time, doctors really didn't seem to know how to deal with lightning injuries.

"When I went to my doctor there in the valley below the mountain where I was living, he just said, 'Well, you seem to be all right.' And I said, 'But I got this problem and that problem,' 'Well, we'll give you some medicine, but you're alright.' I kind of took his word for it, but I could tell I couldn't work and I couldn't keep up with my responsibilities. The norm was if you survived, you were okay. I had a thermograph taken years later, it shows a path of heat up my right leg across my abdomen and out my left knee."

Thirty years later, Ireland said he still suffers from fatigue, but at 73, he's learned to take it easy.

Dr. Howard Smith, the director of the burn unit at Orlando Regional Medical Center, said a lightning strike can be just like electric shock therapy and can impact people in different ways.

"They can have changes in their moods, they can have memory loss, sometimes that persist for long periods of time, they can have persistent headaches and symptoms similar to what we see in typical traumatic head injuries, or traumatic brain injuries," said Smith. "Many patients do completely resolve their symptoms, but a lot of them do have chronic symptoms the rest of their lives."

Wendy Brunner is originally from Melbourne and said she never gave thunderstorms a second thought. That is, until she had a too-close encounter while driving during a thunderstorm in Mississippi.

"The lightning struck the antenna of my car, " said Brunner. "All of a sudden, there was a deafening bang and my car lit up bright, and I knew immediately what happened. The power started to go really slowly out of my car and I couldn't really steer it well. I was able to drift off to the side of the road,and it took me about a full two seconds to realize that my shirt was actually on fire."

Brunner suffered burns to her lips and face, but her car took the brunt of the blast.

"It blew out the lights, the headlights, the tail lights, it blew my license plate off and the Volkswagen symbol off of the back, the antenna on top was disintegrated," said Brunner.

She also had some of the symptoms Dr. Smith described.

"I know in the short term, fatigue was an issue, headaches were an issue," said Brunner. "I had ringing in my ears that went on for a while, for months, actually."

Brunner is thankful that all of her symptoms disappeared after about a year, but her encounter left one thing behind.

"I think I was very fortunate that I haven't had any really serious long term effects other than the fear of lightning, which I never used to have. I think that's pretty reasonable, considering," said Brunner.

"It's traveling about 136,000 miles per second, and it's super hot. Probably the hottest thing on earth, could be as hot as 50,000 degrees," said News 6 chief meteorologist Tom Sorrells.

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