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Lightning-Strike Survivors Tell Their Stories


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No one actually knows what lightning does to the body.

In popular culture, to be hit by a bolt of lightning is to suffer extremely bad luck. Rain, snow, and hail are largely indiscriminate: within a certain radius, everything is drenched, blanketed, or pelted. A cloud-to-ground lightning bolt is different. It blazes a discrete path through the sky. It appears to have choice. When lightning hits a human being, a survivor must reconcile not only what happened but why it happened. Why me? For most victims, it is not the unforgettable horror of an agonizing ordeal that haunts them—many can’t even recall the incident itself; it’s the mysterious physical and psychological symptoms that emerge, often long after their immediate wounds have healed and doctors have cleared them to return to their normal routines. But nothing is normal anymore. Chronic pain, memory trouble, personality changes, and mood swings can all follow an encounter with lightning, leaving friends and family members confused, while survivors, grappling with a fundamental shift in identity, feel increasingly alienated by the incomprehensible nature of their condition. Something happened in a single moment—something strange and rare, something unbelievable—and after that moment, everything has changed.

Even more confounding is that almost no one in the mainstream medical community can explain what’s happening to them. Although many scientists have spent their careers examining the physics of lightning, only a handful of doctors and researchers have devoted themselves to the study of how lightning damages the human body. The incident rates are simply not high enough to warrant an entire subfield of science. Nearly everything we now know about treating lightning victims concerns the immediate wounds, many of which don’t even require special medical knowledge.

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