when lightning strikes

Monday, August 6, 2012

“When thunder roars, go indoors.”
Theme of National Lightning Safety Awareness Week

If you’re outside and lightning strikes, there’s no place to run and no place to hide. When lightning struck, the crowd at the Pocono Raceway was asked to do the impossible and seek shelter where none existed. Two people went down, one died, the other is recovering in hospital. For the non-victims, it was just a matter of luck that they weren’t hurt.

Lightning is the second most common cause of storm related deaths after flash floods and can attack a victim in many ways. Getting a direct hit by lightning is relatively rare; it’s the side splash from another object getting hit and ground current effect where lightning spreads along the surface of the earth to attack its victim. While tall, isolated objects tend to attract lightning, standing ear a tree decreases the risk from a direct hit but doesn’t protect against the splash or the ground effect.

The physics of a lightning strike are totally different from being electrocuted, and the injury patterns are different as well. Lightning spreads through the body but doesn’t cause tissue destruction like an electrocution. There is no muscle damage or kidney failure but there are electrical consequences. Death happens because the heart’s electrical conduction can fail. The electrical system within muscles can temporarily shut off. The brain, spinal cord and nerves’ electrical system can be damaged. Shockwaves causes by lightning can cause eardrums to burst, eye damage can occur and ferning or superficial burns to the skin may be seen. And then there are all the injuries if the victim is thrown a long way blown up by the force of the lightning strike.

After a group lightning strike, most people are just dazed and walk away but others may not be so lucky and sudden death befalls them. The lightning short circuits the heart’s electrical conduction system causing ventricular fibrillation. Instead of a coordinated rhythm that results in a heartbeat, the electricity is chaotic and the ventricle, the pumping chamber of the heart jiggles like a bowl of jello. In some cases, the heart restarts itself, but more likely, the patient will die without bystander CPR and an AED to defibrillate the heart and restore a normal heartbeat. In Pocono, two people dropped, bystanders tried to resuscitate but only one survived.

For lightning strike survivors, the most common minor injury is a burst eardrum, but it’s the central nervous system that may cause long term issues. The injured brain can sustain personality changes and seizures, but other post-concussion type symptoms like headache, irritability and sleep disturbances can be more sever and last longer than the routine head bonk. The peripheral nerves can also be affected and the victim can develop with numbness and tingling of the extremities as well as chronic pain issues.

There are more than 100,000 thunderstorms in the US every year and all of them are associated with lightning. Not getting hit is the best treatment and that means getting indoors. At Pocono, the stands aren’t like a baseball or football stadium where the crowd can pack into the concourses, but there are options. A care is perhaps the most the accessible place to seek shelter. The thin rubber tires don’t protect against lightning, instead, the electricity flows through the metal in the car’s structure, and doesn’t attack the people inside. The experience may not be the most pleasant because there is still great force in a strike, but it is safe.

While more than 90% of people survive a lightning strike, those few who die each year are sad reminders that nature can be violent and unpredictable. Lightning usually doesn’t kill in public places in this case it allowed Good Samaritans to do the right thing and begin bystander CPR. One person survived because of their efforts and though there was one person who died, he was given a chance…and that’s all we can ask for.

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