when lightning strikes

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas came early at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa this weekend, where the Packers played the Buccaneers. It wasn’t that Green Bay secured a playoff spot, or that the season was one game closer to being over for the Tampa faithful. Instead, it was that the lightning strike in the stadium parking lot, just as the game ended, didn’t kill anybody. The storm moved in quickly and had Mother Nature struck a few minutes earlier and a few yards to the right, a stadium full of fans could have been killed. Seven people were hospitalized and all survived being struck.

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 near 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.

For lightning strike survivors, and more than 90% do, 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. A car 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.

The Tampa storm emerged quickly and it would have been difficult to clear the stadium of spectators and get them to the safety of the concourses. As opposed to the metal stands that offered little protection to the fans at the Pocono Raceway when lightning struck there in 2012, football stadium concrete is a great barrier to lightning. The hard part is reminding people that the decision to evacuate tens of thousands of people out of their seats is not made just for show but can be lifesaving. Who knew the guy who predicts the weather would be the most important person at the game; maybe not for the scoreboard, but for everybody else in the stands.


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One Response to when lightning strikes

  1. Margie says:

    Great article!

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