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Health Zone: Bolts from the blue..; Every year five people die in Britain after being struck by lightning, and dozens of others are hit. Three survivors talked to PAUL SIMONS about how their lives have been affected.

Byline: PAUL SIMONS

YOU may well have joked about being struck by lightning. It's just one of those things that you assume will never happen to you.

But people do get struck. Every year about five people in Britain are killed by lightning and dozens of others are hit but survive.

Some escape without a scratch, others are thrown in the air or left in crippling pain. In some astonishing cases, victims have been cured of chronic disabilities, and others "give off" electricity.

A bolt of lightning can pack one million volts and heat the air to more than 30,000C, five times hotter than the surface of the sun.

Lightning baffles the medical profession. Many doctors don't understand lightning injuries, says Dr Mary Ann Cooper, director of the Lightning Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois.

"They assume the problem is the same as a high-voltage electrical injury, such as burns, and that is wrong," she says.

"Lightning doesn't last long enough to cause serious burns." Any burns that occur are secondary ones often caused by lightning heating up metal objects or sweat on the skin. Instead, Dr Cooper sees a different threat: "Lightning is a nervous system injury - the brain and the nerve network."

Here are three extraordinary stories of people struck by lightning.

A strike from above

In June 1993, 10-year-old Avril Beavan was struck by lightning on a school outing in Sanderstead, Surrey. Avril, now 18, tells her story.

IT started to drizzle but there was no sign of a thunderstorm.

I put my clipboard over my head to keep my hair dry. After that, my mind went blank. Apparently the lightning shot right through the metal clip on the board, I was thrown about a metre in the air and my heart stopped.

I was given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart massage by my teacher. I was really lucky - she'd only been trained in resuscitation that week.

The lightning was so powerful that a driver in a passing car found his hands lifted off the steering wheel with the shock.

I was taken to hospital but they found no signs of electrocution, burns, or even heart problems. I was screaming at everyone 'Are you my mum?'.

I remember waking up in the intensive care unit, I didn't know where I was, I couldn't understand what had happened, I was absolutely terrified.

I was vomiting black bile. They thought my stomach was burnt although there were no signs of internal bleeding.

The lightning had stopped my stomach working. I'd also got whiplash diagonally across my body like a car crash victim because I was thrown across the street. I was hallucinating from the morphine they'd given me. It lasted eight days, it was extremely frightening. I was seeing things, I didn't recognise people, I was vomiting violently and lost a stone in weight. But gradually I started eating again and got some sleep, the whiplash went and I made a full recovery.

I just thank my lucky stars - I'm grateful I'm still here. I'm not bothered about thunderstorms except if I'm outside because I can't stand the thought of being struck again, it's a real fear.

Arthritis cured as quick as a flash

Joan Bird, 63, was struck on June 14 this year. Amazingly, the lightning bolt has cured her arthritis.

I WAS working in my shop that afternoon and I remember the sky was pitch black. Then there was a really terrible bang, and the shop window shattered - I lit up down one side like a light bulb, and flew from my chair into this fella's arms. I thought someone had thrown a bomb in, I was terrified.

I was paralysed all down my right side, I couldn't stand up, and my hand was like a claw. But in a few minutes I got back to normal, the paramedics arrived and said I was fine, and I felt okay so went back to work - I'm a tough nut. My husband was more concerned than me.

When I woke up the next morning I knew something had changed: I'd got the ache but not the chronic pain in my right hand. Then I ran a bath, and did it without thinking - normally someone has to do it for me. I went downstairs and could pick up the teapot with my right hand. I couldn't believe it. I could never do that with my right hand. My husband and daughter couldn't believe it.

The arthritis pain used to be so bad it was like toothache, it sometimes brought tears to my eyes. I can use my fingers and a lump on my hand from the arthritis the size of an egg has now shrunk to the size of a pea. I've suffered in silence for so long, it's like a new lease of life.

I used to be petrified of thunderstorms but they don't bother me now because I think lightning won't strike twice.

Rheumatologist Dr Mark Lillicrap at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, is amazed by her case.

"Medicine knows no cure for osteoarthritis," he explains.

"It may be a high shock has stimulated certain cells in the bones. But he warns patients NOT to try to electrocute themselves or deliberately get hit by lightning.

Phone call shocked me to the bone

Three years ago on a stormy June day, medical student Kirsty Cattanach, 19, from Prestwick, Scotland was struck while on the phone to a friend.

IT was dark and stormy outside and I was chatting away on the phone to my friend Jaqueline Cowan. Then there was a huge flash of light all around me, like a massive spark in the room and I said, 'S***, I've been hit by lightning, what in the hell...'

It felt like electric shocks going up and down my teeth, pins and needles in my legs, cramps in my feet; it was like when you get a shock from an electric socket. I was stunned, I knew I'd been hit by lightning. I was having these shocks in my teeth, it was painful like being at the dentist.

My dad's a GP and he checked my heart, which was OK and there were no burns. No-one believed I'd been hit by lightning, not even my mum. My friends laughed when I told them. It was awful not being believed.

But for about a month afterwards I had episodes of numbness in my legs and arms, which gradually eased away. The strangest thing is that for the next few days I caused static interference every time I walked past a radio. I think people believed me then.

Thankfully it hasn't put me off thunderstorms or using the phone.

Dr Mary Cooper at the University of Illinois has come across other cases of lightning victims apparently giving off electricity, but admits: "I can't explain these things, I keep an open mind on them."

Lightning strike myths

Lightning never strikes twice.

Incorrect! The Empire State Building is struck on average 23 times a year.

If lightning hits the ground you are safe.

Wrong! The electricity can pass through the soil - entire football teams have been flattened by nearby lightning strikes.

Leave doors open during a storm.

No! Close all doors to the outside, as lightning can strike inside.

Unplug electrical equipment.

Yes, lightning can strike tv aerials so unplugging the aerial from a tv helps.

Don't make phone calls during a storm.

Yes, lightning can strike into a phone, but only if it is connected to exposed cables.

Mobile phones attract lightning.

No, they do not.

Lightning victims are electrified. If you touch them, you'll be electrocuted.

No! It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid.

Wearing rubber boots or shoes prevents injury by lightning.

Wrong! Surviving a lightning strike while wearing rubber footwear is just a coincidence.

Lightning statistics - On average, five people a year are killed by lightning in Britain.

- Most lightning victims are men, especially golfers and anglers because they are exposed in wide open places.

- The death rate from lightning is falling because we spend less time outside than in the past.

Lightning advice - Get inside a building or vehicle and close the doors and windows. Vehicles are safe because a lightning strike will spread over the outside and go to earth without touching the interior.

- If you are outside in an exposed area:

Do NOT shelter under a tree. Lightning can flash down the trunk, and branches can break off.

Do NOT use an umbrella with metal spokes - they conduct electricity.

Do NOT fish, swim or play golf, and do put down golf clubs.

- Avoid standing out on open areas, such as hilltops, open fields and beaches.

- Stay away from wire fences, metal pipes, rails and other metallic objects

- Get off and away from motorbikes, scooters, golf carts and bicycles.

- If you feel your hair stand on end, or hear a buzzing or clicking sound, or see pointed objects glow, get out of the area. If this is impossible, crouch down into a ball, making yourself as small as possible. Do not lie flat on the ground.

- If someone appears to be struck dead from lightning, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is needed; if there is no pulse, cardiac massage is required. You need to be properly trained to do both.

Lightning injuries - Lightning rarely causes serious burns, unlike electrocution injuries from high-voltage equipment. Most burns are caused by sweat turning to steam, or wearing jewellery which gets hot.

- If a victim's clothes are wet they will probably avoid serious injury because the current is more likely to pass over them.

- Lightning striking inside a person is far more serious.

- Victims often report memory loss, difficulty with concentration, sleep disorders, headaches, backache, numbness, dizziness, stiffness, irritability, weakness, muscle spasms, and depression. There can also be problems with digestion, hormones and the immune system.

- The main cause of death is heart attack.

For further advice and information about lightning strikes to people:

http://www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/

For advice and support, contact:

Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International, PO Box 1156, Jacksonville, North Carolina 28541-1156, USA.

Email address: lightnin@nternet.net

Website address: www.lightning-strike.org

CAPTION(S):

STRUCK: Lightning shot through Avril's clipboard P; HANDS ON: Joan Bird Picture by NEVILLE WILLIAMS; SHOCKING: Kirsty's friends didn't believe she'd been hit while on the phone
COPYRIGHT 2001 MGN LTD
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 4, 2001
Words:1729
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