This is what it's like to be struck by lightning

Story highlights

  • Lightning is responsible for more than 4,000 deaths worldwide annually
  • Victims can suffer short and long-term effects, such as cardiac arrest, confusion, seizures

Sometimes they'll keep the clothing, the strips of shirt or trousers that weren't cut away and discarded by the doctors and nurses.

They'll tell and retell their story, sharing pictures and news reports of survivals like their own or far bigger tragedies.
Only by piecing together the bystander reports, the singed clothing and the burnt skin can survivors start to construct their own picture of the possible trajectory of the electrical current, one that can approach 200 million volts and travel at one-third of the speed of light.
    In this way, Jaime Santana's family have stitched together some of what happened that Saturday afternoon in April 2016.
    Jaime had been horse-riding with Alejandro Torres -- his brother-in-law -- and two others in the mountains behind Alejandro's home outside Phoenix, Arizona, a frequent weekend pastime.
    They had witnessed quite a bit of lightning as they neared Alejandro's house, enough that they had commented on the dramatic zigzags across the sky. But scarcely a drop of rain had fallen as they approached the horse corrals, just a few hundred feet from the back of the property.
    Alejandro doesn't think he was knocked out for long. When he regained consciousness, he was lying face down on the ground, sore all over. His horse was gone.
    The two other riders appeared shaken but unharmed. Alejandro went looking for Jaime, who he found on the other side of his fallen horse. Alejandro brushed against the horse's legs as he walked passed. They felt hard, like metal, he says.
    Alejandro reached Jaime: "I see smoke coming up -- that's when I got scared." Flames were coming off of Jaime's chest. Three times Alejandro beat out the flames with his hands. Three times they reignited.
    It wasn't until later, after a neighbor had come running to help and the paramedics had arrived, that they began to realize what had happened -- Jaime had been struck by lightning.
    The rain that had threatened all afternoon didn't start to fall until Alejandro and Jaime's sister, Sara, were driving to Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix. Alejandro sat tense. "All of this way, I was thinking, 'He's dead. How do I tell her?'"
    When they arrived, Alejandro was stunned to learn that Jaime was in surgery. Surgery? There was still hope.
    Jaime had arrived at the Phoenix trauma center with an abnormal heart rhythm, bleeding in the brain, bruising to the lungs and damage to other organs, including his liver. Second- and third-degree burns covered nearly one-fifth of his body. Doctors put him into a chemically induced coma for nearly two weeks to allow his body to recover.
    Jaime finally returned home after five months of treatment and rehabilitation, which is continuing. "The hardest part for me is that I can't walk," he says from the living room of his parents' house. The doctors have described some of Jaime's nerves as still "dormant", says Sara, something that they hope time and rehabilitation will mend.
    His family have stopped asking why lightning caught him in its cross hairs that April afternoon. "We're never going to be able to answer why," Sara says. So now it's time for Jaime to start thinking about "what's next".

    A second survivor's tale

    Justin Gauger wishes his memory of when he was struck -- while fishing for trout at a lake near Flagstaff, Arizona -- wasn't so vivid. If it weren't, he wonders, perhaps the anxiety and lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder wouldn't have trailed him for so long.
    An avid fisherman, Justin had initially been elated when the rain started that August afternoon. But when it picked up, becoming stronger and then turning into hail, his wife and daughter headed for the truck, followed later by his son. The pellets grew larger, approaching golf ball size, and really started to hurt as they pounded Justin's head and body.