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They were struck by lightning, and lived: 'It felt like I had a sunburn inside my brain'

They were struck by lightning, and lived: 'It felt like I had a sunburn inside my brain'
Meg Haworth, who was hit by a lightning strike at Venice Beach last summer, found help among the support group Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Interacting with nature is not risk-free; in fact, a person can take her life in her hands just standing outside. So it was for Meg Haworth, who now belongs to a remarkable group called the Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International. She was among the more than a dozen people injured last summer in a rare lightning storm at Venice Beach. One person was killed.

But surviving nature's wrath doesn't necessarily mean being just fine. Many people who are hit by lightning will suffer for their lifetimes.

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Haworth, a chef, nutrition coach and holistic psychologist, headed to Venice Beach that Sunday afternoon to catch up with a friend.

'Like a heavy metal object hitting me over the head'

"You could see what looked like a storm, but it was way off in the distance and there were a few dark clouds above us. Then all of the sudden I see what looks like a plate of white light hit the top of my friend's head and jaggedy bolts around both of us," she says. "The lightning felt like a heavy metal object hitting me over the head. My muscles seized up, especially around my neck and shoulders. Then the lightning traveled to a bunch of people behind us, including a friend, Stuart Archer, who was playing volleyball on the beach."

Emergency vehicles soon poured in.

"There was a lot of panic and fear on the beach," Haworth says. She and her friend cried and hugged. "We realized we had just survived basically a near-death experience."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists medical complications including muscle soreness, headache, confusion and dizziness. Longer-term problems can include distractibility, irritability, forgetfulness, personality change, chronic nerve pain, dizziness, insomnia, personality changes, irritability, memory problems and depression. It can also be financially devastating.

The range of injuries from lightning runs "from a little zip to cardiac arrest," says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, professor emerita of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the founding director of the African Centers for Lightning and Electromagnetics, based in Uganda.

"People expected I was going to look fried, like a charred cartoon character, but the frying happens on the inside," Haworth says. "It felt like I had a sunburn inside of my brain." These days she still has memory and attention problems, weakness and pain, but she says they all are slowly improving.

Within a couple of days of the lightning storm, Haworth found the support group Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International, which has 1,800 members around the world. Everything was so intense, and I didn't understand what was happening with me, so I wanted to talk with someone who had been through it. It was a huge relief and help talking with Steve."

'[The lightning] broke my back'

Steve Marshburn Sr., a former banker, started the organization in 1969 after he was struck by lightning. "I was holding a metal teller stamp, opened a window and suddenly a bolt of lightning from a storm miles away struck and came through the bank's drive-through speaker into my spine. The speaker was not grounded. We did not know that. [The lightning] broke my back. It felt like the left side of my brain would explode, like a professional baseball player hit me with a bat full-swing."

Few doctors knew how to treat his injuries, so to help make sense of his symptoms, he and his wife reached out to other lightning strike survivors they saw on the news. Thirteen people, from as far as Montana, showed up for the first meeting he organized in Maggie Valley, N.C. "We just hugged each other. It was like a family," Marshburn says.

"It's the first time these people can feel like they're not crazy," says Cooper, who has attended some of the meetings.

Information is easier to come by these days. "Now the Weather Channel tells you where lightning strikes the ground and you can contact NOAA if you were struck that day," says Marshburn. "But there are still a lot of lightning injury unknowns. Major hospitals and doctors still contact us regularly."

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Cooper says many survivors go through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief. "Those who've reached the acceptance level often retrain into other roles not just because of injuries but they reassess their life choices.".

Haworth is among them. She changed her business and refocused her life on her passions. Marshburn's organization, she says, helped her "know what helps me get better," and, she adds, "I'll check in with other lightning strike survivors throughout my life."

Marshburn, who was 25 when he was struck, has had multiple surgeries. "My life, my body, my soul — everything changed at that moment. I didn't thank the Lord for every day I live. Now I do. We want to tell people who've been struck by lightning you're not alone. We will help you with any problem you have. I couldn't talk with them if I hadn't been struck by lightning."

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The risks of lightning in California

If you hear thunder, you're in striking distance from the storm and in danger. You need to get inside a safe building or vehicle right away, experts say.

California ranks 47th in the country in terms of flash density, which is the number of lightning strikes per square mile, says John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist at the National Weather Service. But California still gets almost 86,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes every year.

Outdoor dangers

"Typically, lightning strikes the tallest object in the immediate area, and then it goes along the ground or water surface. That's how most people are struck, through what we call a ground current," says Jensenius. "Plan ahead, listen to the forecast and decide to cancel or postpone activities if thunderstorms are in the forecast."

Avoid open fields, trees and other tall objects, hills, water and metal. "If lightning strikes your car, you'll most likely be OK, but lightning may fry some of the car's electronics," he says.

Indoor dangers

Stay away from water, corded phones, anything plugged into a wall, including computers, "and doors and windows because some have metal parts that lead directly from the outside to the inside, like a doorknob," says Jensenius.

During the last decade, lightning was responsible for an average of 42 fatalities a year in the U.S. and an estimated 10 times as many injuries. There have been 21 reported lightning fatalities so far this year, four more than last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

More safety information is available at www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.

To reach Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International, go to lightning-strike.org.

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