SCMP Monday, July 9, 2001

Striking it unlucky

DAVID FLICK of Knight Ridder

Maggie Bloemer is a member of one of the most exclusive organisations in the United States - but it's not one that people are clamouring to join.
Bloemer, 57, a food manager from Oak Lawn, Texas, is one of only three North Texas members of Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International, based in Jacksonville, North Carolina. There are 1,010 members worldwide.
She earned her membership in November 1977 while hunting near the South Texas town of Brackettville.
Lightning struck near a deer blind she was sitting in. She recalls how the bolt came through the opening, hitting her hands and passing through her legs.
''There was this explosion. The sound was indescribable,'' she says. ''The lightning had this green essence and it felt like . . . I can only describe it as a cold heat.''
Survivors such as Bloemer say they support any efforts that raise awareness of the dangers of lightning strikes. They say medical professionals and even friends and relatives too often ignore or misdiagnose their problems.
''The problem is that when you look at me there are no outward signs,'' Bloemer says. ''The medical field doesn't know what to do with you.''
In the moments after the strike, she didn't know what to do either. She says the heel of her shoe had exploded, her white socks had turned black and her legs were swollen.
But since there was no hospital nearby, her companions simply massaged her legs, gave her a shot of whisky and returned to deer hunting the next day to allay her fears.
Over the next few months, the swelling continued, she had memory lapses, anxiety attacks, depression and decreased energy. Doctors told her the problems were caused by stress, Bloemer says.She says a friend gave her a news cutting about the lightning-strike survivors' organisation, and she called the number. ''And finally I felt like I had a lifeline,'' she says.
Steve Mashburn founded the organisation in 1989 as an education and support group for survivors of lightning and electrical shock. The group has a Web site (), a newsletter called Hit Or Miss and an annual convention.''We're not whiners. We're very happy people,'' he says of the group. ''But it is something you have to have been through to understand.''
Ron Holle, a meteorologist in Arizona, says that, officially, an average 75 Americans a year are killed by lightning, a figure he believes is under-reported. He says about 1,000 people a year are injured, the vast majority from indirect hits.
Still, the odds of getting struck by lightning in any one year are one in 600,000, according to Mashburn.
''People tell me that with my luck, I should enter the lottery,'' Bloemer says.
Dr Nelson Hendler specialises in electrical injuries and says the rarity of lightning strikes makes it difficult for medical professionals.
''If you call an emergency room and ask the average doctor, 'How often do you see lightning-strike cases?' most would answer, 'Never','' he says.
The damage caused by a strike varies widely, he says, and can show up years after the incident.
''You're talking about 10 million volts passing through the body,'' Hendler says. ''What does it do to you? The answer is anything it wants.''
The newest member of the group is Janice Robinson, a sixth-grade teacher, who was struck by lightning two years ago while visiting the Texas state fair.
A storm had just passed through, and Robinson and her family thought they would take advantage of a break in the weather to get something to eat. ''It was barely raining, like a mist,'' she says. ''My husband was going to get a corny dog, and I was going to get a turkey leg.''
She felt the approaching lightning before she saw it. The bolt itself seemed to be a bright white sheet. She later theorised that it struck nearby and was conducted through cables beneath the fair park pavement. ''I felt the most horrible shooting pain through the sole of my foot. It was like someone had brought a sledgehammer down on my foot,'' Robinson says.
Neither medics nor emergency-room personnel could detect an immediate problem, she says, but it took her three months of intense therapy before she could walk properly again.
Lightning survivors say they are left psychologically scarred, too. ''It took me years not to freak out during storms,'' Bloemer says. ''If there was a storm at night and lightning struck nearby, I'd lie wide awake with my heart racing.''
Robinson says she and her family take precautions other people don't. ''You don't do things you used to,'' she says. ''You have a greater respect for the weather. If there's a storm coming, you don't get in your car and run out to the store.''
Self is edited by Dominic Biggs ( ).