“What does your boyfriend do when you go out of town? Well, [mine] gets struck by lightning.” – Daphne Cheek
We’ve all heard stories about people getting struck by lightning — usually as some sort of cautionary tale, but how many of us have ever seen the effects of lightning on a human? The Lichtenberg Figures it can leave? Winston Kemp, a 24 year old electrician, has had first-hand experience, and now he also has a unique and possibly permanent bit of body art — a Lichtenberg Figure — to go along with it.
As Winston tells it …
I went outside to save my pumpkins. (I guess it was May 21.) After that, I was going back inside. I just know it struck in our neighbor’s backyard, and it was bright and loud. I didn’t feel anything. I just came back inside like nothing was wrong. Umm…my arm was sore. But I didn’t … I don’t think I saw any marks until 30, 45 … [it was] maybe an hour before I saw the marks. Didn’t seek medical help. There’s not too much else to it. I just watched it to make sure that it was alright. I don’t know. I just went about my normal life until [Daphne] got back here and started freaking out.
It was probably 4 or 5 in the evening. I didn’t know that it had happened. I don’t know, I wasn’t even sure that it was lightning, but that’s the only thing I figured it was. That’s the only thing I could have come in contact with that would have caused the marks. No, it didn’t hurt when it happened, I didn’t even know it happened. A few hours after it happened it really started to bother me. The next day it was bad. The blisters started forming; they were really big. I walked around the house without a shirt on. I didn’t go to work on Monday. I felt sick to my stomach, I’m not sure if that was an after effect of the lightning, though. The week after it happened it ached and burned and the blisters kept on getting bigger. When [Daphne] got home, [she] lanced the blisters to prevent them from busting while at work or sleeping. [Ed note: Daphne is a pre-med student at Texas A&M]. I was trying to prevent entire pieces of skin ripping off. We were careful and wrapped it after lancing the blisters to prevent causing an infection. As it started to heal, it itched like crazy (like any burn). I used after-tanning lotion that [Daphne] gave me. Even now, almost a month later, I get random pains running down my arm that last for a few minutes; and my shirt irritates it. The skin is still irritated/tender.
The closest I have come to seeing a doctor is talking to my mom (who is the head nurse at Pecos County Hospital). She talked to our family doctor about it. He said that there would be no point seeing a doctor now, 2-3 weeks after it happened. There aren’t any other marks that I can tell. It’s probably only going to scar because I scar easily.
Winston’s girlfriend, Daphne Cheek, has been my daughter Sarah’s best friend since they were in first grade. Daphne and I are friends on Facebook; when I saw her posted picture of Winston’s arm, I thought at first that he had a new bit of body art — possibly some kind of scarification or a red tattoo. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Lichtenberg figures on Winston’s arm are typical for those who have been struck by lightning, but from what I’ve read these “lightning flowers” usually only persist for a few hours or a few days; it is odd for one to last as long as his has — now almost a month.
I don’t know exactly when it happened because [Winston] didn’t tell me about it. I found out because I saw the blisters on his arm a week later when I got back to College Station. He was outside trying to save his pumpkins. He was digging a trench trying to divert the excess water away from his pumpkins. It didn’t work; none of the 15 pumpkins survived. He heard something really loud and saw something bright in our neighbor’s backyard, about 150 feet away. He quickly came inside with his adrenaline pumping. That is probably why he didn’t feel anything at first. Once the adrenaline wore off, his arm started hurting. When he looked at his arm, he didn’t see anything at first. He had this sort of burning sensation in his arm. About an hour later was when the lightning marks started to appear. When I got home, I lanced his blisters because he was starting to mess with them, and I didn’t want him to bust them at work. He isn’t as careful as he should be. He said that his arm felt like he had done an intense workout. It was just incredibly sore and ached. Every now and then he gets intense pain that shoots up and down his arm. He just kinda holds/massages it until it goes away. It never lasts more than a few minutes.
Winston never goes to the doctor for anything. He was broken limbs and been shot and still never saw a doctor. A “small” thing like a lightning strike wasn’t going to change that. It probably didn’t help that he didn’t have a car, and he was home alone. He still has the marks from the burn on his arm. I don’t think that they are going to go away completely; he has low iron. Normally, they should go away. It was only a second degree burn. It doesn’t appear that he was struck directly. Probably just arced through the air until it hit him after hitting the neighbor’s yard.
After hearing about Winston’s experience and his resulting Lichtenberg Figure, I did a bit of internet searching. It turns out that lightning strikes more people per year than I would have guessed, but it is obviously not so common an occurrence that I’ve ever personally known someone who had been struck.
Lightning deaths (~20%)
-Inhibition of brainstem respiratory centers
-Multi-system failure (delayed death)
-Arrhythmias – Arterial pressure changes
-Myocardial damages (infarction)
-Pulmonary edema – Respiratory distress syndrome
-Loss of consciousness/coma
-Numbness/Weakness in limbs/Partial or complete (but temporary) paralysis
-Spinal cord injury/Parkinsonism
-Sleep and memory disorders/Concentration
disturbances/Irritability/Depression/Various other disturbances such as headaches, tiring easily, lightning storm phobia, etc.
-Post traumatic Stress Disorder
Burns and Cutaneous marking
-Small, deep entry/exit points (typical)
-Contact, metal chain heating (typical)
-Lichtenberg figures (arborescent, fern-like markings):pathognomonic(on trunk, arms, shoulders)
-Exploded off, torn off, shredded, singed?
Blunt traumas (explosion)
-Contusion, internal hemorrhage (brain, lungs, liver, intestine?)
-(rarely) Fractures (skull, cervical spinal column, extremities?)
Auditory and ocular injuries
-Tympanic membrane ruptured (typical)
-Transient blindness/Photophobia-Conjunctivitis – Corneal damage
-Retinal abnormalities (macular hole) – optic neuritis
“Lightning injuries are varied and take many different forms. The most dangerous (and possibly fatal) immediate complications are cardiovascular and neurologic. It must be kept in mind that only immediate and effective cardiorespiratory resuscitation (started by rescuers), followed as soon as possible by emergency medical treatment, can save victims who are in cardiopulmonary arrest, or avert the serious consequences of cerebral hypoxia. Some victims remain in a coma despite intensive resuscitation and die of secondary causes including hemorrhages and multiple lesions (encephalic, cardiac, pulmonary, intra-abdominal).”
So far the only lingering effects Winston is aware of are random aches and pains, irritated and tender skin, and of course — seemingly permanent Lichtenberg figures.
Apparently it can take some time before all of the effects are known; hopefully Winston will not have any of the more serious ones.
Do you have any personal lighting strike stories? Or do you know someone who has been struck? I’m now rather fascinated by the topic, and I’d love to hear more from those who’ve seen this before. So please, do tell …
Update March 9, 2012: In light of all the renewed interest in Winston’s Lichtenberg Figure story (thanks Reddit!), I asked Daphne for an update on how he is doing and what his arm looks like. This is what he had to say:
Almost a year later, people are still fascinated by my encounter with lightning. The scars have almost completely healed. There are faint white lines that mark where there were once gruesome blisters, but they are only visible if you know what you are looking for, if the skin is extremely hot or cold, or if the skin is stretched tight. Maybe once a month, there is still some dull, stabbing pain in the lower half of the original blistering. There have been no other complications that I have noticed, but only time will tell.
The attached pictures were taken March 9, 2012. The first one shows that the scars have gone away. The second one shows some scar lines in the bottom left part.
click pictures to enlarge