Don’t Stand By Me

Surviving a lightning strike.

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Jerry LeDoux showing off his lightning-strike tattoo

Jerry LeDoux is a guy you don’t really want to interview, because interviewing him means having to be near him, and that’s like planting yourself by a dartboard. The stone claw hanging from his neck attests to his grisly encounter with a bear’s jaw at a roadside park in August 1990. (His wife, Bee, brandishes a photo album that documents the mauling before he’s done telling the story.) The Purple Heart on his Navy Seals sniper hat testifies to the three bullets he took in Vietnam. The ugly black mark on his finger is evidence that he once air-nailed it to a floorboard. The scar on his left arm is proof that he accidentally screwed his flesh to the wall. The long knife wound on his hand? “Things happen,” he says. The most improbable of his many accidents is the one that left the least visible evidence—just a few white splotches on his arms and a discoloration near his hairline. But that doesn’t mean it’s easily forgotten. LeDoux rolls up his sleeve to show off a tattoo of a man getting struck by lightning engraved on his left bicep.

All LeDoux remembers about the moment he was struck in August 1999 is that he was standing ankle-deep in a puddle when he was overcome by an intensely bright light. He woke up a half-hour later, 20 feet away, with a vague taste of battery acid in his mouth, he said. The soles of his shoes had melted, his two-way radio had exploded, and several of his teeth had shattered. The medical ID tag he wore around his neck was melted into his chest. He drove home from work that afternoon and was back on the job the next day. “I didn’t even know I was hurt. I didn’t realize anything was wrong,” says LeDoux, a 62-year-old master mechanic from Sulphur, La. It took several weeks before he realized just how fried his circuits were—and almost six months to find a doctor who believed he’d been struck.

On average, 67 Americans are reported killed by lightning each year. Nobody keeps accurate records of the number of lightning injuries, but estimates range from 200 to 1,000 annually. Four in five survivors are men (who are more likely to work outside and play golf). About 100 of them gathered recently at the Music Road Hotel in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., not far from Dollywood, for the 15th annual international conference of lightning-strike and electric-shock survivors. They came to commune and commiserate. At the men’s support group, which was held in the hotel’s conference center on a Thursday afternoon, survivors went around the room introducing themselves and describing their injuries. One man with a chest-length Fu Manchu mustache talked about how he’d aged 50 years overnight after getting shocked by a light bulb. “I’m not glad you’re hurt,” he declared to his fellow survivors, “but I’m glad that I’m not the only one.” The moderator, a survivor who used to climb poles for Bell South, asked the group, “How many of you were told at one time or another that there was nothing wrong with you?” Nearly everyone’s hand went up.

Lightning survivors sometimes have trouble convincing friends and family—even doctors—that they’ve been struck. Unlike garden-variety electrical shock, which finds the quickest route directly through the body, lightning can flash over the outside of a victim, sometimes blowing off clothes without leaving so much as a mark on the skin. The high-voltage electricity that zips through the body does its damage in just a few milliseconds. In many cases, there are no visible burns, though temporary fernlike bruises called Lichtenberg figures sometimes appear. Medical tests like MRIs, CT scans, and X-rays usually come back normal. But those are anatomical tests of how the body looks, not functional tests of how it works, and they can be deceiving. Zap a computer with an electrical surge and its hardware will appear unchanged, but that doesn’t mean it’ll still be able to run Leisure Suit Larry. The same is true of humans.

About 70 percent of lightning-strike victims are afflicted with a bizarre collection of disorders that remain almost a total mystery to medical science. LeDoux, like most survivors, has a terrible short-term memory. “I would’ve been able to hide my own Easter eggs and not find them,” he says. “I lose days, sometimes a whole week.” He is easily distracted and often fatigued and has gone through spates of depression. “That first year when they told me I’d never be able to work again, I took a gun and put it to my head and pulled the trigger,” he says. “But you know what? I forgot to load it.”

Bubba Babineaux and four fellow gem hunters were struck in 1999

Tremors, mini-seizures, and sleep disorders are common symptoms. So are chronic pain and a lack of equilibrium. “I’m scared to death to get stopped on the highway because I can’t walk a white line,” says Bubba Babineaux. Many survivors experience intense headaches and a constant ringing in their ears. Some complain that they overheat easily. Babineaux, for instance, has shaved his head to compensate for a persistent feeling that he’s about to spontaneously combust. In some cases, these symptoms don’t appear until months or even a year after the accident. One widespread symptom is chronic irritability. “Anything would set me off,” LeDoux says, with an unsettling glare, before explaining that he now takes nine medications to ease his pain. Lightning-strike survivors often talk about “mourning” their old selves.

Because strikes are so rare, and because their symptoms are so obscure, victims are often dismissed by doctors, not surprisingly, as malingerers or told they have psychosomatic disorders. Only a handful of doctors in the world are experts in keraunopathology, or post-electrocution syndrome, and even the experts are clueless as to how exactly lightning messes with the nervous system. Until just a few years ago, the medical literature was virtually silent on the long-term pathologies caused by lightning strikes. According to Dr. Nelson Hendler, clinical director of the Mensana Pain Clinic in Stevenson, Md., and an expert on lightning disorders, 93 percent of strike survivors have misdiagnosed conditions. Bubba Babineaux’s story, which appeared in the National Enquirer, is typical. He and four friends were struck by lightning while hunting for petrified wood in southeastern Texas. When the group staggered into a hospital emergency room several hours later, they were prescribed Gatorade and sent home with orders to stay hydrated. “I’ve stopped going to doctors. They’re not worth anything,” was a refrain heard often among survivors at the conference.

Richard Washington, in the hat and shirt he was wearing when struck in 2002

The conference itself was born out of such frustration. In the mid-1980s, a former bank clerk named Steve Marshburn Sr., who had gone from doctor to doctor for 15 years seeking an explanation for his lightning-strike symptoms, started reaching out to other survivors whom he read about in the newspaper. After about a year of reading their letters, he and his wife Joyce started an organization for lightning-strike and electric-shock survivors from their home in Jacksonville, N.C., and held their first conference in 1990. (Despite celebrations this year commemorating the conference’s 15th anniversary, Marshburn concedes he made a mistake: The Pigeon Forge event was actually the 16th. But he’d just as soon forget last year’s Orlando conference, which was virtually boycotted by lightning survivors who didn’t want to go to central Florida, the Lightning Capital of America.)

The Marshburns believe that strike survivors don’t just need medical attention and hand-holding. This year, they offered lectures on how to win worker’s compensation cases and file Social Security disability claims. Predictably, the survivors have turned their suffering into a badge of honor. Conferees voted on male and female survivor of the year. (My nominee: Brian Sheldrake, who lost both his arms in an 11,000-volt electrical accident at age 14 and now drives a 40-foot RV with his feet.)

Marshburn says he and his wife have talked 15 survivors out of suicide and helped save several marriages. Unbeknownst to the couple, their own marriage was a cause for celebration at the conference. A surprise renewal-of-vows ceremony, timed to the Marshburns’$2 40th anniversary, took place Saturday night, with the entire family of survivors in attendance and a robed judge officiating. * Everyone was asked to sing along with the boombox to the chorus of a Marshburn family favorite, Alabama’s “Angels Among Us.”

That song, about the divine hands that intercede on our behalf, poses a theological question—Why me?—that torments surprisingly few victims of this most freakish act of nature. The survivors I spoke with almost all told me the same thing: Their accidents were somehow part of a divine master plan. If so, what were we to make of the violent thunderstorms and dazzling lightning shows that lit up Pigeon Forge all three days of the conference? I asked LeDoux about this, and also about what he thought of the remarkable coincidence that Tennessee Electric had decided to host a conference on the same days in the same hotel as the lightning-strike survivors. He didn’t think much of either oddity. In the scheme of things, he said, they just weren’t that improbable.

* Correction, June 13, 2005: The article originally stated that the officiant at the renewal-of-vows ceremony was a justice of the peace. In fact, he was a judge. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.