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August 4, 2020

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Lightning strike survivors share the lasting impacts of their experience

Steve Marcus' 2018 Photos of the Year

Steve Marcus

Lightning flashes behind the Palazzo and Trump International Hotel as a storm passes through the Las Vegas Valley Thursday, July 19, 2018.

Justin Gauger can remember almost everything from the day that changed his life.

He was on a family fishing trip near Woods Canyon Lake, 130 miles west of Prescott, Arizona, on August 10, 2014, when lightning struck his back, propelling him 50 feet sideways until he landed face-first in a pile of rocks.

The sound of the strike was deafening, as loud as the blasts he heard while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Gauger, now 46, recalls. He briefly saw a white glow around him, “like a ball of light.” Then everything went dark. When he came to, he felt pain throughout his body and he was paralyzed from the waist down—temporarily, as it turned out.

Lightning injuries are rarer in the United States today than ever before. The average American has a 1-in-15,300 chance of getting struck during their lifetime, according to the National Weather Service. Though lightning strikes kill more humans annually than hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes combined, about 90% of lightning strike victims survive, according to research done by lightning injury expert Mary Ann Cooper.

Many survivors are left with physical disabilities and/or psychological impacts, however, including memory loss, depression, anxiety and PTSD, explains Cooper, a physician and former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“As a result, sometimes people can’t go back to work,” Cooper says. “They may lose their homes. They may lose their jobs. They may lose their families.”

In Nevada, no one has been fatally struck by lightning since 2006, when a 16-year-old in Tonopah died following a strike, according to the National Weather Service in Las Vegas. But popular outdoor destinations not far from Southern Nevada, including areas near the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, report lightning strikes from time to time. Arizona is tied for fourth among states with the most lightning fatalities between 2009 and 2018, the NWS reports.

“Arizona gets more lightning in general because they have a better monsoon season,” says Caleb Steele, a meteorologist with the NWS in Las Vegas. “Utah is kind of the same way.”

Lightning deaths and injuries often make the local news, but what happens to victims in the months and years after the strike rarely gets as much attention. And though some medical progress has been made on recognizing and treating lightning injuries, they remain poorly understood in general.

Lightning strike survivor Sydney Copeland says the doctors she has seen have been “somewhat confused” by her symptoms and experience. “They find it hard to give me a definitive answer to my questions about it,” says Copeland, who has declined to see specialists because of the cost.

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Justin Gauger, second from right, and family

• • •

Although strikes are sometimes avoidable, Gauger’s experience reflects how quickly lightning can hit. He was fishing with his family when it suddenly started raining and hailing, he says. As he was making his way away from the lake to his truck, the lightning bolt struck him, burning all of his clothes and literally knocking off his socks and shoes, he says.

When Gauger arrived at a hospital in Payson, Arizona, the doctor who treated him was in disbelief. “The doctor was like, ‘I can’t believe you’re here with us. You shouldn’t be here with us with the injuries that you have,’” Gauger says.

First-, second- and third-degree burns covered half his body, so the hospital sent him to a burn center in Phoenix. Once he got there, staff pumped what Gauger describes as a dark brown fluid out of his muscles, which had been caused by his body’s reaction to the lightning, he says.

Gauger had a pin-size hole in his back where the lightning had entered, along with two holes in his left foot and one in his right foot, where the lightning had exited his body. He couldn’t walk for six months without help from his wife, children or another person.

To deal with the pain, Gauger was prescribed opioids. He also received medication for his neuropathy, which he continues taking to this day. During his recovery process, he developed anxiety, PTSD and depression, so he also began taking antidepressants, Gauger says. Given the chronic pain and memory issues he has developed, he has not returned to his former job in the Pinal County Assessor’s Office.

“For the last four years, it’s been mostly just [doing] stuff around the house,” he says. “I’ll come outside and do a little bit of work, because I get so tired so fast and my body starts hurting.”

Lightning strike survivor Justin Hofer recovered more quickly from his strike on February 23, 2018, but he continues to experience similar lasting symptoms, including memory problems, PTSD, nerve pain and general fatigue, he says.

Hofer was golfing in his hometown of St. George, Utah, on a cloudy day when it suddenly started hailing. “We were sitting in our golf carts and thinking, ‘Oh, this is interesting. This never happens,’ ” says Hofer, who was 38 at the time.

He was on the green when a bolt of lightning struck his back, exiting through his lower extremities and shoes. He remembers an unusual sensation as if he were “frozen in time” during the strike, as well as a smell he likens to burning rubber.

“The feeling is just incapacitating. It hits you and you can’t move, you can’t scream, you can’t think,” he says. “I remember that energy, and I remember falling to the ground.”

Those who witnessed the event told him he was conscious for about seven minutes before falling out of consciousness, blood coming out his mouth, ears and burn wounds. He was quickly transported to the University Medical Center in Las Vegas.

At one point, his heart appeared to stop beating, Hofer was told. He was placed on a ventilator for about a day and a half, and ultimately stayed in the hospital for about 10 days.

“I just remember being perplexed,” Hofer says. “It seemed like that was weeks ago that I was golfing with those guys, but then I didn’t have any memories in between that, and there I was.”

Hofer’s doctors prescribed him pain medication and advised him to rest. But in three or four weeks, he was able to return to work, he said.

In the months that followed, Hofer saw a neurologist to help treat his nerve damage. The neuropathy was worst in his feet, and for a while, he had trouble walking for long periods of time, he says.

His condition has improved, but he says he still experiences bouts of nerve pain in certain areas of his lower back, and his left leg and foot remain partially numb.

“It’s gotten better, but I’m not hopeful that it’s ever going to go away,” Hofer says. “It’s definitely something that affects you for the rest of your life. It’s kind of your new normal.”

The hardest part now is dealing with unknowns, explains Hofer’s wife, Kelcey. Hofer seems to struggle at work more now, and when performing any high-level tasks, she says. “We don’t know what his future is going to look like, if his stamina and health will decline or if it’s going to level out,” she says. “There are good days and bad days. ... I remember a doctor saying something [like], ‘We won’t know for at least five to 10 years what symptoms are going to come and go.’ ”

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Justin Hofer's shoes

• • •

Lightning strikes cause neurological injuries, Cooper says. As a result, victims most commonly deal with chronic pain symptoms due to nerve damage, along with impacts to the brain comparable to post-concussive syndrome in football players. Memory deficits, learning problems, irritability and distractibility are common, she says.

Sometimes, survivors will need care their entire lives. Other times, symptoms gradually subside, but the individuals might never return to the way they were before the strike, she says.

“Eventually, many, many people get to the acceptance level,” Cooper says. “They say, ‘I know I got this, but I can take care of it.’ I think those are the people that get better. They accept it; they work with the limitations.”

Copeland had relatively manageable physical impacts right after she was struck while rock climbing near Devil’s Head Mountain south of Denver on June 29, 2019. Immediately after the strike, she felt “numb and fuzzy” but experienced hardly any pain.

“Everything went white and I remember the universe being so incredibly loud, like the sound of standing next to a train and a city of screaming people,” she says.

Copeland, who was 23 at the time, developed a red-pink rootlike pattern on her body—produced by the electric impact—which went away two days after the strike, she says. Although her wrist felt numb, she was able to return to work within days.

But two months later, the numbness in her wrist turned into excruciating pain. It got so bad that she couldn’t resume working as a farmer, wash dishes or even text, the Colorado resident says.

She was treated with steroids and has been giving her wrist plenty of rest, giving up climbing since. She has been doing stretching and strengthening exercises, and she says the physical symptoms have lessened. Meanwhile, the psychological ones, including severe anxiety that’s at its most acute during thunderstorms, have been tougher to overcome.

“I’ve had nightmares. For several months after, I would sometimes see flashes of white light randomly,” Copeland says. “Occasionally when I blink or something moves quickly [through] my peripherals, I will still see these blinding flashes.”

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Sydney Copeland

• • •

Over the past five years, Gauger’s initially debilitating symptoms have slowly improved. Within six months, he was able to walk again on his own. Last February, he reached another milestone: He weaned himself off pain medication entirely. Earlier this year, he began working 12 hours per week for the first time since the strike, he says.

He still gets tired easily and experiences depression, which he developed shortly after the strike. And his memory cuts in and out, sometimes when he’s talking, Gauger says.

“I’m not the same person I used to be,” he says. “I used to get up and go, go, go. Now it’s more like, ‘I don’t want to do that; I don’t feel like doing this; my legs hurt.’ I just had to come to this realization that that’s not who I can be anymore, especially with the damage I have on my feet and not being able to stand up for long periods of time.”

Hofer continues to experience bouts of chronic pain and fatigue after prolonged activity, along with what he calls an “irrational fear of weather” and PTSD-like symptoms, particularly during storms. His eyesight is different, too. Sometimes images “linger” in his frame of vision longer than they should, he says.

Hofer describes himself as more risk-averse now than he was before, but says he feels lucky and grateful to have lived through an event that arguably should have killed him.

“It was really significant to me and pretty life-changing, pretty faith-building and an almost spiritual and emotional experience,” he says.

Cooper has noticed a commonality among the hundreds to thousands of lightning strike survivors with whom she has spoken: a feeling of having survived something extraordinary. Realizing they could have easily died, they feel they have a chance to “revisit what is really important to them,” she says.

In addition to the support Gauger has received from his wife and children, he says a support group for lightning strike survivors—with approximately 300 members nationwide—has helped him deal with the lasting effects of the strike. Through the group, he met Cooper, who serves on the group’s board of directors, and other survivors, including Hofer.

Hofer says that whenever he reads through posts on the group’s Facebook page, he notes the commonalities among strike survivors’ overall experiences, even when their physical symptoms might vary.

“I read their stories, and it’s just interesting,” Hofer says. “It’s like, ‘Man, that is so similar to what I’m dealing with.’ ”

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.