Unlucky Strike

Gary Rudd got zapped one day, and life has never been the same.

Then he remembered his radio. Through the sharp, blinding pain, he managed to twist up the volume on the squelch control. As long as he could hear the static, he told himself, the batteries would be charged. He pressed the transmit button and tried to speak, but he was not sure what, if anything, he said.

At dusk, Garry realized that his body no longer ached. His hands no longer trembled. But he could not shake the dreamlike haze that hung over him. He thought he had misplaced the typewriter in his truck and lost his tools in the irrigation ditch. He buttoned his shirt, fastened his belt, zipped his fly again and again. He imagined himself standing up and searching for his gear. He thought he picked up his radio and said he was afraid to die.

Then he thought about his family. He didn't want his wife and daughter to think he had killed himself because he was depressed over his job. Somehow, he slipped a pen from his shirt pocket and scribbled a note on the back of a work schedule: "Please give this to my wife, Linda Rudd. I was hurt bad somewhere. A bad fall. Lost. Can't walk. Dark. Radio dead. So sorry this happening. Trying hard to get through this. Please forgive me if I don't. LOVE YOU GUYS."

John Johnston
Electric company: After being hit by lightning, Garry Rudd found it difficult to work.
John Johnston
Electric company: After being hit by lightning, Garry Rudd found it difficult to work.

He adjusted his clothes once more, checked his fly again, and realigned himself into what he hoped was a dignified position. He did not want to be embarrassed, even in death. As night fell, Garry closed his eyes. He felt calmer now, serene, as if he were floating on ocean waves.

Of the people struck by lightning, only one in ten die, mostly from heart failure.

Lightning does not set people aflame. It does not reduce them to ashes. It does not leave them electrically charged. Lightening can flash along the outside of their bodies before discharging, or it can enter and travel through internal organs.

Most survivors suffer only minimal burns, usually first- or second-degree. Third-degree burns are rare, unless a person was wearing jewelry or came in contact with metal. Some suffer eye damage, others sustain ruptured eardrums. But lightning can also harm the nervous system, can injure the spine. And this, doctors say, is where lightning does its greatest damage.

Garry woke up under the fluorescent lights of a Salida hospital. When he didn't return home at 5 p.m., Linda had rung his cellular phone again and again, tried his pager and called his office. After sundown, she'd searched the edges of the Ouray hay fields, coming within 1,200 feet of Garry's pickup. But in the darkness, on the edge of private property, she'd left without noticing the vehicle.

At 11:45 p.m., a search party of DOW workers and sheriff's deputies finally spotted Garry's pickup and then found him beside the ditch, delirious and disoriented but alive. Garry saw the flashlights bobbing toward him but thought that a group of kids were playing a game with him. When his rescuers arrived, he couldn't understand what they were saying, and he mumbled something about his tools.

At the hospital, doctors gave him oxygen, which cleared his head, and conducted a battery of X-rays, CAT scans and blood tests. His head and ears ached. His right hip burned. His right hand throbbed. It wasn't broken, as he'd thought, but had been pierced by a five-inch sliver of pitchfork traveling at the velocity of a .45-caliber bullet. He also had a four-inch gash on his right thigh and another two-inch cut on his right calf. His torso and right foot were covered with tiny red splotches resembling cigarette burns; the largest, about the size of a pencil eraser, was on his right hip.

Doctors were confused by Garry's injuries, which weren't consistent with a fall. Perhaps he'd had a stroke. Maybe he'd suffered an epileptic seizure. Or perhaps, someone suggested, he'd been struck by lightning.

Garry was airlifted to St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver, where doctors confirmed that he'd been hit by a thunderbolt. Even with the storm more than a dozen miles away, Garry's pitchfork had acted as a lightning rod. When he grabbed the tool, a massive electric flash had entered through his right hip, spread over his chest, stomach and right leg, then exited through his right thigh, calf and foot. The burns on his clothes seemed to confirm this: Tiny holes had been scorched into his jeans that corresponded with the burns on his leg; on the right hip, a quarter-sized hole had been burned around the rivet.

The pitchfork itself had blasted apart into a hundred pieces.

After more tests, doctors determined that Garry had not suffered a heart attack or respiratory failure. He had, however, lost 40 percent of the hearing in his right ear. A neurologist and lightning-strike specialist also determined that Garry's memory was spotty, that he had trouble recognizing numbers, and that he had difficulty with his coordination. But since the injuries weren't life-threatening, Garry was released after four days. His doctors hoped that he'd get better within a few weeks, as many strike survivors did.

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