Unlucky Strike

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

He didn't.

Lightning-strike survivors can suffer from over ninety symptoms, ranging from insomnia to vertigo to irritability to panic attacks to stiff joints to headaches to diminished sex drives. But MRIs and CAT scans can appear normal. Some people can be seriously injured by lightning and not have a scratch on them. It's like a computer damaged by a power surge, doctors say. On the surface, the hardware appears fine, but when the machine is rebooted, the software malfunctions.

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.

As U.S. Highway 285 passes through Turkey Creek Canyon, it switches, turns and snaps around like a sidewinder. Garry had driven the route a thousand times as he traveled between his home in Buena Vista and Denver. But on the ride home from St. Anthony's, as Linda rounded the sharp curves, Garry thought he had passed through hell.

"It felt like my brain came loose and was sloshing around in my head," he recalls. "Slapping against one side of my head, then slapping against the other side. Trying to follow those turns left me completely exhausted."

That was just the beginning. A week after the strike, he still felt disoriented. He shuffled around in a medicated daze. He couldn't speak clearly. He mistakenly thought it was August 1997 -- two years earlier. He'd gaze out the window at an airplane, and his mind would suddenly "lock up." As he tried to follow moving objects, he felt as though someone were flicking a switch on and off in his head.

"I'd look at something and then turn away, but I would still see it for a few seconds," Garry says. "My mind was still trying to process what I had just seen. I'd look in the rear-view mirror and see a red car behind me. Then I'd look out front and still see the red car. I'll tell you what, it's quite a surprise to see what you think is a car coming straight for your windshield."

He was always tired. Activities that once took a few minutes, such as loading a dishwasher, seemed to take hours. He'd forget his birthday, his address and his phone number. He'd gaze at the kitchen clock and struggle to determine which direction the hands moved. He'd open the front door and forget to shut it. He'd sift through pocket change and forget how to count.

"I had studied for a degree in biology and animal husbandry," Garry says. "I took college calculus and trig. But after the injury, I couldn't get past simple arithmetic."

Linda had been told not to leave him alone outside because he might wander off and get lost. He once stepped out the back door to go to his workshop, tripped over a rock and panicked. "It was only sixty feet away, but I couldn't figure out which direction I needed to take to get back," he recalls.

He suffered nightmares. He'd grind his teeth in his sleep. He became terrified during thunderstorms, clutching the sofa so tightly that Linda thought it would break.

Then came the seizures. Garry would be talking or watching television, and his face would suddenly go blank. He'd stare straight ahead in a daze, then snap to attention. "It was like I'd wake up and find myself in a place that I didn't realize I was in," he says. "One time I lost eight hours that way."

Another time, he had just poured a cup of coffee and settled back on the sofa when he felt a tremor building inside him. His hands trembled, his body tensed and his jaw locked. When he awoke, one of his front teeth was broken.

The pain from his other injuries was constant. His hip burned. His ear ached. His head throbbed. So Garry took pain pills. Dozens of pills. Enough pills to fill a plastic grocery sack with empty bottles.

At 55, Garry was a fit and wiry light-heavyweight. Before the lightning strike, he'd walked twelve miles a day. He had no history of serious psychological or physical problems. This new litany of debilitating ailments threw him for a loop. "I was at the age where I was used to things going one way," he says. "All of a sudden, that stopped."

Garry blamed his colleagues for not noticing his disappearance sooner. He blamed himself for not heeding the looming thunderstorm. He blamed God for the endless torments he'd suffered. Sometimes he thought he was going crazy. Other times he wished he'd never survived.

"I'd think, if I had died, look how much better off my family would be," he says.

It was hard on his family. Linda took months off from work to care for him and drive him to and from Denver for appointments. Their daughter, Colleen, who was often left with friends or family, began to feel abandoned. Although they were close, frustrations built.

"I just wanted to know how long this would last," Linda says. "But we could never get a concrete answer. At first it was two weeks, then six months, then two years. To tell you the truth, I don't think they really know."

Unlike many strike survivors, though, Garry never had trouble with his insurance company. No one doubted that his ailments had resulted from the lightning flash; workers at a nearby hatchery even reported seeing a lightning bolt near the Ouray property that July afternoon. Garry was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome; he retired from the DOW with workers' compensation and disability benefits. He also received cognitive training, physical therapy, counseling and medical treatment.

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