'The left side of my head felt like it would explode:' Lightning strike survivor opens up about the aftermath
Steve Marshburn Sr. was struck by lightning five decades ago but still suffers from the debilitating symptoms.
The sun was shining when lightning struck Steve Marshburn Sr.
Steve, a banker, had stepped into a gaggle of people crowding the bank’s lobby on a cool November morning in 1969. In Swansboro, North Carolina, a mile-wide seaside town with sandy beaches and just over 1,000 residents at the time, the sky remained blue, though a storm lurked outside of town.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day,” he said. “I remember that well because there was no sign of the storm.”
Stamp in hand, he had just opened a teller window. His back was against the drive-through window when thunder boomed next to the bank. The strike catapulted him forward, leaving him sprawled on the counter. He couldn’t speak or scream. The employees and customers stared at him.
“Steve’s been struck!” someone yelled.
Steve felt like someone had hit him in the spine with a machete.
The metal stamp he was holding shot out of his hand and burned a three-inch-long S-shaped scar on his right hand. The mark would be the only visible effect of the lightning.
Though Steve appeared uninjured to most people, the electric current that raced through his body sparked an invisible plague of symptoms that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The damage remained hidden inside his nervous system, where the electricity that coursed through his body scrambled the neurons that controlled his memory, personality and speech – functions needed to work and live a normal life as a husband and father.
Only a fraction of the energy in the lightning strike actually ran through Steve’s body, Mary Ann Cooper, a medical expert on lightning strikes, said. Like pointing a fire hose at a bucket, the massive amount of energy in lightning can’t flood into a victim’s body at once, so the majority flashes around the surface of their skin. The sliver of electricity that does enter someone’s cardiovascular and nervous system can send victims into cardiac arrest and cause devastating neurological damage to the 90% who survive a strike.
Steve didn’t go to the hospital or see a doctor that day. He went home for lunch with his wife, Joyce Marshburn, and their three-year-old daughter. Eight months pregnant with their second child, Joyce listened to his story.
“He looked fine to me, so I didn’t get too worried,” she said. “But then the problems started.”
Steve and Joyce Marshburn. (Photo courtesy of Steve Marshburn Sr.)
By the end of the day, Steve laid down on his office’s slate floor in his suit, too weak to stand.
“My spine was as if someone had just ripped it open,” he said. “The left side of my head felt like it would explode.”
Excruciating pain coursed from his spine down into his arms and legs, concentrating in his left hip and right hand. Though Steve has forgotten many details about the lightning strike, he can’t forget that day’s pain.
He can’t remember the exact date he was struck. Numbers and names slip through his mind now. He can’t remember all the symptoms he suffered in the years after the strike either, though his wife does.
Days after the strike, he forgot the names of all the employees at the bank. He had seizures and would remain unconscious and convulsing on the ground for minutes. He suffered from chronic pain, digestive issues, migraines and tremors. His personality changed. Joyce noticed.
“He used to be real calm-mannered and easy-going,” Joyce said. “Then he started to get mad real quick.”
He worked in the bank for 19 years after he was struck but spent much of the time laying on his office’s floor, trying to alleviate the constant drumbeat of pain throughout his body.
“Steve is incapacitated right now,” his secretary often told his customers waiting on the sofa outside.
Despite the 45 surgeries he’s had in the 50 years since he was struck, Steve still lives with the same symptoms that the split-second of lightning left.
No single cure or treatment exists for lightning injuries. Instead, doctors and survivors address each individual symptom, from chronic pain to migraines to memory loss.
Neil Pliskin, director of neuropsychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an electrical shock injury expert, designs individualized treatment plans for the survivors, often prescribing a medley of medication and psychotherapy to address their symptoms.
As a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist, Pliskin untangles whether survivors’ symptoms are caused by fundamental damage to the nervous system or the emotional aftershocks of a traumatic event, another added difficulty of treating lightning survivors. He often prescribes cognitive rehabilitation, a type of therapy that can retrain patients’ brains using different mental exercises and techniques to improve their memory and concentration.
“The brain you woke up with this morning is physically different than the one you woke up with a week ago. Your brain changing means that it can recover with the right kind of interventions,” Raphael Lee, chairman of the Chicago Electrical Trauma Research Institute, said. “The nervous system, nerves and muscles can adapt. Patients can regain a lot of function, and that’s really the mission of our electrical trauma rehabilitation program.”
Lightning struck Melissa Smith, a homeschool mom and pastor’s wife from Mobile, Alabama, in the summer of 2017, while she was sitting at her kitchen table. Lightning mostly causes neurological injuries that often manifest as lifelong chronic pain, migraines, memory loss and mountains of other symptoms.
Melissa Smith, 47, of Mobile, Alabama, still struggles with the aftereffects of being struck by lightning. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Smith)
Now, when Smith is asked her age, it takes time for her to remember how old she is. She hesitates for a moment before she answers.
She takes another long pause to remember how long she’s lived in Mobile.
She hesitates again as she tries to remember what years her three children are in high school and college.
Ninth grade, eleventh grade and junior year in college.
“Prior to the lightning strike, I was basically the brains of the family,” she said. “I could remember most everything.”
Smith had been planning next year’s homeschool curriculum on her laptop when she heard a boom outside “like a bomb going off.” Her daughter said she saw the lightning strike in the backyard and a blue streak of light break off and hit her mother in the side.
“It was the worst pain I'd ever felt in my life,” Smith said. “My entire left side went numb. I couldn't feel it. My chest hurt worse than I ever felt in my whole life.”
Her husband drove Smith, dazed and exhausted, to the hospital. Her speech slurred as she answered the questions her children asked to keep her awake. The hospital monitored her vital signs and blood pressure, performed chest X-rays and an electrocardiogram. They sent her home within hours.
Like Steve Marshburn, Smith's symptoms devastated her life, but evaded measurement.
Since the strike, Smith has dealt with muscle fatigue and balance problems so severe that she walks with a cane, and sometimes uses a wheelchair. Her nerve damage and chronic pain is at times so bad that she can’t get out of bed on her worst days. Her daily headaches often bleed into throbbing migraines that force her to shrink into a dark, quiet room for hours. She misplaces everything. One winter, she hid her husband’s Christmas present in their bedroom and didn’t remember where she’d stashed it until June.
“Before the lightning strike I was like the Energizer Bunny. I could go and do whatever I wanted,” she said. “Now I have to be dependent on others to even carry in groceries from the car or do daily chores. Sometimes it's very frustrating.”
She now spends hours researching lightning injuries on the internet, trying to understand the science and unsnarl information about potential treatments from thickets of advice online.
Researching isn’t easy though.
“It hurts my brain to think too hard,” she said. “When I end up doing too much my brain gets foggy and my headache gets worse and I've got to shut down and crash.”
She doubts that her primary doctor or neurologist have given her the treatment she needs, though she takes pain killers, blood pressure medications, anti-migraine medications and muscle relaxers. She started physical therapy, which has already begun to make her feel better, at the suggestion of people in her brain injury support group, not her doctors.
Smith hopes a medical professional will hear her struggle and listen to her -- that a doctor or nurse or student will hear her story and decide to research what happens when electrons enter someone’s body, and figure out how to undo the damage.
The relative rarity of lightning strike survivors means that research into the effects of lightning on the body and the best way to rehabilitate victims remains sparse.
“Fortunately, lightning injuries are not a very common thing,” Lee said. “That's the good news. The bad news is that there isn't a lot of research.”
Steve Marshburn Sr. and Melissa Smith were both struck by "bolts from the blue," lightning strikes that can leap out from distant thunderclouds. (Photo courtesy of University of Florida Lightning Observatory in Gainesville).
The Chicago Electrical Trauma Rehabilitation Institute (CERTI), housed in a one-story brick building diagonal to a Burger King on Chicago’s Southwest Side, is one of only a handful of facilities like it in the world.
CETRI’s team comprises doctors and scientists, including Lee and Pliskin, who research the effects of electric shock and treat the survivors. But the experienced doctors and treatment plans designed by CETRI’s multidisciplinary team remain out of reach for many lightning survivors like Smith.
Pliskin said early involvement from behavioral health specialists, like psychologists and therapists, should be part of anyone’s treatment plan, even if a survivor doesn’t have access to a place like CETRI.
PTSD haunts Smith as well. When storms roll through Mobile, she retreats into her bedroom, the place in her house that’s farthest away from where she was struck. Even in her safe place, the sound of thunder sometimes sends her into a panic so intense that her muscles spasm and her skin feels like she’s being poked by hundreds of needles.
“I get really anxious because deep inside I'm afraid I'm going to get struck by lightning again,” she said.
Cooper said lightning survivors, like others who live with chronic pain, may also go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Ultimately, a support system from family and friends and doctors who listen to survivors can help them accept their new normal.
Smith’s husband and children have taken up washing the dishes, doing the laundry and vacuuming when Smith is too weak to move. Her children help her plan meals so she doesn’t have to think too hard about what to make. They cook one meal a week so Smith can rest.
“They've been right there helping me and pushing me along,” she said.
A pastor’s daughter, and now a pastor’s wife, Smith leans on her family and faith to cope with the never-ending pain and the ways her life has changed since the strike. Every day she recites her favorite Bible verse, sometimes silently, sometimes out-loud: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.”
Smith said she’s strong-willed. That she refuses to be defeated. That she wants to overcome the debilitating changes of the strike. But through tears, Smith said she doesn’t have a best-case scenario for her recovery.
“I'm not the same person I was before I was struck,” she said. “I’m still working on accepting it.”Report a Typo
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