Getting Struck by lightning is extremely rare. You often hear people say that you have a bigger chance of winning the lottery. Although this is true, and your chances of getting struck by lightning are incredibly low, it doesn’t mean it never happens. Because of how rare it is, there isn’t much research done about lightning strike survivors and some of the side effects of such trauma.
After Shana Williams got struck by lightning, the mother of four’s life forever changed. She started experiencing memory loss and PTSD, and she realized that the people around her thought she was crazy. She felt everyone’s skepticism and just wanted to be understood. Once she found a support group of other lightning strike survivors, she no longer felt alone. Shana finally learned to accept her situation and how to cope with it.
This is the story of lightning strike survivor, Shana Williams.
On September 30th, 2015, the sky was getting dark in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as the Jack Britt School girls’ soccer team was playing a game on a muggy evening. Shana Williams Turner, a 46-year-old teacher in the school’s special education department, was supervising the entrance to the field and watched the weather change.
Sounds of thunder were coming from above, each one bringing the lightning closer. Then, a bolt struck nearby, so the players and coaches were taken inside by the supervising staff. Shana, however, stayed outside to keep guard. The pouring rain soaked her auburn hair, red pants, and white shirt.
After about 30 minutes, the weather seemed to calm down and the soccer game resumed. Then, Shana noticed another lightning bolt hit a grocery store across the street. She and the choir teacher, Richard Butler, hid under the ticket booth to find shelter. Butler sat down in the small space as Shana leaned against the metal door.
Lightning struck again and this time, it was extremely loud. A transformer, 30 feet away, exploded and burst into flames. Shana felt extreme pain, as if her shoulders turned into burning jelly, and she was thrown onto the ground. “F**K!,” she yelled out.
Butler helped pick Shana up as the rest of the teachers rushed over to see if everything is okay. Confused, Shana replied, “I don’t know exactly. I think I got struck by lightning.” To this day her memory of the incident is foggy. “What do you need?” they continuously asked her.
“I don’t know what I need. But my arm is on fire, my feet are tingling and my chest hurts,” she cried. Shana’s youngest son, 15-year-old Dillon, witnessed the entire thing. He was a student at the school and was waiting for a ride home. “Mom!,” he cried, and ran over.
Suddenly, Shana got up and seemed fine, just a little startled. No one called an ambulance, and she didn’t receive any medical attention. Stunned, she thought to herself, “Did I really just get struck?” She got in the car with Dillon and headed home. She called her sister in the car: “Hey Ronda, can you look up on the computer what you do when you get struck by lightning?”
Rhonda paused before screaming, “You go to the hospital!” Shana had been to the hospital before, but her mind felt foggy and she couldn’t remember. “Ronda,” she said, as the ringing in her ears got louder, “I don’t know how to get there.”
Dillon was sitting in the passenger seat, so nervous his hands were fidgeting. He texted Shana’s long-term partner, Greg, and told him what was going on. Then, he held his phone, ready to call 911 just in case. Although her memory was fuzzy, Shana’s mind was racing. What would happen to her four children if she died? Their dad was no longer in the picture.
“You know, it’s getting worse,” Shana told Dillon. “If it gets really bad, do you think you can drive the car?” Dillon said, “I’ll try; I’ll do what I can.” As Shana pulled into the driveway, Greg came out to help her get into the passenger seat and sped to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
Lighting is formed when humid air is pushed into the atmosphere during a storm, causing the water vapor inside to freeze into tiny ice particles. These particles collide with each other generating a strong negative charge of the cloud that is attracted to the positive charge on the ground.
Once the negative charge becomes strong enough to overpower the insulating properties of the air, it explodes as lighting. As the bolt shoots towards the ground, it heats the air around it to an astonishing 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit causing a shock wave that we hear, known as thunder. That’s four times hotter than the surface of the sun!
So, when lightning hits a person, 300 million volts of electricity are sent across the body in just three milliseconds. The current flows externally, meaning it disrupts or short-circuits the electrical systems of the body, like the one that controls the heart. In fact, cardiac arrest causes almost all lightning strike deaths.
It’s not uncommon for the shock wave to cause brain damage from blunt-force trauma. The jolt can severely burn your skin, and many times it gives you a web of scars resembling a lightning bolt, kind of like a tattoo. These scars are known as Lichtenberg figures, and for unclear reasons, they usually fade within days. Most people survive because the lightning passes through a taller object such as a tree, or in Shana’s case, the transformer.
Greg pulled up to the entrance of the emergency room, and Shana ran out. She felt increasing panic. A security guard who sensed that something was wrong helped bring her into the emergency room. As soon as doctors found out Shana was struck by lightning, she was rushed into a gurney and hooked up to an electrocardiogram.
She was surrounded by nurses taking more vitals. Then, a doctor came in and said her blood pressure was abnormally high, but he didn’t notice any burns or signs of injury. Therefore, no additional tests were ordered. Shana stayed the night. The next day, she left and seemed to know almost nothing about what happened to her.
Two days later, Shana casually walked into school to the disbelief from her co-workers. “I can’t believe you’re here. Are you allowed to be here?” asked the principal. “Well, the doctors didn’t tell me that I couldn’t go back to work,” Shana answered.
“We’ve hired a sub,” the principal explained. “We’ll keep the sub with you for a week because you’re not looking good.” Over the next few weeks, every inch of Shana’s body hurt. Her muscles were aching, and her ears were constantly ringing. But that wasn’t the extent of her symptoms.
Shana constantly felt fatigued and even developed severe apnea. She found it difficult to remember words and her short-term memory loss was not helping. It got to the point where she had to remind herself to put her legs in the car, otherwise, she would slam the door on them.
One day, one of her students approached her in class. She tried to say his name but couldn’t remember it. She hesitated, stuttered, and couldn’t recall. “Give me a minute,” she said and turned around towards the board to cry. The boy gave her a hug and said, “Ms. Turner, you can call me anything you want.”
Since the lightning strike happened on the school’s property, Shana was entitled to workers’ compensation. However, there was a long waiting list for an approved neurologist. The only available appointment was six months after the lightning strike.
When her appointment finally came, the neurologist was puzzled by what Shana described. “That makes no sense,” he said after Shana told him she heard ringing in her ears, the hot tingling sensation, and one particularly concerning symptom in which her right arm would randomly swell up for no reason.
Shana drove to a cardiologist’s office to let them see her arm swell up in front of their eyes so that they would take her more seriously. They prescribed her six different medications, including painkillers, antidepressants, and a potent anti-fatigue medicine known as Nuvigil, commonly prescribed to late-night shift workers.
Shana’s complications that came after the lightning strike extended beyond her physical body. She was unable to juggle her work commitments and family. Shana felt so guilty that she didn’t spend as much time with Greg and the kids anymore.
Shana started getting scared by public areas, especially places with large crowds. A sudden noise or even a camera flash could trigger her anxiety. And perhaps the most terrifying for Shana was the possibility of being outside during a thunderstorm.
Initially, it seemed like Shana was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Apparently, the condition is common among lightning survivors, but Shana was never diagnosed. Before the strike, Shana would regularly go on camping trips, and now she couldn’t stand the thought of it. She couldn’t bear the possibility of being in the great outdoors if lightning struck again.
Whenever dark clouds would approach, Shana’s joints would ache and her anxiety would shoot through the roof. At home, Shana had a regular routine that helped: She stayed away from windows, got into bed, and turned up the TV to tune out the sound of thunder.
Shana even started wearing a lightning detector around her neck, which can detect the electromagnetic pulse emitted by a lightning strike and can estimate how far away it is. It seemed to be a comforting mechanism for Shana.
Unfortunately, things were getting worse at home. Shana and Greg started arguing all the time. Shana felt like he wasn’t understanding the complexities of her increasing health problems, or perhaps doubted them in general.
For example, when she had her neurologist appointment to get her brain scan results, Greg forgot to take the day off of work so that he could go with her. When she went to that appointment, she found out that she had damage to her right frontal lobe.
The frontal lobe is an area in the brain that controls nonverbal abilities, such as memory. The neurologist explained that he was almost certain it came as a result of the lightning strike. Apparently, Greg never even asked Shana how it went, so she never told him.
He found out during an argument two months later: “You don’t even know that I’ve got brain damage because you didn’t even care to ask!” she told Greg. Soon after, the pair split up, bringing their seven-year relationship to an end.
After about a year, Shana’s insurance company asked her to undertake an “independent medical examination” to challenge her workplace injury claim and possibly deny her treatment coverage. Following four hours of IQ, psychological, and personality tests, Shana’s neuropsychologist determined that most of her symptoms came from stress.
He also explained away Shana’s brain damage, telling her she probably had a stroke in the past year. According to Shana, he said, “The thing with you is you have absolutely no burns.” She was absolutely stunned. This didn’t make any sense.
Shana had already read all the academic research that stated that physical injuries, including burns, only appear in less than 50% of lighting strike cases. It didn’t take long for her financial support to be terminated, once workers’ compensation stopped covering her medical expenses.
After that appointment, she went into her car and broke down crying. She didn’t understand why nobody would believe her and wondered if anyone ever will. She kept her medication and doctor visits to a minimum but still has medical bills adding up to $8,000 a year after insurance.
Shana had difficulties paying these bills and supporting her family, all on a teacher’s salary. In the winter, she heated up the house with the fireplace in order to save money on electricity. Still, it wasn’t enough. Shana fell behind on car payments until it was repossessed.
Shana felt completely alone and started to isolate herself from others. She noticed as her friends started sending her fewer and fewer messages. She felt it was easier not to say anything, the idea of rejection too painful. She didn’t even want to think about it.
Then, one night, she was sitting in a bed when her sister’s friend texted her. It was a Facebook link to a page called “Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors Support Group.” Shana immediately got sucked in and spent hours reading lightning survivor stories similar to hers.
As she was going down the rabbit hole, she noticed that no one believed them either. Suddenly, she felt less alone. She saw that there was an upcoming conference in Virginia that the members were organizing. It was an easy three hours away, so Shana booked a bus ticket for Lynchburg.
As she walked through the doors of Comfort Inn & Suites, the hotel where the event took place, a disheveled Shana had no idea what to expect. It’s been a tough last few months for her. Some nights, she thought it might be easier if she just didn’t wake up in the morning.
Shana tried to put her dark thoughts aside and prayed that this support group could help provide her with some much-needed answers and about how to navigate life after being struck by lightning. She was thrilled to be around people who would understand her.
Steve Marshburn founded Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International in 1989. About twenty years earlier, Steve was working behind the drive-through till of a bank in Swansboro, North Carolina, when lightning struck. The bolt went through the speaker and broke his back.
Steve has gotten 48 surgeries since. He says that back then, there wasn’t much research being done on lightning strike injuries. Therefore, he decided to document the side-effects he was experiencing. He quickly realized that his friend who had been electrocuted was dealing with the same symptoms.
That’s when Steve Marshburn came up with the idea to start a support group and organized two conferences a year so that lightning strike survivors could come together and exchange stories. It was a wonderful way to make other individuals with similar situations finally feel understood.
People can give each other tips and share the ways that they coped with their often debilitating injuries and the trauma that comes with them. And, of course, they talk about the skepticism of their friends and family. Constantly wondering if anyone will ever believe her, the support group was exactly what Shana needed.
Shana made a left at the lobby and entered the conference room. Yellow artificial lights shot down at about two-dozen people, many of them older than 50, seated around a table looking at a projector screen.
The carpet, curtains, and chairs had an outdated design with colors like brown and earthy greens. Next to the entrance were three elderly ladies selling books and even academic papers with titles like “Life After Shock, Vol. I” and “Behavioral Consequences of Lightning and Electrical Injury.”
A middle-aged man with a thick mustache summoned Shana to the corner of the room. It was the incredible Gary Reynolds, a three-time lightning strike survivor who had already reached out to support her through the community’s Facebook group. She sat next to him.
Soon, both lightning strike and electrocution survivors took turns sharing their stories. As a teacher, Shana was no stranger to public speaking, but on this day she was feeling nervous. “Hi. I’m Shana. I’m from Fayetteville, North Carolina,” she said before breaking into tears. Gary’s wife Lisa Reynolds came to comfort her, and someone brought her a tissue box.
“What you’re experiencing is normal. What you’re experiencing, most of us have been through,” said a man named Norman Baldwin. He was sitting across the table and reassured Shana with a warm smile. Norman was a former coal miner from Boone County, West Virginia, who suffered a high-voltage shock from a piece of heavy machinery in 2005. He said, “You’re not an outsider here.”
As tears streamed down her face, Shana gathered herself. She opened up about the medical confusion surrounding her injuries and how her family and friends either don’t believe her or don’t understand how the strike continues to affect her day-to-day life.
Everyone in the room nodded, completely relating to Shana’s situation. Then, a tall man named Rodney Burkholder came to stand beside her. He says that the group was incredibly supportive after he got electrocuted by a low-hanging power line while he was washing his RV. His neighbor was nearby and heard the zap.
The shocked neighbor watched Burkholder fall off his ladder and land on the ground where he would drift in and out of consciousness. “Where is Michael?” he asked his wife, who didn’t know anyone with that name. Supporters suggest it might have been a reference to archangel Michael. Lightning strikes and electric shocks have inspired wonder and allusions to the divine for as long as humans existed.
Shana was the only newbie in the group, and everyone was so sweet and welcoming. During breaks in between speakers, longtime members approached Shana and gave her some advice. She was given a pile of academic papers about lightning strikes and injuries, free of charge. “Take them,” they said. “You truly need them.”
A lot of the support was more emotional rather than practical, which was what Shana needed – to feel understood. An electrocution survivor named Keith uses a wheelchair and told Shana to write down all the things she was grateful for. “Contact me whenever you need to talk,” he told her.
Everyone in the group noticed how fragile Shana was and continuously offered her hugs since they know first-hand how damaging the effects of an electric injury could have on a person’s mental health. It can take a really negative toll.
In 2017, the group conducted a survey of 595 of its lightning strike members and discovered that 280 of them suffered from depression and 67 were suicidal. The group’s founder, Steve Marshburn, managed to talk 27 people out of suicide. He said, “God gives you strength to do what you got to do.”
At the end of the conference, a man named Johnny walked up to the projector. He was an airplane engineer who was working when lightning struck the aircraft and threw him to the ground. He showed the survivors a news report where he was interviewed right after it happened. He seemed fine.
Johnny explained that it was only later when he developed debilitating side effects that kept him out of a full-time job for two years. As Shana was listening to his story, she noticed similarities to her experiences.
The next day, Shana felt emotionally drained but happy about her trip to Lynchburg. She believed she found a new family and has attended every conference since. She inked her journey to find self-acceptance all over her body. On her right shoulder, she got a tattoo of a lightning bolt striking a butterfly which represents the new her.
She also has a tattoo of an interlocking chain around her ankle, which signifies the hold the lightning strike will always have on her. Attached to the chain there are charms that tell her story.
First, is a thundercloud for the strike, a hand grasping a lightning bolt for getting a grip on her new obstacles, and a double bolt because she hopes and prays this will never happen to her again. Perhaps even more important, she has charms for her four children and two grandchildren.
“They’re all I have left,” Shana explained. “They are my life. I’m alive for them.” Shana completed her tattoos in 2019 and has finally come to terms with the new normal. She was determined to stick to a strict routine in order to tackle her daily life.
When she gets up in the morning, Shana takes her pills. She always makes sure to put her keys on a hook and her wallet in the car so that she wouldn’t forget them. She also stopped carrying a purse because she would often forget to pick it up after putting it down. Although she still felt constant pain, Shana learned how to manage it.
Thanks to her family and her amazing support group, Shana finally feels less isolated. Shana even adopted a Great Dane puppy who she appropriately named Bolt; he is being trained as a support dog. When Shana drives, Bolt listens to her breathing and if it starts to slow down, it means she’s dosing off so he nudges her with his nose.
Shana’s oldest daughter convinced her to sign up for a few dating sites. Shana agreed, but she wanted to be upfront about the fact that she was struck by lightning so she included it in her profile. She learned to accept it as part of her identity.
In January 2020, Shana met a carpenter and aspiring author, Don. The New Yorker had a peppered beard and drove over an hour to her local Taco Bell where the two met. Shana told him what it was like to be struck by lightning over some tacos and nachos.
Don didn’t judge Shana and there was an instant attraction toward her; he felt like he knew her his whole life. After their tacos, they went back to Shana’s house and stayed up talking until two in the morning. Then in April, after spending time apart due to the pandemic, Don moved in with her.
The lockdown meant they got to spend more time with one another and enjoy each other’s company. Shana said that she really got to know Don during the pandemic and it actually helped bring them closer together.
Most couples have a moment that marks their relationship. Maybe it’s the first date, the first kiss, or the first holiday. For Shana and Don, it was their first thunderstorm. They were sitting outside on the front porch as Shana watched the dark rumbling clouds come closer.
Her chest began to tighten and her joints started aching. Don took her hand and brought her inside without saying a word. He turned the TV up to tune out the thunder and held Shana under the blanket. “Everything is going to be okay,” he said. “I’m here.”
During a thunderstorm, many people take shelter under a tree, since the leaves and branches prevent you from getting wet. However, standing underneath a tree is the second most dangerous place to be during a thunderstorm – the first being outside in an open space.
The safest place to be during a thunderstorm is in an enclosed building with wiring and plumbing. So, instead of hiding under a tree, try to get home or indoors as fast as possible. Remember: Sheds, picnic shelters, tents, and trees will not protect you from lightning.
One of the craziest myths people believe about lightning victims is that they carry an electrical charge, and you can get electrocuted by just touching them. Let me start by telling you that this is completely untrue. Our body does not store electricity.
If you are able to, you should help lightning victims get first aid and call 911 immediately. This is the scariest lightning myth because it could be the difference between life and death. So again, there is no need to worry; a lightning strike victim will not give you an electric shock by touching them.
For some reason, many people hear that if you are trapped outside during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down to reduce your chances of getting struck by lightning. I remember being told that the taller you are, the more of a chance you have of getting struck.
However, this is not true. Standing next to someone taller than you during a storm will not make you safer, so don’t bother crouching down. If you are stuck outside during a storm, keep moving forward and try to get inside. That will decrease your chances.
Another common lightning myth is that it never strikes in the same place more than once. This is another silly one that has no proof to support it. Not only does lightning strike in the same place more than once, but it can strike the same place repeatedly.
In fact, some places can get hit dozens or even hundreds of times. Especially if it’s something tall and isolated. A good example is the Empire State Building which reportedly gets hit 25 times a year. Not only can lightning strike the same place twice, but one single lightning bolt can strike more than one place at a time.
A widely believed myth about lightning is that it can’t hit an area where skies are clear. No rain means no strikes, right? Wrong. It’s not a good idea to wait until the clouds are right above your head to start acting.
If you can hear the thunder, it indicates that the lighting is close enough to be an immediate threat. If you’re planning an outing or camping trip, you should check the forecast and sign up for weather alerts. If there is a thunderstorm on the way, make sure to postpone all outdoor activities.
Apparently, cameras aren’t very effective when it comes to capturing lightning bolts inside the clouds. Photographs help indicate the general size of the lightning and the bolt’s “channel diameter”- which according to a picture, averages between two and seven inches.
However, researchers who examined melted metal locations that were hit by lightning volts believe that they’re closer to just one inch in diameter. But just because they aren’t very wide doesn’t mean that they aren’t extremely long. Researcher Martin Uman observed lightning channels that were 90 miles long!
I’m a Florida girl, and I can definitely attest to the fact that it’s the sunshine state. However, we get rain all the time. These sun showers seem crazy when people from other states come to visit. It boggles their mind that you could look out the backyard and see the sunshine, but when you open the front door it’s pouring out.
Florida is also in the hurricane danger zone so despite the sunshine, we’re no strangers to thunder. In fact, out of the top 15 counties with the most lightning strikes in America, 14 of them are in Florida (as reported in 2018). There is even a place called “Lightning Alley” between Tampa and Orlando.
Florida may have the most lightning in the United States, but Venezuela experiences more lightning than anywhere else in the world. Specifically, Lake Maracaibo, right off the Caribbean Sea holds the title of “highest concentration of lightning,” according to The Guinness Book of World Records.
Furthermore, that’s where you can find the Cotatumbo lightning, horrifyingly known as the “everlasting storm.” It’s a weather phenomenon that has an average of 260 storms a year, and 150 of them include lightning. Sometimes, there could be as many as 30 flashes of lightning per minute.
There is a reason thunder and lightning come at the same time. Thunder can’t even actually exist without lightning. Even though most people talk about them like they are two separate things, they are just two features of the same phenomenon: Thunder is the sound of lightning.
So basically, thunder is the sound created as the air expands. Since thunder is the sound lightning makes, it only makes sense that they come together. The only reason we see lightning before hearing the thunder is because light travels faster than sound.
Although getting struck by lightning is extremely rare, lightning kills about 51 people a year in the United States. Well, according to the National Weather Service, that was the case between 1984 and 2013. But that number seems to be going down through the years.
The year 2017 held a record for the lowest amount of people killed by lightning in a year with only 16 deaths. In 2018, it shot up to 20 deaths, which made it the second-lowest year on record. You have a higher chance of dying from a falling coconut (which kills about 150 people a year.)
Although there are as few as 51 deaths due to lightning strikes in the United States annually, there are an estimated 24,000 annual deaths worldwide. Many of these deaths take place in more rural parts of the world. America loses about 0.3 people per 1 million from lightning strikes. India loses two people per 1 million, Zimbabwe loses 20 per 1 million and Malawi loses a whopping 84 people per 1 million.
But if you get killed by a lightning strike in the United States, chances are you are a man. For some reason, lightning disproportionately kills men. In fact, 81% of lightning-related deaths between 2006 and 2013 were men, according to the National Weather Service.