The Body Electric
Struck by lightning five years ago, a UNH-Manchester assistant professor finds she's not only a different person now but a different teacher as well.

On a beach near Fort Foster in Maine, Gail Rondeau looks out to sea.

Gail Rondeau stares at the blackboard, a dark expanse that she needs to fill with words and images, the beginnings of stories about her life. While her composition students watch, waiting for a lesson, her mind goes blank—but only for a second. She picks up the chalk and draws a lightning bolt at the center of what will be her map. In the space around it, she writes "neuralgia," "kayaking" and "identity." Her students may wonder what the lightning bolt symbolizes. But for Rondeau, it is not an abstract image.

Lightning is a massive electrical discharge occurring in the atmosphere of the earth, as well as on several planets, and can extend from five to 10 kilometers in length. There are about 1,800 thunderstorms in progress over the earth every moment and lightning hits the planet 100 times each second. In the continental United States alone, there are 40 million cloud-to-ground strikes each year. . . . Storm-related electrical discharges are shrouded in mystery. No one theory of cloud electrification can account for the prodigious amount of current produced in a thunderstorm. Being in the right place at the right time to get samples . . . is not an experiment for which you volunteer.

—Excerpts from A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, writer and lightning strike survivor

The weather for July 23, 1994, on the New Hampshire seacoast was predicted to be 80 degrees, hazy and humid with a 70 percent chance of thunderstorms. But no one predicted the ferocity of the storms that would assault the area that day, or the lightning strikes that would trip fire alarms throughout Portsmouth and change Gail Rondeau's life irrevocably.

That morning, Rondeau, a UNH-Manchester assistant professor, launched her sea kayak from Peirce Island in Portsmouth for a day of paddling on the Piscataqua River. With her were her fiancé, John Freund, a 48-year-old psychologist from Deerfield, N.H., his 20-year-old son, Joshua, and Joshua's best friend, 22-year-old Chris Perry '95. They were all experienced outdoorsmen, although novice kayakers, and this trip was training for a more serious kayak adventure they were planning for later that summer.

From Peirce Island, the kayakers headed southwest, then northeast, and finally due east to get to the mouth of the river and the ocean beyond. It's a tricky river to navigate—local lore claims that the Piscataqua has the third swiftest current in the Northern Hemisphere, a current that alters at different points along the river because of changes in depth. But the kayakers probably found a swift, outbound channel along the northern bank, and hugged the shore as they headed out to sea, enjoying the picturesque New Castle coastline on a warm summer day.

They must have been surprised at how quickly the day changed; at how dark the once-clear sky became as multiple storms crashed into the seacoast, "one after another like train cars," as the National Weather Service later reported. At some point, they heeded the rumblings of thunder and tried to head back to Portsmouth. But that meant paddling against the current, and now they had 20 to 30 mph winds to contend with, as well as a driving rain that fell at the rate of half an inch per hour. Chris Perry, who is the only member of the group who remembers anything about that day, thought, "We need to get to shelter."

Heading back from the ocean, they would have seen Whaleback Light ahead, and on their right, the beach at Fort Foster on Gerrish Island in Kittery Point, Maine. Fort Foster is a popular spot for swimming and picnicking and it must have looked welcoming indeed to the tired, drenched kayakers. At the edge of the water is a two-story, World War I bunker, a concrete structure called Whaleback Tower, rimmed with steel railings and lined with steel rods. The kayakers beached their boats and headed for the bunker.

Fortuitously, visitors to the fort saw the group enter the bunker, and at least one of those people had had emergency medical training. When lightning hit the bunker and bounced into the small, dark room where the kayakers were huddled—lighting it up "like a lightbulb," recalled one bystander—they knew what to do.

All four kayakers were thrown when the lightning hit—Gail still has stones embedded in her head and legs—and Gail, John and Joshua suffered cardiac arrest. The bystanders covered them with blankets and began CPR. They would continue to keep the kayakers alive for the hour it took ambulances, hindered by fallen trees, to arrive. One of the rescuers, Brian Michaelis of Newmarket, N.H., said, "It's the first time I've ever done CPR on a woman and a guy who were purple."

The overall mortality rate following lightning injury is 30 percent and in survivors the morbidity rate is 70 percent. In the United States there are several thousand lightning-related injuries reported every year with almost 600 deaths, a figure which makes lightning responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than any other natural phenomenon... Direct hits by lightning can cause unconsciousness and coma, cardiopulmonary arrest, or ventricular fibrilliation, which is cardiac arrest, and autonomic nervous system damage. As millions of volts of electricity pass through the body, brain cells are burned, "insulted," or bruised, which can result in cerebral edema, hemorrhage and epileptic seizures. Passing down through the body, the electricity hits the soft tissue organs—heart, lungs, and kidneys—causing contusions, infarctions, coagulations, or cellular damage that can lead to death. Tympanic membranes sometimes burst from the explosion of thunder, and cataracts develop if the flash has been intensely bright. Cases of leukemia have been recorded, and when pregnant women are hit, either spontaneous abortion occurs, or else they carry the baby to full term but after delivery the infant dies.

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