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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.
by Anne Downey '95G

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.

John Freund, whose entrance wound was in his chest, never regained consciousness. He died 12 hours later after doctors removed life support. His son, Joshua, was stabilized by rescuers at the scene of the accident, and regained consciousness in the intensive care unit at York Hospital. He was released less than a week later, and other than difficulty with balance and pain for several weeks after the accident, he has fully recovered. Chris Perry, who was a senior at UNH at the time, regained consciousness at the scene, and was later able to identify himself and his companions to doctors in the emergency room at HCA Portsmouth Regional Hospital. He was temporarily blinded in his left eye, and had a burn on his right cheek, but he also fully recovered.

Rondeau's entrance wound was in her feet and legs, and when she regained consciousness, she was blind. For three days, her heart rate was unstable, plummeting without notice. Her three daughters, Jeanne, Laurel and Anna, who were 20, 16 and 14 respectively at the time of the accident, were told that she would not survive.

But she hung on. A doctor at Portsmouth Hospital treated her with massive doses of steroids, having read about the treatment in an article about actor Christopher Reeve's spinal cord accident. Rondeau regained her sight soon after, but she couldn't walk or talk, and she had traumatic amnesia. She didn't recognize her children.

"Our identities are really very fragile," Rondeau says. "They're tied to our surroundings and the people around us. In the hospital, I would watch the people there and see how they were behaving, and it gave me clues as to who I was. I had no idea what had happened, but I learned to formulate an answer to the question, 'Gail, do you know what happened?' I actually saw the sentence before I could say it, black letters on a black background: 'We were kayaking and someone was killed.' Instead of John's name, though, I inserted the name of someone I knew years and years ago. And the name was navy blue."

Intelligence exists everywhere in the body, not just in the brain. An electrochemical pulse beats in every one of our 100 billion nerve cells. It is the "life force" referred to in other cultures. Much like the cumulonimbus clouds, where lightning is born, nerve cells are structured with a difference in electrical potential between the inside, which is negative, and the outside, which is positive, so that in response to stimuli, polarization can take place. Sudden storms of firing neurons travel on long tendrils that sprout from the brain stem and spinal cord and burrow into every organ and muscle in the body. We are the body electric—or, more precisely, the body electrochemical. . . . How these simple (electrical) impulses are encoded and then translated into the structure of experience—what we call consciousness—is not precisely understood. But the complexity is hinted at by the recent findings of neuroscientists: there are perhaps a hundred million interconnected neuronal groups responding to stimuli simultaneously. And even though neurons that die are not replaced, the dendritic structures are able to regrow, so that . . . the structures will eventually be repaired.

After two weeks in the hospital, Rondeau continued her recovery at Health South, a rehabilitation hospital in Concord, N.H. She slowly learned to walk and talk, and began to build a new identity. "Suddenly, I was something else," she explains. "All my life, up to this point, I had been very healthy and successful, and I remember seeing a room that had all these tables in it and no chairs—no chairs because all of the patients, including me, of course, were in wheelchairs. I realized that I was now a part of this community and that I had to learn about new limitations as well as capabilities."

After two weeks at Health South, Rondeau went home, and actually returned to the classroom that September on a reduced schedule. "Being in a classroom and exercising my mind was who I was," she explains, "and ultimately it was a good place to be, a healthy place for me."

But she also needed to come to terms with what her body could and couldn't do. "I was physically exhausted for a good year after the accident, and I slept a lot," Rondeau remembers, "and my balance was off for a long time, too—I had to walk with a cane. But once I got back home, it brought back who I used to be. And one thing I was, was a runner. So I tried to walk my old running route. And I fell. That was a real turning point because I realized how different my neural mosaic was."

Rondeau began to research neuralgia, reading about how equilibrium works and talking to elderly people about their experiences with its deterioration. "I wanted to run again and I realized that I was going to have to approach running in a totally different way. My physical instincts for running were gone, so I had to think about it. For the next year, I had to run in my head—I developed charts so I could think about each movement."

Returning to kayaking was harder emotionally. "We had just begun kayaking six weeks before the accident," Rondeau explains. "My boat was actually my engagement ring. John and I had known each other for about three years, and had recently started living together. It was his idea to start kayaking. He felt that life should be an adventure, that we should constantly put ourselves in situations where we weren't experts to keep learning."

Rondeau took a course on self-rescue, and has since become very active with the Appalachian Mountain Club. "I guess I wanted to kayak again to get close to my memories of John, and I've found it to be a very powerful experience. There are times when the grief is just overwhelming. But going back to those memories has ultimately allowed me to go forward," she says.

She was always a good teacher—she was honored with UNH Manchester's Excellence in Teaching Award two months before the accident—but Rondeau feels that her experience has made her a better one. Although she has always believed that the process of learning is the most important lesson one can teach, this philosophy has deepened immeasurably as a result of her research on how the brain works, how identity is shaped by memory and how emotion is tied to our notion of self.

"Emotion is just as important as cognition in learning," she asserts. "For example, I needed to learn to kayak again because I needed connection with someone I lost. Learning that about myself helped me learn about how other people learn. I really feel fortunate to have been stopped in my tracks as an adult and forced to remember what learning is all about."

To think about thinking is memory in the act of self-creation, causing a new dendritic shape to form inside the brain's circuitry. To ponder the workings of the nervous system... is to think about the geography of our psyche. How do we get from a simple, universal electrical signal to a rich conceptual world of imagination, association, and intellect that seems to flow seamlessly as one stream of continual experience? How does such translation and integration occur? All that's known is this: there is no central processor, no single computer. Nothing that simple. Millions of neurons process information simultaneously and in parallel, not linearly, but the actual chemistry and electrical properties of that integrative process are still being mapped.

Rondeau's classrooms are highly interactive, communal and reflective: students frequently work together in groups. For example, they might be given questions to answer on a research topic, pooling their resources and coming up with answers together. Or they might be given excerpts from four different pieces of writing and asked to answer questions about them, doing research together and presenting their answers to the class.

"The reflective part comes in when I ask them to answer questions about the role they played in the group," Rondeau explains. "They need to describe what their strengths and weaknesses are, what kind of learning environment they do best in. I really see English 401 (freshman writing) as preparation for everything else they will come across in college, and I get to see people at their roughest. I concentrate on self-reflection so much because I want them to become empowered to make decisions about how they are going to learn."

In her mapping exercise, for example, she likes to point out that everything we write is somehow connected to ourselves, even if it is a research paper. "I know that my writing is fueled by my interaction with my past, even if the writing isn't about the accident in particular. I want my students to see that what they're doing in learning is a reflection of themselves, not something from outside. In any given classroom, they are the text."

Personally, Rondeau's experiences have made her very sensitive to other people's stories. "My story has gotten a lot of press," she says, "but it's really not that unusual. It's the same story as everyone else's story. It's about loss, challenge and acceptance. I'm not the hero here—this is life." She has recently begun a doctoral program in education at UNH. Ultimately, she would like to train doctoral students to be effective teachers, training that has not traditionally been part of Ph.D. programs. "It will be a challenge," she acknowledges thoughtfully. And then she smiles. "But then again, it's an adventure."

Anne Downey is a free-lance writer who lives in Eliot, Maine.

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