Illustrations by Matthew Kam
The Jack Britt High School girls’ soccer team was playing on a muggy evening in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when the sky grew dark. It was Shana Williams Turner, a 46-year-old teacher in the school’s special education department, was supervising at the gate that leads to the field. She watched as the weather started to turn.
Thunder rumbled above, each clap bringing lightning closer. When a bolt struck close by, the players and coaches were escorted inside by supervising staff. Shana kept guard outside, the heavy rain soaking her shoulder-length auburn hair, red trousers and white shirt. After 30 minutes, the storm appeared to calm and the match resumed. Then, Shana saw another lightning bolt hit a grocery store across the street. Scared, she and the choir teacher, Richard Butler, ran to a nearby ticket booth to find shelter. With barely enough room for both of them inside, Butler sat down and Shana leaned against the metal door.
Lightning struck again with a deafening crack. A transformer, 30 feet away, exploded and burst into flames. Shana felt excruciating pain, as if her shoulders had been reduced to burning jelly, and she was thrown to the concrete. “Fuck!” she cried out.
Butler helped pick her up as other colleagues rushed over and asked what had happened. “I don’t know exactly. I think I got struck by lightning,” Shana replied — even today, her memory of the event is blurry. “What do you need?” They asked repeatedly. “I don’t know what I need. But my arm is on fire, my feet are tingling and my chest hurts,” she moaned. Shana’s 15-year-old son Dillon, the youngest of her four children, had seen everything. A student at the school, he had been waiting for a ride back home. “Mom,” he cried. “You swore!”
Shana got up. By outward appearances, she seemed fine, if a little dazed. No one called an ambulance, and she received no medical attention, not even from the first responder there for the game. Shana was stunned. “Did I really just get struck?” she thought to herself.
She got into her car with Dillon and set off for home. As she pulled out of the parking lot, she called her sister. “Hey Ronda, can you look up on the computer what you do when you get struck by lightning?” There was a pause followed by some swearing. “You go to the hospital!” Ronda shot back. Shana had been to the local hospital before, but her mind felt hazy. “Ronda,” she said, as her chest tightened and the ringing in her ears grew louder. “I don’t know how to get there.”
Dillon sat next to her in the passenger seat, his hands fidgeting nervously. He texted Greg, Shana’s long-term partner, and told him what had happened. Then, he kept his phone poised to dial 911. Shana’s memory may have been fuzzy, but her mind was racing — what would happen to her kids if she died? Their father wasn’t really in the picture anymore. “You know, it’s getting worse,” Shana told her son. “If it gets really bad, do you think you can drive the car?” Dillon told her that he might be able to take the wheel and steer them to safety: “I’ll try; I’ll do what I can.” As Shana pulled into the driveway, Greg ran out of the house, helped Shana into the passenger seat of the car, and sped to nearby Cape Fear Valley Medical Center.
Lightning is born when humid air is pushed high into the atmosphere during a storm, leading the water vapor inside a cloud to freeze into tiny particles of ice. The ice particles collide with each other, generating a strong negative charge at the base of the cloud that is attracted to the positive charge of the ground below. When the negative charge is strong enough to overpower the insulating properties of the air, it explodes as lightning. As a bolt shoots down toward the ground, it heats the air around it to about 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit — four times hotter than the surface of the sun — causing a shock wave heard as thunder.
When lightning hits a person, it sends 300 million volts of electricity across the body in three milliseconds. The current flows externally, disrupting or short-circuiting the body’s electrical systems, such as the one that controls the heart. Cardiac arrest is the most common cause of death from a lightning strike. Brain damage from blunt-force trauma caused by the shock wave is also common. The jolt can severely burn skin, and in some cases it etches an intricate web of scars on the body that resembles the form of a lightning bolt itself, known as Lichtenberg figures, which fade within days for reasons unknown. Most people survive because the lightning hits the ground nearby or passes through a taller object such as a tree, or, in Shana’s case, the transformer.
Greg pulled up to the emergency room entrance and Shana stumbled out. She felt a rising panic, as if everything was caving in on her. A security guard, sensing that something was wrong, took her under his arm and dragged her into the emergency room. When doctors learned that Shana had just been struck by lightning, she was rushed onto a gurney and hooked up to an electrocardiogram. Nurses dashed around her in a blur, taking more vitals. Later, a doctor said that her blood pressure was abnormally high, but that there were no burns or obvious signs of injury. For that reason, no additional tests were ordered. Shana stayed overnight for surveillance, leaving the next day feeling as though she knew next to nothing about what had happened to her.
Two days later, Shana walked through the staff entrance of her school to looks of disbelief from her co-workers. “I can’t believe you’re here. Are you allowed to be here?” the principal asked. “Well, the doctors didn’t tell me that I couldn’t go back to work,” Shana replied. “We’ve hired a sub,” the principal went on. “We’ll keep the sub with you for a week, because you’re not looking good.”
Over the following weeks, every muscle in Shana’s body ached and her ears rang constantly. She developed severe sleep apnea and felt constantly fatigued. She struggled to recall words, and her short-term memory failed her — she had to remind herself to pull her legs into the car, otherwise she’d shut the door on them. One day, she was in class and one of her students approached her. She went to say his name but couldn’t remember it for the life of her. She hesitated, stuttered. “Give me a minute,” she said, turning toward the blackboard to cry. The boy approached and put his arms around her. “Ms. Turner, you can call me anything you want.”
Since the lightning strike had occurred on school grounds, Shana was entitled to workers’ compensation. But the waiting list for an approved neurologist was long, and she could only get an appointment for six months after the strike. When she did, the neurologist was confused by what Shana described. “That makes no sense,” he told her after Shana described the ringing in the ears, the hot tingling sensations, and one particularly distressing symptom in which her right arm would swell up for no apparent reason. It was only later, when Shana drove to a cardiologist’s office and let them see her arm pulsate before their eyes that they began to take her seriously. She was prescribed six different medications, including a painkiller, an antidepressant and a potent anti-fatigue medicine called Nuvigil, popular with late-night shift workers.
The complications stemming from the lightning strike extended beyond the physical realm. Shana struggled to juggle her work commitments and her family life, which included three teenagers. She felt guilty for being unable to go out with her kids and Greg as much as she used to. She became scared of public places, especially when they involved large crowds. A flash from a camera or a sudden noise could trigger her anxiety. She was also petrified of the possibility of being caught outside during a thunderstorm. Shana thought that she might have post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition said to be common in lightning survivors — but she didn’t go get it diagnosed. Before the strike, she had gone on regular camping trips and outings with friends and family, but now she couldn’t bear the thought of being trapped outside if lightning struck again. When dark clouds approached, her joints would ache and her anxiety would skyrocket. Shana had a routine at home that helped; she would stay away from windows, tuck herself into bed and turn up the TV to drown out the thunder. She started wearing a lightning detector around her neck, which can detect the electromagnetic pulse emitted by a lightning strike and estimate how far away it is — an insurance mechanism of sorts.
Things got worse at home. Shana and Greg began to argue a lot. Shana felt that he was not trying hard enough to understand the complexities of her growing health problems — and perhaps even doubted them altogether. When she had to visit the neurologist to learn the results of a brain scan, Greg forgot to request time off of work to go with her. It was there that she said she learned she had damage to the right frontal lobe, a portion of the brain that helps control nonverbal abilities, including memory. The neurologist said that this was almost certainly the result of the lightning strike. According to Shana, Greg never asked how it went; he found out two months later during another argument. “You don’t even know that I’ve got brain damage. Because you didn’t even care to ask!” she told Greg. They separated soon after, bringing a seven-year relationship to a close.
After a year or so, Shana was asked by her insurance company to undertake an “independent medical examination” to challenge her workplace injury claim and potentially deny her coverage for treatment. After four hours of IQ, psychological and personality tests, Shana says that a neuropsychologist concluded that most of her symptoms were the result of stress. He explained away Shana’s brain damage too, saying that she had probably had a stroke sometime in the past year. “The thing with you is you have absolutely no burns,” he said, according to Shana. She was stunned; she had read academic research that said that physical injuries, including burns, occur in less than half of lightning strike cases. Soon, her financial support would be terminated, with workers’ compensation no longer covering any of her medical expenses. After the appointment, she went to her car and broke down in tears, wondering whether anyone would ever believe her.
Even keeping her medication and doctor visits to the bare minimum, Shana’s medical bills still cost her $8,000 a year after insurance. She struggled to pay these bills and support her family on a teacher’s salary — during the winter she heated the house by fireplace to save money on electricity. Still, it wasn’t enough, and she fell behind on the payments for her car, which was then repossessed.
Shana felt increasingly alone and started to sequester herself from the world. She watched as friends messaged her less and less. It was easier to say nothing, Shana thought; the idea of rejection was just too painful. Then, one day, she was sitting in bed when she received a text from her sister’s friend. It was a link to a Facebook page called “Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors Support Group.” Shana got sucked in, spending hours scrolling down and reading other lightning survivor stories like her own. No one believed them either. She saw that they were organizing an upcoming conference in Virginia, which was a reasonable three-hour drive away. She quickly booked a bus ticket for Lynchburg.
Walking through the sliding doors of Comfort Inn & Suites, a hotel near the airport, a disheveled Shana didn’t know what to expect. The last few months had been really tough. At night, she wondered sometimes whether it would be easier if she just didn’t wake up. Shana hoped that the support group could offer some much-needed answers about how to better navigate a post-strike existence.
Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International was founded in 1989 by Steve Marshburn, who had been working behind the drive-up till of a bank in Swansboro, North Carolina, 20 years earlier, when lightning struck, traveling through a speaker and breaking his back. He has had surgery 48 times since. Back then, he says, there was no research being done on lightning injuries, so he started to document the effects he was experiencing and realized that his symptoms matched up with someone he knew who had been electrocuted. Marshburn decided to create a support group for both — organizing two conferences a year, so that survivors of lightning strikes and electrocutions could meet up together, swap stories and tips on how to cope with their often debilitating injuries, as well as the disbelief and skepticism of those around them.
Shana turned left at the lobby and ventured into the conference room. Yellow artificial light beamed down on around two-dozen people, most older than 50, seated around a U-shaped wooden table facing a projector screen. The curtains, chairs and carpet were an out-of-date mishmash of earthy greens and browns. To the left of the entrance, three graying women were selling books and ring-bound 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 brown chevron mustache beckoned Shana to the corner of the room. It was Gary Reynolds, a three-time lightning strike survivor who had already reached out to her with support via the community’s Facebook group. She took a seat beside him. Soon, survivors of both lightning and electrocution started telling their stories one by one around the table. As a teacher, Shana was used to public speaking, but today she was nervous. “Hi. I’m Shana. I’m from Fayetteville, North Carolina,” she told the group before breaking into tears, her head slumping to the table. Lisa Reynolds, Gary’s wife, came over to comfort her. Someone else brought a box of tissues.
“What you’re experiencing is normal. What you’re experiencing, most of us have been through,” a man named Norman Baldwin reassured her from across the table. Short and stout, with a warm smile, Norman was a former coal miner from Boone County, West Virginia, who had survived a high-voltage electric shock from a piece of heavy machinery in 2005. “You’re not an outsider here,” he said.
Tears streamed down Shana’s face as she gathered herself. She told them about the medical confusion surrounding her injuries and the disbelief from family and friends who didn’t understand how the strike still affected her on a daily basis. The room nodded along knowingly. Rodney Burkholder, an exceedingly tall man, came to her side and stayed throughout. He says that the group was of enormous support after he was electrocuted by a low-hanging power line while washing the roof of his RV in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His neighbor, who was nearby, heard a zap and watched as Burkholder fell from his ladder to the ground, where he drifted in and out of consciousness. “Where is Michael?” he asked his confused wife, who knew no one by that name. Friends of his have suggested that it may have been a reference to the archangel Michael. Lightning and electricity have inspired awe, as well as allusions to the divine, likely for as long as humans have existed. The support group, whose members are mostly from the South, are no exception. One member even put “Thor” on his nametag, for the Norse god of thunder.
Shana was the only newcomer to the group. For much of the conference, whenever there was a break between speakers, longtime members approached to offer advice. She was given a wad of academic papers about lightning injuries, free of charge. “Take them,” she was told, “you truly need them.” Much of the support was more emotional than practical. Keith, an electrocution survivor who uses a wheelchair, told Shana to make a list of things she was grateful for. “Contact me whenever you need to talk,” he told her, touching Shana’s arm. The group could see how fragile Shana was and offered her constant hugs, aware of the devastating effects an electric injury can have on one’s mental health. The group conducted a survey in 2017 of 595 of its lightning strike members and found that 280 of them suffered from depression and 67 were suicidal. Steve Marshburn, the founder, has personally talked 27 people out of suicide. “God,” he said, “gives you strength to do what you got to do.”
Toward the end of the conference, a man named Johnny approached the projector screen. An airplane engineer, he was on a shift when lightning hit the aircraft he was working on, which was stationary, and threw him to the ground. He showed the group a local news report where he’d been interviewed just after it had happened. Johnny then explained that he’d continued his shift afterward, since he seemed fine, but that he later developed a host of debilitating symptoms that had kept him out of full-time work for two years. Shana listened from her seat, noting the similarities between his story and hers, and she thought about how grateful she was that she had found people who actually understood her experience firsthand. It felt like looking in a mirror. The next day, Shana left Lynchburg emotionally drained but happy, believing that she had found a new family. She hasn’t missed a conference since.
Shana’s journey toward accepting herself post-strike can be found inked across her body. On her upper-right shoulder blade, she has a tattoo of a lightning bolt striking a butterfly, which signifies the new her. On her ankle, she has a tattoo of an interlocking chain around her ankle that she says represents the hold the lightning will always have on her. Attached to the chain are charms detailing her story: a thundercloud for the strike, a hand grasping a lightning bolt for her getting a grip on new challenges, and a double bolt because she prays it won’t happen again. Most important, though, she has charms for her four children and two grandchildren. “They’re all I have left,” she says. “They are my life. I’m alive for them.”
In 2019, just as she got the last of those tattoos, Shana had started to come to terms with her new life. She was keeping to a strict routine, plotting her day step-by-step. When she got out of bed in the morning, she took her pills. She always kept her keys on a hook and her wallet in the car, otherwise she’d forget them, and she no longer carried a purse, as she too often put it down and then walked off without it. The constant pain continued, but Shana took measures to manage it. And with the help of her family and the support group, she started feeling less isolated. Shana adopted Bolt, a Great Dane puppy being trained as a support dog. When Shana drives, Bolt sits in the back with his head on the front console and listens to Shana’s breathing. If it starts to slow, a sign that she is dozing off, Bolt puts his head on her shoulder and nudges her with his nose.
Meanwhile, Shana’s oldest daughter pressed her to sign up for a couple of dating sites. Shana agreed, but she made sure she was upfront in her profile that she had been struck by lightning, which she had grown to accept as part of her identity. In January 2020, Shana met Don, a carpenter and aspiring science fiction author. A New Yorker with a low-cut peppered beard, Don drove over an hour to her local Taco Bell, where she told him what it was like being struck by lightning over chicken tacos and a Nachos BellGrande. Don was humble and nonjudgmental, and there was an instant attraction — it felt as if they had known each other forever. Afterward, they went back to her home and stayed up until 2 in the morning, talking. And in late April, after navigating time apart due to the coronavirus pandemic, Don moved in. Lockdown has meant that they have spent more time together than they otherwise would have, and Shana feels as though it has brought them closer.
Many couples have something — a first date, a first kiss, a first holiday — that marks a watershed moment in their relationship. For Shana and Don, it was their first thunderstorm. Outside, on the front porch, Shana watched as dark rumbling clouds approached. Her joints started to ache and her chest tightened. Don took her hand and led her inside without saying a word. He turned up the TV to drown out the thunder and held Shana close under her blanket. “Everything’s going to be OK,” he told her. “I’m here.”