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Unlucky Strikes 

Garry Rudd got zapped by lightning one day, and life has never been the same

Garry Rudd never saw the flash. He never felt the heat of three suns upon his body or the million volts of electricity humming through his veins, but he remembers the blackness, the chill and the dreams. He is lying beside an irrigation ditch, and his family is looking for him, but he cannot move and he cannot speak, so they leave. He is lying beside the ditch, and his colleagues finally discover him, but they think he is dead, so they bury him under piles of debris. He is lying beside the ditch, and he is gazing down at a meadow of bright, dazzling white. He is lying beside the ditch, darkness is falling around him, and he is waiting to die.

Each second, more than a hundred lightning bolts strike the earth. Each travels 90,000 miles per second, each burns more than 50,000 degrees, each is just about as thick as a pencil. Lightning is the most powerful natural electric force on the planet, responsible for billions of dollars in damages each year, the second leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States.

On average, 1,000 people in the United States will be hit by a thunderbolt this year; of those, a hundred will die. Florida is the nation's lightning capital, averaging 40 people struck by lightning each year, of which about ten will die. On June 2, Boulder news reporter Christopher Anderson, age 30, was fatally struck while walking along a Fort Lauderdale beach with his girlfriend. Colorado ranks second for lightning strikes, according to the National Weather Service, but rated only tenth in the country for lightning casualties between 1959 to 1994, with 61 deaths since 1980 alone. On May 19 of this year, 19-year-old Rickie DeLeon was struck while walking along U.S Highway 36. It was the first lightning death of the year, but it was only the beginning.

June ushers in lightning's mean season, which lasts through August. To help prevent fatalities, the National Weather Service launched its first-ever lightning-awareness campaign in July. But even with all of the safety tips, this year some 25 Coloradans will be hit by lightning in the mountains, along lonely highways, on suburban golf courses, such as the one struck Monday in Broomfield. Those who survive will endure a painful ordeal that scientists are only now beginning to understand. Many will never be the same.

If Garry Rudd didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at all. He fell asleep at the wheel and crashed his car into a bridge. He got caught alone in a blizzard for two days. He was shot in the knee during a bow-hunting accident. He fell through a frozen lake while measuring the thickness of the ice. If something bad was going to happen, it would happen to Garry. For a time, he even thought God was against him.

"Yeah," he grumbles. "People say I have lousy luck."

Born in Louisiana where Garry picked up numerous outdoor skills from poor but resourceful relatives on a sugar plantation, Garry joined the service at 18, got married, had kids. In his spare time, and after his discharge in 1967, he studied English, linguistics and diction so he "wouldn't sound like Jethro," and completed university courses in the humanities, biology, chemistry, math and animal husbandry.

Eventually, he and his wife divorced, a close friend committed suicide, and his family troubles intensified. Early one morning, after a long night of partying, Garry nodded off as he drove to work at a tree-trimming company in upstate New York. In the crash, he cracked his ribs, shattered his hip and nearly died.

"That was a big awakening," he says. "After that, I decided to get my life started. I had to stop expecting things to happen and just do them."

One of the first things he did was marry a serious and resourceful 19-year-old named Linda. For their honeymoon, they visited Linda's father in Denver and fell in love with the mountains.

Garry's not much of a city guy. He's uneasy in crowds, uncomfortable behind a desk, unaccustomed to urban bustle. A bandanna dangles from one back pocket, and a tin of chewing tobacco bulges from the other. He hates phones and, until recently, seldom used clocks, preferring to gauge the time of day by the angle of the sun.

"I've always been like that," he says. "It's hard to get me to come inside. I'm always trying to find something I can do outdoors."

Garry's outdoor skills paid off when he moved to Colorado. He easily found jobs cutting trees, selling lumber, driving trucks and welding. For five years he crafted stainless-steel boxes for a manufacturer that supplied Rocky Flats, but he quit after his boss refused to give him time off during deer-hunting season.

Then he took a position with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and spent the next decade building and designing bear traps, hatchery equipment, soil sifters, stream-cleaning devices and even a camouflage wildlife-observation trailer.

In 1992, Garry became a wildlife technician working out of Salida. He hoped that he would be managing, cultivating and patrolling state lands; instead he found himself doing busywork such as map checking, fence mending, dumpster repairing and trash collecting.

"I basically waited around for something to do," he says. "I was paid to be available. I felt like an outsider. I felt completely ignored."

Garry's headstrong and outspoken personality didn't help matters. Eventually, he was literally put out to pasture, given the job of irrigating 60 acres of hay in the Ouray State Wildlife Area three miles southeast of Salida. But there, using techniques he'd learned as a kid, he started to thrive. So did the land, which eventually produced more hay than it had in years.

"I loved it," he recalls. "I'd just sit there with my lunch and smell the alfalfa blowing in my face and think, 'This is God's country. I could do it the rest of my life.'"

Essentially, lightning is the electrification of a cloud, caused by the right combination of water, heat, ice and friction. Moist air is warmed by the sun, then rises miles above the earth to form clouds. As water particles ascend, some become too heavy and fall to the ground as rain. Others continue upward on strong air currents until they freeze into hail, then drop.

Millions of collisions occur between the rising and falling rain, ice and other particles, transferring electrical charges between them. Rising particles become positively charged, while falling particles become negatively charged. The cloud turns into a huge battery, with positive charges at the top and negative ones on the bottom, along with smaller pockets of positive charges.

Normally the earth carries a negative charge, but as a thunderstorm passes, objects on the ground beneath it become positively charged. When the electric forces exceed the resistance of the insulating air, a massive current is released. The flash super-heats the surrounding air to five times the temperature of the sun. The air expands, vibrates and resonates as thunder.

Although most lightning travels from cloud to cloud, it also travels from cloud to ground and even from ground to cloud. The zigzag path it chooses is entirely random, dictated simply by the quickest way to the earth. That could be mountains, buildings, trees, light poles, people.

On July 28, 1999, Garry Rudd woke at 4:30 a.m., slipped on his uniform -- blue jeans and wading boots -- and drove to the Ouray land. It was irrigation day, and he arrived with the first rays of pale lavender light. This was his favorite time of day, when he could be alone with his shovel, savoring the aroma of wet soil, listening to meadowlarks, watching deer pick through the grass.

"It's like I was the last man on earth," Garry recalls. "It was just so peaceful."

He released water into fields that were knee-high with hay. Then he stopped by a Wal-Mart diner to chat with a few irrigation buddies. After checking the pasture once more, he drove home for a coffee break with Linda. As they chatted outside on the patio, Garry noticed a thunderstorm raging to the northwest.

"That's unusual," he remarked. "Here it is, only ten in the morning, and already there's lightning up there. I've never seen that this early."

Garry drained his cup, cleared the table and detailed his afternoon itinerary for Linda: He'd return to a section of ditch just south of the Ouray property that had become clogged with dead branches, matted grass, fallen leaves and broken sticks. He'd work a few hours, then return home around 5 p.m.

Linda nodded. She knew the area well; she and Garry had shared a picnic lunch beside the pasture.

Garry kissed his wife goodbye and wheeled his F-250 to the warehouse in Salida, where he hacked off a block of ice for his cooler and gathered his tools. On the way out, he told his boss where he was headed.

Around 1:30 p.m., Garry bounced down the dirt road beside the hay fields and parked near the gate. He collected his gear, including a pitchfork, a hand-operated chain hoist and assorted odds and ends, then made for the ditch.

To the northeast, above Aspen Ridge, dark storm clouds rumbled. Garry didn't like the idea of being caught in the rain, but at that time of year, in that part of the country, thunderclouds traveled east. Unless something unusual happened, he'd be fine.

Not far from the bank of the ditch, near a clump of 30-foot cottonwoods, Garry realized that he'd forgotten his water and two-way radio, so he dropped his backpack, stuck his pitchfork in the ground as a marker and lumbered back to the pickup, where he took a long pull from the water bottle and clipped the radio onto his belt. Back in the field, he retrieved his gear, slung one strap of the backpack over his left shoulder, slipped a tin of chewing tobacco from his pocket and pinched off a thick plug. With the sun on his shoulders and a blue sky above, Garry reached for his pitchfork.

Garry woke up face-down beside the ditch. He smelled burning hair. He felt like his clothes were on fire. He could not catch his breath. He tried to stand, but he couldn't, so he crawled into the ditch to douse the imaginary flames. He lay in the cool water several minutes, then pulled himself onto the muddy bank, slowly rotating his legs to drain the water from his rubber boots. He lay motionless a long while, trying to regain his bearings.

He knew he was hurt, but he didn't know how it had happened. He thought he had tumbled down one of the steep embankments alongside the ditch and struck his head. He mustered his strength and wriggled under a cottonwood to rest. He was cold, very cold. A surge of pain shot through his right hand. He held the hand to his face and saw what he thought was a sliver of bone protruding from the back. He yanked the bandanna from his back pocket and wrapped it around the wound, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. He shivered uncontrollably.

Recalling his survival training from the military, Garry burrowed into the bank and covered himself with dirt. He positioned his body toward the sun, estimating the time at 2:30 p.m., and scooped more sand onto his legs and torso. Suddenly, his body convulsed. His chest and stomach burned. His arms and legs ached. His ears rang, his head throbbed and his muscles tensed. He thought he was dying.

Then he remembered his radio. Through the sharp, blinding pain, he managed to twist up the volume on the squelch control. As long as he could hear the static, he told himself, the batteries would be charged. He pressed the transmit button and tried to speak, but he was not sure what, if anything, he said.

At dusk, Garry realized that his body no longer ached. His hands no longer trembled. But he could not shake the dreamlike haze that hung over him. He thought he had misplaced the typewriter in his truck and lost his tools in the irrigation ditch. He buttoned his shirt, fastened his belt, zipped his fly again and again. He imagined himself standing up and searching for his gear. He thought he picked up his radio and said he was afraid to die.

Then he thought about his family. He didn't want his wife and daughter to think he had killed himself because he was depressed over his job. Somehow, he slipped a pen from his shirt pocket and scribbled a note on the back of a work schedule: "Please give this to my wife, Linda Rudd. I was hurt bad somewhere. A bad fall. Lost. Can't walk. Dark. Radio dead. So sorry this happening. Trying hard to get through this. Please forgive me if I don't. LOVE YOU GUYS."

As night fell, Garry closed his eyes. He felt calmer now, serene, as if he were floating on ocean waves.

Of the people struck by lightning, only one in ten die, mostly from heart failure.

Lightning does not set people aflame. It does not reduce them to ashes. It does not leave them electrically charged. Lightening can flash along the outside of their bodies before discharging, or it can enter and travel through internal organs.

Most survivors suffer only minimal burns, usually first- or second-degree. Third-degree burns are rare, unless a person was wearing jewelry or came in contact with metal. Some suffer eye damage, others sustain ruptured eardrums. But lightning can also harm the nervous system, can injure the spine. And this, doctors say, is where lightning does its greatest damage.

Garry woke up under the fluorescent lights of a Salida hospital. When he didn't return home at 5 p.m., Linda had rung his cellular phone again and again, tried his pager and called his office. After sundown, she'd searched the edges of the Ouray hay fields, coming within 1,200 feet of Garry's pickup. But in the darkness, on the edge of private property, she'd left without noticing the vehicle.

At 11:45 p.m., a search party of DOW workers and sheriff's deputies finally spotted Garry's pickup and then found him beside the ditch, delirious and disoriented but alive. Garry saw the flashlights bobbing toward him but thought that a group of kids were playing a game with him. When his rescuers arrived, he couldn't understand what they were saying, and he mumbled something about his tools.

At the hospital, doctors gave him oxygen, which cleared his head, and conducted a battery of X-rays, CAT scans and blood tests. His head and ears ached. His right hip burned. His right hand throbbed. It wasn't broken, as he'd thought, but had been pierced by a five-inch sliver of pitchfork traveling at the velocity of a .45-caliber bullet. He also had a four-inch gash on his right thigh and another two-inch cut on his right calf. His torso and right foot were covered with tiny red splotches resembling cigarette burns; the largest, about the size of a pencil eraser, was on his right hip.

Doctors were confused by Garry's injuries, which weren't consistent with a fall. Perhaps he'd had a stroke. Maybe he'd suffered an epileptic seizure. Or perhaps, someone suggested, he'd been struck by lightning.

Garry was airlifted to St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver, where doctors confirmed that he'd been hit by a thunderbolt. Even with the storm more than a dozen miles away, Garry's pitchfork had acted as a lightning rod. When he grabbed the tool, a massive electric flash had entered through his right hip, spread over his chest, stomach and right leg, then exited through his right thigh, calf and foot. The pitchfork itself had blasted apart into a hundred pieces.

After more tests, doctors determined that Garry had not suffered a heart attack or respiratory failure. He had, however, lost 40 percent of the hearing in his right ear. A neurologist and lightning-strike specialist also determined that Garry's memory was spotty, that he had trouble recognizing numbers, and that he had difficulty with his coordination. But since the injuries weren't life-threatening, Garry was released after four days. His doctors hoped that he'd get better within a few weeks, as many strike survivors did.

He didn't.

Lightning-strike survivors can suffer from over 90 symptoms, ranging from insomnia to vertigo to irritability to panic attacks to stiff joints to headaches to diminished sex drives. But MRIs and CAT scans can appear normal. Some people can be seriously injured by lightning and not have a scratch on them. It's like a computer damaged by a power surge, doctors say. On the surface, the hardware appears fine, but when the machine is rebooted, the software malfunctions.

A week after the strike, Garry still felt disoriented. He shuffled around in a medicated daze. He couldn't speak clearly. He mistakenly thought it was August 1997 -- two years earlier. He'd gaze out the window at an airplane, and his mind would suddenly "lock up." As he tried to follow moving objects, he felt as though someone were flicking a switch on and off in his head.

"I'd look at something and then turn away, but I would still see it for a few seconds," Garry says. "My mind was still trying to process what I had just seen. I'd look in the rear-view mirror and see a red car behind me. Then I'd look out front and still see the red car. I'll tell you what, it's quite a surprise to see what you think is a car coming straight for your windshield."

He was always tired. Activities that once took a few minutes, such as loading a dishwasher, seemed to take hours. He'd forget his birthday, his address and his phone number. He'd gaze at the kitchen clock and struggle to determine which direction the hands moved. He'd sift through pocket change and forget how to count.

"I had studied for a degree in biology and animal husbandry," Garry says. "I took college calculus and trig. But after the injury, I couldn't get past simple arithmetic."

Linda had been told not to leave him alone outside because he might wander off and get lost. He once stepped out the back door to go to his workshop, tripped over a rock and panicked. "It was only 60 feet away, but I couldn't figure out which direction I needed to take to get back," he recalls.

He suffered nightmares. He'd grind his teeth in his sleep. He became terrified during thunderstorms, clutching the sofa so tightly that Linda thought it would break.

Then came the seizures. Garry would be talking or watching television, and his face would suddenly go blank. He'd stare straight ahead in a daze, then snap to attention. "It was like I'd wake up and find myself in a place that I didn't realize I was in," he says. "One time I lost eight hours that way."

Another time, he had just poured a cup of coffee and settled back on the sofa when he felt a tremor building inside him. His hands trembled, his body tensed and his jaw locked. When he awoke, one of his front teeth was broken.

The pain from his other injuries was constant. His hip burned. His ear ached. His head throbbed. So Garry took pain pills. Dozens of pills. Enough pills to fill a plastic grocery sack with empty bottles.

At 55, Garry was a fit and wiry light-heavyweight. Before the lightning strike, he'd walked 12 miles a day. He had no history of serious psychological or physical problems. This new litany of debilitating ailments threw him for a loop. "I was at the age where I was used to things going one way," he says. "All of a sudden, that stopped."

Garry blamed his colleagues for not noticing his disappearance sooner. He blamed himself for not heeding the looming thunderstorm. He blamed God for the endless torments he'd suffered. Sometimes he thought he was going crazy. Other times he wished he'd never survived.

"I'd think, if I had died, look how much better off my family would be," he says.

Unlike many strike survivors, though, Garry never had trouble with his insurance company. No one doubted that his ailments had resulted from the lightning flash; workers at a nearby hatchery even reported seeing a lightning bolt near the Ouray property that July afternoon. Garry was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome; he retired from the DOW with workers' compensation and disability benefits. He also received cognitive training, physical therapy, counseling and medical treatment.

They weren't enough.

Garry had always considered himself an independent and resourceful man, someone who'd taken care of himself and provided well for others. But after the strike, he couldn't read a measuring tape, operate a welding torch or earn a paycheck.

"It was frustrating as hell," he says. "I thought this would be one of those things where they'd put you in the hospital, hook you up to an IV and you'd get better. I never realized that all they'd do is give you directions and that you'd have to relearn everything on your own. To make it worse, I'm a perfectionist. [Now] I can't do anything that requires math. I can't do anything that takes more than two hours. Then you add to that the seizures and the hearing loss and the dizziness, and what the hell can I do?"

About six months after he was struck by lightning, Garry Rudd sat on his porch, studying a photocopy of a clock's face. He'd been given the picture by doctors at a head-injury rehabilitation clinic in Denver, where he had been trying to recover lost abilities.

As he understood it, his injuries were similar to those of someone suffering from a head injury. The areas of his brain that had been damaged during the strike would never heal, but the healthy areas of his brain could compensate. He would still have seizures and memory problems, but he could learn things. He could teach himself to add and subtract. He could learn to build a chair. He could tell time.

Logically, he knew that the hands on a clock moved in a circle, from right to left, but he couldn't make himself see it. He studied the photocopy again and again. Then he had an idea: He sat up and began to walk around his house. He imagined that the back door was twelve o'clock, the east side was three o'clock, the front door was six o'clock and the west side was nine o'clock. He circled his house again, this time with the photocopy, trying to anticipate which number came next. "From that I figured out that the hands only go in one direction," he says. "I began to tell time. I still screw it up, but I'm right 99 percent of the time."

He gradually began to organize his life with a series of rituals, systems and props. Pocket notebooks became a memory aid. A compact disc became a way to tell when an hour had passed. A light above his stove became a warning signal that food was cooking. Sticks and boards became measuring templates. A calculator became a pocket companion. A wristwatch became a valuable accessory.

Slowly, Garry began tackling household projects. He built an awning above the back door, dug a trench in the front yard, crafted a $1,300 black walnut table for the Denver clinic. He even eased behind the wheel of a car, first using a motorized grocery cart, then a golf cart and eventually his pickup. He can't drive at night, navigate hairpin curves or reach 50 mph, but he can handle routes that he has memorized.

He no longer takes pain pills. He no longer relies on his cane. In May, Garry completed his final cognitive exercises at the head injury center. After two years, doctors pronounced him ready.

"That was a good day for me," he says. "I'm at maximum medical improvement. I'm as good as I'm going to get. Now it's up to me to practice, practice, practice."

His memory remains spotty. His hip still hurts. He has trouble processing information. And he continues to make mistakes. Several weeks ago, he forgot to turn off a drill press in his shop, grabbed the spinning drill bit and severely cut his hand. The injury "hurt like hell" and embarrassed him to no end, but Garry swallowed his frustration, returned to his shop, attached a warning light to the drill, and resumed work.

When lightning strikes, no place is completely safe. People have been hit while holding on to refrigerator doors in their kitchens, talking on telephones, reaching from their cars toward ATMs, working in garages, speeding on Jet Skis, burrowing in caves, hiding beneath boulders, standing on rubber mats. The best way to avoid becoming a statistic, authorities say, is to be prepared -- and to steer clear of thunderstorms altogether.

As a general rule, if you can hear thunder, you're a potential target. A storm doesn't have to be overhead before lighting strikes; thunderbolts have been known to travel more than ten miles before hitting the ground. Even after a thunderstorm has passed overhead, the danger is not over.

And despite the common misconception, lightning can -- and does -- strike in the same place twice.

Nearly two years have passed since Garry stood in that open field and reached for his pitchfork. He thinks about it every day. He still isn't able to easily participate in some of the activities he loves, such as deer hunting and welding. He is no longer the independent man he had once been.

Garry could spend his days lamenting his losses, but he won't. His injuries have forced him to view his life in ways he never before considered. He sees every misfortune that he has encountered, no matter how painful, as preparation for the life he now must lead. In spite of everything that has happened, he has survived. And there's only one way to look at that, he says: It's a blessing.

Besides, after all these years, Garry believes his luck is finally changing. Each Wednesday he travels to a market in Buena Vista and buys three one-dollar lottery tickets: one for himself, one for Linda and one for Colleen. Then he returns home and places them on his refrigerator door.

"Odds are odds," he says. "If I can hit lightning, then I can sure hit that goddamn lottery."

-- Harrison Fletcher writes for the Denver alternative newsweekly Westword where this story first appeared.

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