Lightning stopped his heart, not life Bolt turns into a tool he uses to market 'lightning fast' service

September 04, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A bolt of lightning almost killed Michael Perry three years ago. Now it's his lifeline.

The countless volts of electricity that entered the 30-year-old west Columbia man's head on an Ocean City beach that August stopped his heart for 37 minutes and left him a quadriplegic for three months.

Now that bolt from the blue is Perry's marketing tool. Almost fully recovered, he runs an Ellicott City business delivering subpoenas and court papers called -- yup -- Lightning Private Process Inc. "I'm lightning fast," he says with a grin.

Perry's remarkable recovery took more than a year of physical therapy, acupuncture and patience. He is one of the lucky ones, says Steve Marshburn, president of the Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Victims International, a support group based in Jacksonville, N.C.

The 700-member group -- which includes professional golfer Lee Trevino who has been struck twice -- formed seven years ago to promote research in the area. It publishes a newsletter called Hit or Miss.

"Part of the problem is the medical world does not know how to treat us," says Marshburn, struck more than 20 years ago. "Everyone says the doctors have told them it's all in their head."

Doctors just now "are now beginning to discuss [lightning injuries] with each other," he says.

Many of the 500 people a year struck by lightning suffer severe neurological damage that may result in debilitating memory loss, seizures, chronic pain and depression, Marshburn says.

In 1994, 69 people died from lightning strikes nationwide, including one in Maryland, according to the National Weather Service.

People have a 1-in-600,000 chance of being hit by lightning, the weather service says.

Perry became involved with the support group when his mother contacted it after he was struck. At its annual convention -- held in Gettysburg, Pa., in June -- Perry says he was reassured by meeting other people suffering from the same problems.

It showed "that I wasn't crazy," Perry says. "Most lightning injuries affect the inside, not the outside."

For Perry, the lingering effects of his lightning strike focus mainly on his balance.

The lightning damaged his central nervous system, so sometimes quick moves throw off his equilibrium. He also suffers from chronic shoulder pain and has numbness below the knees and elbows.

But he looks pretty good for someone who came close to dying.

On Aug. 3, 1993, Perry, an Ocean City lifeguard for eight years, was telling people to leave the beach because a storm was coming. He was riding a four-wheeled motorcycle when the lightning struck him in the back of the head, traveled down his arms and through the handlebars of the motorcycle.

The surge of electricity then went down the body of the bike, into his legs and threw him off the motorcycle. The bike flipped and landed on top of him.

Two lifeguards raced down to the beach and immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

They did not stop trying to resuscitate him for 37 minutes, when his heart finally started beating again. Lightning strikes often arrest the heart -- making it seem as if the victims are dead -- but immediate and continual CPR can revive them.

"I lost all track of time," says lifeguard Vince Cardile Jr., who performed the CPR. "He's like a cat, he's got nine lives."

Perry did not wake up for five days and then spent three months in Baltimore hospitals, barely being able to move his arms and legs or sit up.

He had two burns on his head from where he believes the lightning entered as well as burns on his arms and legs. The nerve damage was so extreme that even a touch to his arms or chest was excruciating, he says.

Dr. H. Hooshmand, a Florida neurologist who consulted in Perry's case, says the body is generally a good resistor unless it is wet.

Lightning flies through the body quickly, carried by nerves or arteries, looking for the path of least resistance, he says.

"If the body is wet," Hooshmand says, "it goes right through it like a laser."

After a person is struck, much of the lightning flashes around the body, as the current spills over outside, says Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She says burns are rare and people often appear unharmed using traditional brain tests.

But the body operates on a series of electrical impulses and the jolt of electricity offsets the body's normal balance.

"The person looks the same but his software isn't working right," Cooper says.

In the past doctors -- trained to be skeptical -- may have dismissed complaints from lightning strike victims.

"They look OK on the outside. [Doctors] would think they're nuts," she says.

For Perry, getting treatment was not a problem, but finding a job was.

He spent more than a year in physical therapy, gradually training his body to work again. He has a video showing the varying stages of his recovery.

In one section, Perry is trying to run, but his feet slap as they hit the ground, in a gangly fashion. Months later, he is running with more control and confidence.

After leaving therapy, Perry started looking for work. He says he applied to more than 50 places.

But once they heard about the lightning strike, prospective employers backed off, fearing medical and liability problems, he says.

"Finally, I just got fed up," Perry says.

With $500 and the aid of a friend, local attorney William Erskine, Perry decided to set up his subpoena service.

Now he delivers papers across Maryland in his Ford Escort -- putting 16,000 miles on it in just three months.

He recently passed his insurance exam and hopes to become a bail bondsman.

He says people often ask him whether he now is afraid of lightning: "I say I don't remember anything, so not really."

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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