Lightning strikes student

Carolynn Nath spent the early afternoon on Aug. 27 preparing for the Round-Up and then rushed off to class. But between the Sun Dome and her class she almost lost her life.

Nath, 19, was struck by lightning that afternoon. Nath said she was walking in the rain, drenched and holding an umbrella while she came across the crosswalk along Maple Drive by the Campus Recreation Center. The next thing Nath remembers is getting up from the ground and looking around at the people staring back at her.

“People were just staring at me with awe,” Nath said. “No one helped me.”

Thrown to the ground unconscious and covered in dirt, Nath pick up her things and went to class, not realizing that she had been hit by lightning.

“I was worried about getting to class and not getting dropped from the class,” she said. “I don’t remember anything from my class.”

Afterward, Nath returned to her room in Maple Hall, where she said she then began to suffer convulsions, stomach cramps and uncontrollable shaking.

“My friends then rushed me to the (University Community Hospital) emergency room,” she said.

Nath added that after waiting four hours to see a doctor, medical personnel at first refused to believe she had been hit by lightning. It was not until the doctors performed a CPK (cardiac enzyme muscle test) test that they realized it was a possibility.

Medical personnel from UCH could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Dr. Ferdie Richards, an emergency room physician at Tampa General Hospital, said the symptoms and reaction to lightning that Nath exhibited are not uncommon for people suffering from the shock wave of a lightning bolt.

Richards said the CPK test that Nath received helps doctors determine how frequently the muscles in a person’s body are contracting. Richards added that when the muscles are strained, or used infrequently, a chemical is released into the body.

“It’s like when you workout too hard, you strain your muscle,” Richards said. “Or if a person lays still for a long time the chemical can be released.”

When medical personnel at UCH did the CPK test, Nath said her count was 5,000, which Richards says is abnormal for a person her age. Nath said doctors told her a normal count would be 32 to 100. Nath stayed at UCH for three days, receiving fluids, saline and potassium to reduce her CPK count.

According to Richards, the CPK test is not solely for lightning victims but is a way to see if the count is elevated in the body and if so, if any other parts of the body were affected.

However, Richards said if Nath had received a direct hit, she would have been extremely burned and probably would have died. He also said the chances of getting a direct hit are rare but that it does happen.

“The electric current and energy flows through your body and basically fries your muscles, nerves, blood and eventually stops your heart, and cooks everything in a flash,” he said.

The other type of occurrence with lightning strikes, Richards said, results from being in close proximity to the strike and absorbing a large amount of electrical energy. This, he said, is what happened to Nath.

“It’s basically like seeing a hand grenade being thrown and seeing the shock wave afterward,” he said. “People can suffer (by it), from being thrown to the ground unconscious to damaging the ear drum.”

Richards said that these shock wave experiences are more common in the Tampa Bay area as it is more prone to lightning strikes. He added that different types of things conduct electricity and could cause a lightning bolt to strike.

Water and metal are two conductors, Richards said, and can attract lightning.

In reference to the large number of construction sites on campus and safety concerns with wires and metal fences around campus, Richards said lightning can travel down a fence but would not travel through the ground because dirt is not a conductor for electricity. But, he says, if students are in the area of wires and fences it could pose a safety concern because of the shock wave.

This situation is what Nath says she is most concerned about. She has requested the university’s statistics on damage caused by lightning strikes be made public.

“I’m just concerned. Two people now have gotten hit on campus by lightning, and I am lucky I didn’t die,” she said.

Nath sent a request to the University Police, the Board of Trustees and USF President Judy Genshaft.

Sg.t. Mike Klingebiel, UP spokesman, said he has received Nath’s request and is in the process of researching the information.

Klingebiel added that, to his knowledge, about four people on or near the USF campus have been reported as being hit by lightning. Nath, however, never reported her case to the police.

On Aug. 11, 2001, Richard Stessel, an associate professor of engineering, was hit by lightning and killed on campus.

Richards added that lighting strikes are common in this area and that people need to be aware of the effects and how to avoid being hit.

“It’s rare, but it can happen,” he said.