Speedway trip had lightning finish

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2012 - 9:18 PM

Madelia man is on the road to recovery after being struck during August outing at the Brainerd track.

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Jamie Harris, 23, was struck by lightning on Aug. 15 while at Brainerd International Raceway. He doesn’t remember anything from the event, but has burns on his arms and singe marks and two holes in the T-shirt he was wearing. The shirt had been signed by racer John Force.

Photo: Brian Peterson , Star Tribune

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Jamie Harris roused from a coma in a Minneapolis hospital bed to find tubes forcing his breath and delivering him food. He couldn't believe the freakish story his parents told him about what had happened.

"Then I looked at my arm," he said.

A light red burn swept from the right side of his face, down his right shoulder and to his right elbow. Another burn scabbed on top of his head.

Harris, they said, had been struck by lightning.

"I was shocked," he said. "I just couldn't believe that it happened."

Harris has no memory of the strike, but the evidence left behind is helping his family and doctors piece together how a strike can -- and might not -- affect a victim's body.

Harris, 23, had been excited to travel with friends from his hometown of Madelia, Minn., to spend a mid-August week at Brainerd International Raceway. As they had the year before, they would camp, rub elbows with nationally known drivers and feel the roar of the engines at an annual drag racing competition.

The races hadn't even started that Wednesday evening, Aug. 15, when Harris downed a couple of tacos under a canopy with his friends, waited for rain to lift to a drizzle, then hopped on a borrowed ATV. He headed across the 400-acre campground to find another friend.

Minutes later, a man in a camper heard a loud crack, opened his door and saw Harris on the ground, the family was told. The man rushed to give Harris CPR, possibly saving his life.

Harris' mother calls the man "Jamie's guardian angel."

The odds of getting struck by lightning in a person's lifetime are 1 in 10,000, according to the National Weather Service. Harris feels lucky he wasn't one of the 39 people killed by it, on average, in the United States each year.

Most victims die of cardiac arrest, said Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois' Department of Emergency Medicine in Chicago, who has studied how lightning affects the body. "If it hits during a specific time of the heart cycle," she said, "that's a vulnerable time."

A power-packed strike

For every person killed by lightning, nine others survive, often with lasting injuries.

Garden-variety lightning bolts are about 20,000 amps of electrical current -- about 20,000 times more than needed to power a 100-watt light bulb and about 2,000 times more than needed to run a vacuum cleaner, said Monte Bateman, senior scientist at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville, Ala. Big bolts of lightning can reach 100,000 amps or more, he said.

How can someone survive? Most victims aren't hit directly, Cooper said. Many get struck by lightning that has spread through the ground or metal, lessening the charge of electricity for the victim.

Electricity takes the path of least resistance, and that's true in the body, too, doctors say. If a person's skin or clothes are wet from rain or sweat, it may travel through the moisture, leaving them with steam burns when that water is flash-heated. Metal jewelry also acts as a conductor, burning patients where they wear necklaces and belt buckles. Lightning can heat air to 50,000 degrees, according to the weather service, but it alone may not leave much of a burn because a strike is so quick.

Lightning can damage the body's heart, nerves, brain and other systems. Many victims suffer from conditions such as pain from chronic nerve damage, memory loss, multitasking problems, attention deficit and slower mental processing.

Steady improvement

It's impossible to tell exactly what happened to Harris -- the family knows of no eye witnesses. Hennepin County Medical Center's Dr. Ryan Fey, who treated Harris, said it appears Harris suffered at least a close-to-direct hit.

As Harris lay in a medically induced coma for about a week, his parents could only worry, with nobody to blame. A month after the strike, they all wonder if he'll suffer long-term effects.

Harris' right arm and shoulder are still slightly red from the burns. He made major improvements starting last week, his parents said, walking on his own again. He still has some pain on his right side and has had to work to swallow food and water.

He was released from the hospital Monday. Therapists in Madelia will continue to measure his progress.

"It's an evaluation that really takes a long time to see how they end up turning out ... months and months," Fey said. "The fact that he's making steady improvement is a reassuring finding."

Any luck come with that?

Harris and his parents are hopeful that he'll make a full recovery. So far "all the light switches are coming back on," his father, John Harris, said.

John Harris is planning to make a display case for the T-shirt that his son was wearing, signed by racer John Force. It is singed brown and has two burn holes the size of a half dollar, one in the back shoulder area and one that's lower, where it would cover te rib cage.

If getting struck by lightning is like winning a big lottery, the Harris family hopes Jamie has some of that luck now, too.

"I was hoping he'd bought a ticket," his dad said, smiling.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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