Victim's message: Lightning-strike effects can last a lifetime

David Bodkin-Parris, 14, struck by lightning.
David Bodkin-Parris, 14, struck by lightning.
Posted: July 19, 2014

Odds are 1 in 12,000 that a person will be struck by lightning in his or her lifetime. But if you find yourself in the shoes of David Bodkin-Parris, 14, who was hit by a bolt of bad luck Monday in Glenolden, it can change your life forever.

Michael Utley knows this all too well.

In May 2000, Utley, 63, was golfing in Cape Cod, Mass., when it happened. Rain and hail began to fall as the siren blared, alerting golfers to get off the course. Severe weather was coming.

As Utley headed inside, a bolt hit him.

"My buddies saw me fall to the ground," Utley said.

The strike left burns on his waist and thighs, where the metal of his belt buckle and zipper had been. Utley's heart stopped several times.

In the midst of the storm, friends performed CPR until paramedics arrived. Utley was near death upon arrival at the hospital, where he stayed for 38 days in the intensive-care unit. He spent three months in rehab. There, he learned to walk again, to talk, and to do the small, everyday things he used to take for granted.

Now, 14 years later, the Altoona native and onetime Philadelphia resident is a lightning-safety spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Utley is far from fully recovered.

"People think you're fine," Utley said. "There's no exit wounds."

Being struck by lightning, he said, is like spilling Coke on a laptop. On the outside, everything may look OK. But the insides won't work properly.

Every day for Utley is a struggle. Because of balance problems, he can't put on his pants standing up. His arms hurt constantly.

Utley still golfs and sails, he said, "because I can't walk." On the course, he rides a golf cart from hole to hole, standing only to swing.

With no feeling in his toes or fingers, Utley can't plug in his cellphone charger unless he is staring directly at the outlet.

That may seem insignificant to most people, but it causes Utley much frustration.

He said his "short-circuited" brain has made him have mood swings and become irritable. When talking, he often grasps for words.

Bodkin's recovery should be less painful, Utley said. Bodkin was struck between his thumb and wrist and did not lose consciousness.

On Tuesday, Bodkin returned home. He said he planned to spend the week relaxing. His thumb felt tingly, he said, and he was a bit tired.

Besides that, he said, he has experienced no other common poststrike symptoms, which include nausea, headaches, dizziness, and ringing in the ears.

"It's not uncommon for lightning victims to develop symptoms," Utley said. "If he's feeling OK, that's the best sign."

In June 2007, another 14-year-old boy, Zachary Yizzi, was struck in Cherry Hill. Yizzi was knocked to the ground, unconscious, and his shirt burst into flames. Seven years later, Yizzi is doing fine, his grandmother Nancy Foglia, said Wednesday via e-mail.

"Zach's awful scars on his back and arm," Foglia said in the e-mail, "are a constant reminder of what many think 'will never happen to me.' "

Utley reminds people it could happen to them.

He works in the media and at conferences to increase awareness of lightning's danger. He focuses on teaching preteens. Utley knows his advice probably won't have much of an effect on 45-year-old men, he said.

"It's real simple," Utley said. "When thunder roars, go indoors."

During a storm, he advises, people should head inside, to cars or houses. Do not touch anything metal, which conducts electricity, or take a bath. If a person can't get inside, spread out from others.

And know CPR. That saved Utley's life.

Still, he knows some people won't listen to him. The odds of getting struck are slim.

What would he say to those people?

Take a look, he said, at a Golf Channel clip of Utley walking the course. The video is on his website, struckbylightning.org.

"Ask them if they want to walk like me," Utley said. "You don't want my life."


BY THE NUMBERS

261

People killed by lightning in the U.S. from 2006

to 2013.

81%

Percentage of lightning fatalities who were male.

70%

Percentage of fatalities occurring in June, July,

or August.


emccarthy@phillynews.com

610-313-8105 @ErinMcPSU

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