For 26 years, doctors have been telling Harold Deal he is healthy and fully recovered from the lightning strike that blasted him out of his boots and threw him 50 feet.
But Deal knows he hasn’t been the same since.
“I haven’t been cold since 1969,” he says.
At the fifth-annual Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Victims International convention, Deal carried a photo collage of himself romping through the snow in just a pair of shorts. Each picture was labeled with the temperature: 5 degrees, minus 10, minus 44.
During the summer, Deal, who lives in Greenwood, S.C., fills the bathtub with cold water and eight bags of ice.
“Nobody can explain it,” says Deal, who was one of 120 members exchanging stories and comparing scars at the convention in Gettysburg a couple of weeks ago.
Many doctors believe there is nothing wrong physically with such people and that many shock or lightning victims are faking injuries to win lawsuits or workers’ compensation.
Some of the conventioneers walk with canes, some have artificial limbs and others use wheelchairs, but most show no outward signs of their accidents.
Almost all members of the group say they suffer side effects from having had electricity course through their bodies. The symptoms, they say, include stuttering, impotence, memory loss, depression, blurred vision and poor hearing.
“With lightning and electric shock victims, the body’s hardware is usually not damaged, but the software is scrambled,” says Dr. Hooshang Hooshmand, a neurologist who specializes in shocks and lightning strikes and runs a Vero Beach, Fla., clinic that offers a treatment of drugs, diet and exercise.
Hooshmand - who has been convicted of Medicare fraud and can practice only under supervision - says electricity damages nerve cells and the brain’s frontal lobe.
Victims, he says, are told they have multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy or Lou Gehrig’s disease. According to Hooshmand, about half lose their jobs and many get divorced.
But critics claim that Hooshmand may be encouraging victims to create symptoms so they can win lawsuits.
“I suspect that they are like the other fringe groups,” says Dr. Robert Daroff of University Hospitals of Cleveland and a board member of the American Academy of Neurology. “They are people without organic diseases who are depressed, litigious and angry.”
“It’s understandable that doctors don’t understand these cases,” counters psychologist Gerolf H. Engelstatter, who helped start the Jacksonville, N.C.-based group in 1989. “Lightning strikes and electric shocks are not everyday occurrences in hospitals.”
About 600 people per year are injured by lightning in the United States, and about 2,500 are injured by electric shock, Engelstatter says.
Wilhelm Jonach, who attended the convention, says he once spoke 11 languages. In 1992, 3,900 volts burst through his body when he touched a broken outlet. Now, Jonach stammers through a simple conversation.
At the time of the accident, Jonach was head chef at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“I was at the top of my career,” he says. “I made $120,000 to $160,000 each year. Now I get $17,000 in disability.”
He says he gets lost driving to the grocery store. When his wife walked away for a moment during an interview, she said, “Please, make sure he doesn’t leave.”
Jonach says he once was a kung fu grandmaster who ran 10 miles and did 300 push-ups a day. Now he gets dizzy doing five push-ups, he says.
“I used to be like steel,” Jonach says, glancing sadly at the beginnings of a potbelly. “If I didn’t have the support of my wife and child, I’d put a bullet in my head.”