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If you live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and haven’t heard of “the boy who was hit by lightning,” you probably spent last summer in a cave. On July 23rd, while attending a family reunion in Indiana, a boy from Cambridge took a direct lightning strike to his chest and his heart stopped.
In any given year in the USA, the odds of being struck by lightning are literally one in a million, according to the National Weather Service website. Lightning can contain up to 100 million volts of electricity and reach temperatures of up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. All of that energy affects the electrical balance of the heart and causes immediate cardiac arrest. Only about 8% of people who suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survive.
But that boy, the one who has a banter-filled, competitive friendship with my son; the one who lights up a room with his grin; the one who spent July 23rd filling his belly with Dr. Pepper and chocolate chip cookies; the one who was hit by lightning is 11-year-old Ryan Summers. And whether it is due to his mother’s quick thinking, divine intervention, karma or the work of modern medicine, Ryan is alive today.
Ryan’s mother, Jamie, was the first to react after an explosive sound caused her to turn and see her youngest child on the ground, not moving. She immediately began to administer CPR with the help of her oldest daughter, Taylor. Taylor told me, “We just kept talking to him, telling him to breathe, to wake up and hoping he could hear us. I was trying to keep it together so I could help Mom; it was so scary because we knew he was dead.” Thus began the longest ten minutes of the Summers' lives, as they performed CPR and prayed for Ryan to breathe.
“The EMTs had us drive separately to the hospital, so for that twenty-minute ride, I think we all had assumed he was gone and that was, well, it was just incomprehensible,” said Brett, Ryan’s father. Jamie added, “It’s a lot easier for me to understand with my heart, not my head. My heart told me that this was one of those events in life that remind you that you are not the one in the driver’s seat. I had to have faith and believe in the power of prayer.”
For the next three and a half weeks, the Summers family lived at the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. The EMTs had restarted Ryan’s heart in the ambulance, but he had suffered a great deal of damage to his lungs and needed to be intubated and put into a medically-induced coma. This would allow him to breathe easily and rest while his body worked hard to repair itself—not an easy task, even for the body of a strong, determined kid.
During Ryan’s time at Riley, the Summers family never left his side. Brett recalled the early days in the hospital: “We were walking on eggshells, meeting with doctors to talk about what we were facing, staring at monitors and seeing our son hooked up to so many tubes and machines. The whole thing was surreal.” Jamie added, “I kept thinking, ‘it’s all good; Ryan went from dead to alive and that’s a start.’ I needed to believe that God had a plan for Ryan; there is a reason he was hit and not someone else."
Back home on the Shore, the community outreach was incredible. Ryan, a 6th-grader at the Country School, was already a popular kid—athletic, handsome, funny. Prayer circles formed and a Facebook page was set up so information could be shared and friends could post encouraging words. Fundraisers were planned, the family’s church had a standing-room-only prayer service and businesses, such as Dairy Queen and Ewing’s Contractor Supplies, posted “Get Well, Ryan!” on their signs and webpages.
The children in the community had a particularly strong reaction to Ryan’s accident and set about selling LiveStrong-style bracelets to raise money for Ryan’s care, printing t-shirts in support of Ryan to wear during team sports, and even setting up a lemonade stand to raise funds, manned by my own son and his friend. The matter-of-fact signage “Raising Money for Boy Hit by Lightning” was a heart-tugging marketing coup; the boys raised more than $300 in just a few hours.
The Country School’s headmaster, Neil Mufson, made the trip to visit the Summers in Indianapolis. Jamie recounted, “I looked out to the hallway and thought, ‘Gosh, I must really be exhausted...that man looks just like Neil!” Leaving his own vacation in Michigan, Neil made the trek to offer his and the school’s support. “I wanted to see Ryan and give him a hug. Because my family had a similar experience when our oldest daughter was suddenly stricken with a very serious illness, I think I know some of what the family was experiencing.”
On August 17th, three and a half weeks after the accident, “an eternity” as Jamie described it, Ryan was stable enough to be medivac’d to Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore to begin his physical and developmental rehabilitation. Ryan’s 13-year old sister, Perry, said the beginning days at Kennedy Krieger were upsetting at times. “It seemed like the therapists were being so aggressive with him...forcing him to do breathing exercises and move his arms and legs when he was clearly in pain. It was hard to watch.” But as his condition stabilized, the family was buoyed by the small steps of progress.
Because Ryan’s brain did not receive oxygen during the ten minutes his heart was stopped, he suffers from what is called an anoxic brain injury. Results of anoxic brain injuries can range from permanent vegetative state to full recovery, depending upon various factors. Typical symptoms of anoxic brain injuries are short-term memory loss, lack of decision-making skills, loss of coordination, loss of speech and even personality changes. For the Summers family, the effects of Ryan's brain injury were still unknown.
It wasn’t until August 26th, the day Ryan first spoke again, that his family had some inkling that the Ryan they knew was still intact. His first words were, “Do I have a lacrosse game?”—the sign of a real Maryland boy. The response to this news was overwhelming; there were hundreds of celebratory posts on the family's CaringBridge site and Facebook page, many of them from people who only knew Ryan through others—people in his grandmother’s prayer group, Facebook friends of his friends and others who began following his story after reading about him in the newspaper.
Ryan’s “celebrity” status was a wonderful support for the family, yet also worrisome. “We felt very protective of him while he recovered. As his parents, we made a conscious effort to keep him in a controlled environment so that he wasn’t embarrassed later or exhausted by too much stimulation from visits,” Brett said. Taylor and Perry were inundated with questions from schoolmates every day. Taylor remarked, “It was wonderful that so many people cared, yet it was stressful and upsetting and there were a lot of days when Ryan just stayed the same, or even backtracked.Perry and I learned to practice our answers in our heads before we went out in public.”
Therapy sessions were tough and Ryan was usually wiped out by the end of every day. Struggling to do things that used to be so easy, Ryan had (and still has) his moments of frustration. Perry observes, “He’s still Ryan, he still has that same spirit and determination, but he’s just not as successful as he used to be and that affects his attitude sometimes. But I know he’ll get there...and, if he doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world; he’ll still be my baby brother.”
Brett explained, “The doctors told us that brain injuries heighten attributes that existed pre-accident. So, the skills he excelled at before will come back quickly and most likely he will fully recover them. The flip side of that is the skills he struggled to master the first go-around, such as reading or spelling, will be more difficult for him to learn again.” He adds, “I am very optimistic that, with time, Ryan will have 100% recovery.”
Ryan graduated out of the Kennedy Krieger program in December and has been easing back into his old routine. A key component of his recovery has been his return to school. “The school has been really supportive of Ryan and being back with the kids he’s known since kindergarten has been hugely important for all of us. It is a relief for Brett and me to know that he is in an environment where he is loved and protected,” Jamie noted.
A typical school day for Ryan involves classroom interaction with other 6th graders, interspersed with one-on-one time with tutors. “Ryan is consistently displaying an incredible attitude and is responding very positively to the challenge,” Neil commented. In addition to receiving an educational experience tailored to his specific needs at school, Ryan is also receiving support services, such as speech recognition software, through Talbot County Public Schools.
The compassion Ryan’s friends, schoolmates and fellow athletes have shown him is worth noting in this world of bullying and child violence. From the comments left on Facebook and Caring Bridge to the gently protective care given to him when he returned to school, it is clear that many of the local children have been able to put themselves in Ryan’s shoes. Despite his injury-induced social awkwardness, his tendency to ask the same question over and over due to loss of short-term memory and his many inquiries of “Did you know I was hit by lightning?” (an attempt to wrap his head around a situation that he doesn’t remember or always believe), the children in Ryan’s world have been understanding of his challenges, respectful of his limitations and consistently optimistic about his future progress.
What does Ryan thinks of all of this? Right off the bat, he will tell you, “I don’t really remember much before I got to Kennedy Krieger, except that I lost a whole summer because I don’t remember the fun half and I slept through the bad half!” He continued, “People tell me I’m lucky, but I wasn’t lucky; I’m alive because a lot of people all over the world—even in Japan!—prayed for me and brought me back to life. I’ve had so many people helping me get better and that’s really nice, but I am a little tired of being treated special, like I might break or whatever. It’s so weird; people I don’t know will come up to me and hug me. My mom said they do that because they feel like they know me after reading about me and praying for me for so long, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. Still, it’s weird.”
I asked Ryan about his plans for this summer, assuming he must have a long list to make up for what he lost last summer. He paused to think, then replied, “Sailing...I want to do a lot of sailing. And I want to go back to Indiana. I want to see where I was hit, what Riley Hospital looks like and meet all the people who helped save my life—the EMTs, the police, the firefighters, the nurses, the doctors—I want to go up to them and say, ‘Hey! It’s me, Ryan Summers, the kid you brought back to life!‘ I think that would be really cool.”
For Lent, the Summers have a chart on their refrigerator where each family member can write what they are thankful for on each of the forty days. The first day of Ryan’s chart says, “I’m alive” and the other 39 days are marked, “Ditto.”