For better or worse, he’s now “Joltin'” Joe Lusson.
Actually, he’s picked up several crazy nicknames since he and his girlfriend were struck by lightning while hiking near Decorah, Iowa, on July 11 and somehow lived to tell about it, Lusson says.
“Some people at work are calling me Sparky. Or Flash,” the 39-year-old Madison resident said with a roll of his eyes this week at a downtown cafe.
Of course, the mere fact that Lusson and his girlfriend, Aleen Tierney, 29, can look back and laugh at their harrowing brush with death just a few weeks ago comes as a great relief to their friends and family.
But now that he’s got some perspective, what else can you do but laugh? says Lusson, a child support specialist for the state of Wisconsin who’s best known for his work as president of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation.
“We were damn lucky,” he says, noting that he’s since learned that about 70 people die from lightning strikes each year in this country and another 300 are injured.
Those statistics not only surprised him, Lusson acknowledges, but were a big reason he agreed — after some hesitation — to do this interview. People need to know, he says, that while the odds of getting struck by lightning are slim, it does happen. Even when the conditions aren’t particularly menacing — which, Lusson admits, was the biggest surprise of all.
He and Tierney, who’ve been dating for a year, had driven to Decorah on Saturday, July 10, for a concert featuring Greg Brown and Iris Dement at the Seed Savers Heritage Farm, located in a picturesque valley. After camping on the property overnight, they decided to go hiking in nearby woods the next morning.
A gentle rain was falling, Lusson says, but they saw no lightning and heard no thunder. So a lightning strike was the furthest thing from their minds, he says – not realizing that it’s fairly common for strikes to occur ahead of an approaching storm.
Around 10 a.m., they found a wooden bench under a tall pine at the base of a heavily wooded hill, Lusson says, and decided to stop for a snack. But just as they were sinking their teeth into some blueberry scones, “the lights went out.”
The next thing Lusson remembers is struggling to come out of what seemed like a dark, deep sleep.
“I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t move,” he says, “but I could faintly hear Aleen yelling my name.”
Tierney, meanwhile, was shocked to open her eyes and find herself on the ground, beside the bench and just a few feet from a small cliff overlooking a river.
But that was just a minor concern, says Tierney, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student and part-time nurse at Meriter Hospital. She was gasping for breath and her right side was paralyzed – and she thought for a moment she was having an aneurysm.
Then she spotted Lusson slumped over on the bench, unconscious, and became even more alarmed. She also remembers hearing a loud buzzing sound – “like a loose electric wire.”
“I started screaming his name, but I honestly thought he was dead – or dying,” she says. “And I had no idea what had happened because there was no blood, no fire. It was a completely invisible force that had hit us.”
Realizing she had to act fast, Tierney says she somehow summoned enough strength in her left side to pull Lusson onto the ground next to her. But as she was trying to figure out how to perform CPR with just one arm, she noticed that Lusson had opened his eyes and that his lips were moving.
“Lightning,” he muttered.
Lightning? Tierney remembers thinking. Sure, of course, that had to be it, she reasoned, as the rain started coming down in buckets.
Aware that they were in desperate need of help, Tierney propped Lusson up against the bench. Then she crawled down the trail and through the woods to a dirt road that led to the valley where they’d camped out. There she was spotted by Paul and Carol Fessler of Rock Island, Ill. and their two kids – the only campers left from the previous night – who were just returning from breakfast in Decorah.
“I mean, here we are driving through the pouring rain and we see this person lying on the road,” Carol Fessler recalled when contacted at her Rock Island home. “I’ll never forget the look of terror on her face.”
After helping Tierney into their van and hearing her story, Carol Fessler says she tried calling 911 on her cell phone but couldn’t get a signal. So she ordered their 7-year-old son Grant to run across the field to the Seed Savers Heritage Farm and tell someone to call for help.
The Fesslers then drove to the woods, grabbed a couple sleeping bags and went to comfort Lusson until an ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later.
But the ordeal still wasn’t over.
As he was loaded into the ambulance, Lusson says he felt “intense, burning heat” in his legs and feet. And although the sensation subsided by the time he got to Winneshiek County Memorial Hospital, he still had excruciating pain in his lower back.
After five hours of X-rays and tests – and a shot of morphine – the pain finally disappeared, Lusson says.
Tierney also went through a series of tests, during which she slowly regained feeling throughout her body. Which was “truly wonderful,” she says, “because I’d begun to envision us as this wheelchair couple for the rest of our lives.”
Still, doctors were concerned about possible internal injuries. So the couple was transferred to the burn center at UW Hospital in Madison, where they both ended up spending the night before being released. (Lusson went by ambulance; Tierney drove with her brother, sister-in-law and mother, who’d been contacted by the Winneshiek County sheriff’s department.)
And the long-term prognosis?
Surprisingly good, says Lusson, who took a week off from his job to recover.
In fact, he recently had a follow-up physical and was given a clean bill of health.
Naturally, they’re still suffering a few after-effects, he says. His ankles are still sore, and he has burn marks on his right leg. Tierney’s right hip still bothers her, and she’s waiting for a small hole in her right eardrum to heal.
“I’m still amazed we lived through it – especially Joe,” Tierney says, adding that she “couldn’t let him out of my sight for a long time because I was just so appreciative that he was alive and with me.”
It was also, she believes, a not-too-subtle reminder that “no matter what we think, no matter what we try to do, ultimately nature is in charge.”
Lusson, meanwhile, says he’s still sorting it all out and doesn’t know how to interpret what happened on that grim July morning.
“It’s hard to avoid all the cliches, but it makes me want to enjoy life more – not just Aleen, but my family and friends,” he says.
And beyond that?
Joltin’ Joe Lusson takes a swig of orange juice and flashes a wide smile.
“I guess we were supposed to be around a while longer.” Rob Zaleski , The Capital Times