Johannesburg - Two King Edward VII School boys hit by lightning were probably clinically dead when a paramedic father rushed to their sides and gave them “basic CPR”.
Both were in a critical condition at Milpark Hospital on Wednesday morning.
Three boys were kept for observation at the hospital overnight and four were discharged on night, said Netcare 911 group manager Mande Toubkin.
Mike Russell was leaving the school on Tuesday after his son’s cricket game was cancelled because of the storm, but was told by a security guard at the gate that there was an emergency. He rushed to the field and used CPR to resuscitate two boys who had gone into cardiac arrest.
“It’s basically a miracle to get two patients out of cardiac arrest using basic CPR,” said Russell, a trained paramedic and owner of Mibern Medi-Call, which provides medical support at big events.
He said in his 20 years in the medical support industry, he had never resuscitated a patient in cardiac arrest without using medical equipment such as defibrillators.
The lightning caught the pupils and parents by surprise when his 14-year-old son’s game was cancelled. “The storm came up really quickly,” said Russell. “When the second lightning bolt hit, we still had guys walking off the field.”
Professor Walter Kloeck, chairman of the Resuscitation Council of Southern Africa, said schools should make CPR part of the curriculum.
He speculated that the injuries were caused by a “rebound strike” - where the lightning hits the ground first and then bounces up and hits the person - because a direct strike is normally instantly fatal.
He said that if the boys had been in cardiac arrest they would probably have been clinically dead as there would have been no breathing and no pulse. There are about five minutes before the lack of oxygen causes permanent death, also known as brain stem death.
The lack of oxygen kills brain cells and destroys the brain stem, which controls vital functions such as breathing.
But properly administered CPR could buy the patient about three minutes more, which could save the person’s life, said Kloeck.
The rebound strike normally causes damage to tissue along the path it travels through the body, but leaves the rest of the body relatively intact.
“It normally enters through a finger and exits out of the other arm or a leg,” said Kloeck.
Russell said: “Fortunately we were able to get a pulse and spontaneous respiration back in a relatively short space of time.”
The Gauteng Department of Education said the boys were aged between 16 and 18 and played for the school’s first cricket team.
“While details are not clear, it appears they were pulling covers on the cricket field after practice when lightning struck,” spokesman Charles Phahlane said.
The two badly injured boys were also treated by first aid teams from the school and were about 40m apart when Russell arrived.
Teachers have to decide quickly about getting their sports players off fields when a storm is brewing on the Highveld. This can be a tough call in an area where storms are common, but not always necessarily dangerous.
Climatologist Simon Gear said this area had the highest incidence of strikes in the world in relation to land square metreage. “It sounds like the teachers did get the cricketers off the field… but if sport is stopped every time there are thunderclouds, there’d be no sport played in the country.”
“Lightning can strike far away from the rain shadow, making it virtually impossible to predict. So people should be aware of its potential danger and make a call which they believe to be appropriate.
“There are no warning signs and we don’t understand lightning well enough. Some private schools have warning systems, but they have been found not to be reliable.
“If they are set to go off at the furthest-away warning level, it could take hours before the lightning strikes, if at all.
“Or, if set too close, it could happen before players have time to leave their fields,” he said.
Gear describes lightning as a discharge of energy between the clouds and the ground, like a massive surge of electricity coming from both directions. The ground and the clouds develop different energy and charges and these are released during a strike.
The effects could be physical burns on the skin, or heart and brain failure. But, unlike electricity shocks, there are no electricity surges that continue running through the body.
Gear said not enough was known about the KES incident - such as whether the boys were standing together or on different parts of the field - to explain how the incident happened.
Lightning can strike at any time, even when it is not raining. It cannot be predicted and people should always take precautions when there are thunderclouds around, said South African Weather Bureau forecaster Elizabeth Webster.
“We cannot predict strikes and we have no records of them. The only time we hear about this is through the media. Lightning strikes are common in South Africa, but there is no way of forecasting them,” she said.
Phahlane said the department was providing support to the four girls from Protea Glen, all 16 years old, as well as the KES boys.
On Tuesda night the media were barred from speaking to parents by officials of Milpark Hospital and the school as the families were said to be traumatised.
Family members were seen hugging each other outside the hospital’s emergency ward and bringing each other coffee while they waited for news from the doctor.