Emergencies happen anywhere, anytime, and sometimes medical professionals find themselves in situations where they are the only ones who can help. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a Medscape series telling these stories.
It was one of those dog days of August where the humidity is palpable and the pressure is so hot and thick you can almost feel the ions in the air. At the time (2022), I was a White House fellow and senior advisor in the West Wing Office of Public Engagement and in the Office of the Vice President.
I was leaving the White House around 7:00 PM through the front gate on Lafayette Square. I had a dinner reservation with a friend, so I was in a rush. It was super overcast. Lo and behold, three steps after I closed the gate behind me, it started pouring. Rain came down so hard I had to take shelter.
There's a stone building in front of the White House with archways, so I took cover underneath one of them, hoping that in a couple of minutes the rain would pass. Behind the archways are these thick, black, iron gates.
Just as I was about to make a run for it, I heard: BOOM!
It was like a bomb had gone off. In one moment, I saw the lightning bolt, heard the thunder, and felt the heat. It was all one rush of sensation. I couldn't remember having been that scared in a long time.
I thought, I definitely have to get out of here. In a couple of minutes there might be another strike, and I'm sitting next to iron gates! I saw a little bit of a window in the downpour, so I started booking it. I knew there was a sheltered Secret Service area around the corner where they park their cars. A much safer place to be.
I was sprinting on the sidewalk and spotted a bunch of Secret Service agents on their bikes riding in the opposite direction, back toward the park. I knew they wouldn't be out on bikes in this mess without a reason. As they reached me, one agent said, "Clear the sidewalk! We're coming through with a bunch of equipment."
I yelled, "What's going on?"
"Four people were just struck by lightning," he said as he zoomed past.
I thought: Sh*t. I have to go back.
It was like two different parts of my brain were active at the exact same time. My subcortical brain at the level of the amygdala was like: You just ran from there, idiot. Why are you running back? And another part of my brain was like: This is who you are.
The lightning had struck one of the largest trees in the park. Four bodies splayed out in one direction from the tree. They'd been taking shelter underneath it when they were hit and were blown off to one side. By the time I got there, two Secret Service agents were on the scene doing CPR. Some bystanders had started to run over.
I did a quick round of pulse checks to see everyone's status, and all four were apneic and pulseless. I told the two Secret Service agents to keep doing compressions on the first person. Two bystanders also began compressions on another person, an older man.
More Secret Service agents arrived, and I said, "We need to do compressions on this other person right now." One of the agents took a moment to question who I could be and why I was there. I said, "I'm a doctor. I know I'm not dressed like one, but I'm a physician."
I told some agents to go find an AED, because these people needed to be shocked.
After they left, I was effectively trying to triage which of these four people would get the AED first. Initially, I spent more of my time on the young man, and we began to get some response from him. I then spent some time with the young woman.
It turned out there were AEDs in the pouches on the Secret Service bikes, but they were very small, dinky AEDs. We tried to apply the pads, but it was downpouring so much that the adhesive wouldn't stick. I told one of the agents we needed a towel.
Through all this I was concerned we were going to be struck again. I mean, the metal statue of Lafayette was right there! They say lighting doesn't strike in the same place twice, but who knows if that's really true?
The towel arrived, and we were able to get the chests of the younger people dry enough for the AED pads. We applied two shocks first to the woman, then the young man. We got his pulse back quickly. The woman's came back as well, but it felt much weaker.
EMS arrived shortly thereafter. We got all four patients on the transport, and they were transferred to the hospital.
The whole experience had taken 14 minutes.
At the time, I felt confident that the young man was going to survive. We're taught that lightning bolt strikes are survivable if you can shock someone quickly. He also got pretty good CPR. But the next day I was watching the news and learned that he had passed away. So, of course I was thinking the worst about the others as well.
But a week and a half later, I learned that the young woman had been discharged from the ICU. She was the only one who made it. Her name is Amber, and we got connected through a reporter. About 2 weeks later, I invited her to the White House. I took her to the Oval Office. I met her mom and dad and husband, and we had dinner. We've been in touch ever since.
I remember the first time we talked on the phone, Amber said something along the lines of, "This sucks. Obviously, I was not planning for any of this to happen. But I also think there's something good that could come from this."
I was so surprised and happy to hear her say that. I had something similar happen to me when I was a teenager ― caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I tried to intervene in a gang fight in my neighborhood. I thought a kid was going to get killed, so I jumped in, imagining I could save the day. I didn't. They broke a bunch of my bones and I was in the hospital for a bit.
I remember thinking then that my life was over. But after some time, I found a new perspective, which was: Maybe that life is over. But maybe this could be the beginning of a new one. And maybe those things that I've been afraid of doing, the dreams that I have, maybe now I'm actually free to go after them.
I told Amber, if there are things that you have been waiting to do, this could be the time. She wants to be an international human rights activist, and she is kicking butt in a graduate school program to begin on that pathway. It's been really cool to watch her chase this dream with way more vigor than she had before.
I think we bonded because we've gone through ― obviously not the same thing, but a similar moment of being confronted with your own mortality. Realizing that life can just shatter. And so, while we're here, we might as well go for it with all the force of a person who knows this could all disappear in an instant.
It was an extremely humbling moment. It reaffirmed that my life is not about me. I have to use the time that I've got on behalf of other people as much as I can. What is my life about if not being useful?
Alister Martin, MD, MPP, is an emergency medicine physician and faculty at the MGH Center for Social Justice and Health Equity at Harvard Medical School. He is also the founder of Get Waivered, a campaign aimed at transforming EDs nationwide into the front door for recovery for patients with opioid addiction.
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Cite this: MD Rushes In After Lightning Strikes Four People at White House - Medscape - Jun 28, 2023.