Aftershock

 

Support for Survivors of Electrical Burns

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Jim Thompson of Dryden, Ontario, has significant disabilities. He lives with pain, fatigue, memory loss, mobility problems and personality changes. But one of the worst problems with which he has had to cope is not included among his disabilities. It’s the problem of the skepticism he has faced since his accident.

Jim was electrocuted on the job (as a lineman for Ontario’s Hydro One power company) in the spring of 2000. For one brief, life-changing moment, 115,000 volts of energy surged through his body. On the surface he did not appear seriously harmed. But on the inside, the accident left Jim with profound, permanent effects.

Last February, Jim and his wife Denise stood before an audience of health and safety professionals and explained, poignantly, how they’d been let down by the system. Jim and Denise described his accident and the aftermath, the disabilities he has experienced, the impact they have had on his family and career. But most of all, they spoke of the humiliation, disbelief and threats they encountered as they navigated their way through the health-care system and injured worker services.

Glen Wright, then chair of both Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and Hydro One, sat quietly, taking in every word Jim and Denise had to offer. He resolved that something had to change, and began a process with staff within both organizations to address the issues more proactively. Then, following further discussion with Jim and Denise, he contacted the Canadian Abilities Foundation (CAF) to capitalize on the work that EnableLink, CAF’s website, was already doing with people with disabilities and injured workers. As a result, CAF is pleased to announce a new message board, as well as an online chat, both dedicated to issues surrounding electrical burn survivors. (Please see the EnableLink announcement in this section.)

Historically, little has been known about electrical burns and their effects and treatment. Medical specialists in the field are also relatively rare. Consequently, electrical burn survivors with no outwardly visible lasting injuries get the impression that the health care system or workers’ compensation boards think that their disabilities are “all in your head” – literally adding insult to injury. And for those who fail to receive critical treatment immediately after electrical injury, long-term effects can be unnecessarily severe.

However, thanks to Jim Thompson and other electrical burn survivors, the future may be looking brighter. When Jim and his wife Denise began to speak publicly about their experiences, it set the wheels in motion for an increase in awareness and support across the province of Ontario, and hopefully across the country.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE

EDUCATING THE WSIB
Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) workers will have an opportunity to gain more insight into the care of electrical burns, including what a burn survivor might experience and how best they might be reintegrated into the work force. Arrangements are being made to receive speakers such as Dr. Joel Fish, Medical Director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. Learning more about electrical shocks and burns will provide WSIB staff with “a better understanding when they make adjudicative decisions on the file,” says Brenda Perkins-Minegast, WSIB’s Manager of Specialty Programs.

EXPERTISE FOR DOCTORS
Brian Tink is the manager of health, safety and environment at Hydro One, Jim Thompson’s employer at the time of his accident. Tink explains that as he got to know Jim, he quickly realized that at the root of his problems was “the medical community’s lack of understanding about the injury type. Jim doesn’t look injured – that’s part of the problem,” says Tink. He points out that health and safety workers take their cue from doctors, and a medical report that indicates an individual is ready to return to work is often taken at face value. Tink is enthused about the changes in which he and others have been involved that will make a real difference to people like Jim.

The North Network is a video conferencing infrastructure that provides specialized medical support such as counselling and diagnostic tools to physicians in remote Ontario communities. Through this network, specialists at the Ross Tilley Burn Centre make their expertise available to doctors treating burn patients in other parts of the province. They can also be contacted by Criticall – another physician service. By dialing a phone number, emergency-room doctors get in touch with specialists who can answer questions about particular injuries or illnesses. When a severe electrical injury occurs, doctors can have immediate, real-time communication with electrical burn specialists such as Dr. Fish.

Now, thanks to Hydro One funding, the availability of this expertise is getting a higher profile. A new videoconferencing studio in the burn centre will make it easier for Dr. Fish and his colleagues, Dr. Rob Cartotto and Dr. Massey Beveridge, to connect to others quickly through the North Network. This fall will also mark the launch of an awareness campaign to inform doctors that this help is available, and that electrical injuries are unique. “A lot of injuries are internal, and don’t present for three or four weeks, and by that time it’s too late,” says Tink. Although many effects of the burn are permanent, “There are some things you can treat immediately.”

SHARING PATIENT DATA
Judy Knighton, clinical nurse specialist, describes the Ross Tilley Burn Centre where she works as “the busiest burn centre in Canada.” Even so, however, the road to understanding electrical injuries is long and arduous. “We do not have a critical mass of people to study, and not everyone has the same constellation of symptoms,” she says. Often the centre compares notes with American hospitals, but up to now there has not been a formal collection of data such as the project now being put in place under another Hydro One initiative. Information will be compiled about electrical injury patients, clinical diagnosis and treatment.

Previously, “we didn’t study it as methodically as I think we’re going to have the opportunity to do,” says Knighton, adding that it will hopefully lead to an increase in knowledge and improved treatment in this area. They may, for example, be able to identify symptom patterns among different patients, especially over the long term, that will help them decide on the most promising therapies for these patients.

It may not mean a cure for everyone, says Knighton, “but at least we’ll be together on this and pooling resources.”

HEALTH AND SAFETY
Other initiatives include the possibility of working with St. John’s Ambulance to update first-aid training, and continuing to promote safety awareness among Hydro One’s own employees. “Most of our efforts are to try to prevent accidents in the first place,” says Brian Tink, pointing out that a vast majority of electrical injuries occur among workers in the field.

SURVIVOR SUPPORT ON ENABLELINK
Visit EnableLink at www.enablelink.org to connect with electrical burn survivors and those who treat or support them.

Message Board
A new message board has been launched for electrical injury survivors to post questions and share their stories. Visit www.enablelink.org, click on “Message Boards,” and then select “Electrical Burn Survivors.”

Online Chat
On October 15, EnableLink will host an online chat for anyone interested in discussing electrical burns and their effects, as well as new initiatives to increase awareness and improve treatment for electrical burn survivors. Everyone is welcome to this chat, which will be help from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. ET in the Main Chat Room on EnableLink. Join us on October 15 in order to support and learn from each other. Visit and go to “Chat” and enter the Main Chat Room to participate.

WEBSITES
The Internet is an important way for survivors of electrical injury to make contact with each other and offer peer support.

Lightning Strike & Electrical Shock Survivors International, Inc.
http://www.lightning-strike.org/

Lightning Strike Survivor
http://www.wvboltz.com/

Electrical Safety Forum
http://www.electrical-safety.com

What to Look for in 2004:

WORLD CONFERENCE
Orlando, Florida, will be the site of the 14th annual world conference for lightning strike and electrical shock survivors. E-mail jimsegneri@lightning-strike.org for more information.

LIGHTNING SAFETY WEEK
June 20-26, 2004

JIM AND DENISE SPEAK OUT FOR CHANGE

Last February, Jim and his wife Denise stood before an audience of health and safety professionals… this, in part, is what they had to say.

JIM RECALLS…

Our crew had been replacing structures on a 115,000-volt line in a remote location, accessible only by helicopter.

The crew said that they heard me scream out and that my head snapped back violently and was bent over backwards until my head almost hit my ankles. All I remember was it was like I was floating. Bright yellow was all I could see. I could hear the fellows yelling out.

I realized I was being electrocuted and my first thoughts were, We’re not gonna finish the structure, and Why are my hands and legs bubbling? There was no pain, just sensations.

When my eyesight began to return, the pain started. They gave me first aid and called for the helicopter to take me out. My whole body felt like it was on fire and there was a very powerful taste of sulfur in my mouth.

My burns were minor in nature and the least of my worries, but it was the path the electricity took and the violent nature of it which caused my injuries.

Strange symptoms occurred, pain was from everywhere, my mind was mush and as time passed I got worse. But Hydro One and WSIB said I was fine and should return to work immediately, so benefits were cut off. No doubt I was thought of as a liar. Doctors said electricity is harmless…

We are now working hard to change the views of Hydro, WSIB and the medical community, and we have made some progress. Hopefully, in the near future, treatment will be available to those who have had electrical contact.

DENISE SPEAKS…

I am not a public speaker, but a wife and a mother of two young boys. We have two sons: Mitchell, 9 years of age, and Cole, 5. For 12 years, I have been a happily married woman.

Most wives occasionally wish our husbands were a little bit different. I never could have imagined that this would come true – in the worst way possible. Within 24 hours, I found myself married to a man who was completely and permanently changed.

Thursday, March 23, 2000, will never be forgotten. That day has changed Jim’s and our family’s quality of life forever.

Before March 23, Jim was a very active, hardworking, healthy individual. Jim’s life was being a lineman; he loved the challenges, hard work, adventures and the special bond with his co-workers. During his career he was rarely home, working all night, out of town, on call and working trouble calls.

Before March 23, Jim was very active with his sons, wrestling on the floor at night, playing soccer and baseball, fishing, hunting and camping with them. Now any physical sport is like playing Russian roulette. He could spend the next week in bed, in agony, for the slightest wrong move.

When our oldest son wanted to take up downhill skiing as a family sport, we did. But Jim could not. That’s when I realized our family had become three instead of four.

A very good friend of ours didn’t realize how bad Jim was until their annual father/son hunting trip. Russ Wesley said, “Jim followed us in his truck, videotaping all the kids on their four-wheelers. When we got to where the trail narrowed, I stopped to let the kids go first. When I looked back after the last boy went by, I saw the look on Jim’s face. That was the moment it hit home with me. Here I was, taking my best friend’s kids on their first hunting trip, with their dad sitting there, knowing he should be with them. But there was no way he could be. That was a look I have seen several times since.”

I realize that there are a lot of individuals and families out there who are worse off than we are. My children have a father who can hug them and tuck them in at night, and I have a husband, who I am very grateful for – every day.

Jim stood before you today with no visible injuries. Well, that’s the problem. The injuries are not visible, and with no known medical expertise in Canada, his suffering continues –with ridicule and disbelief.

Several days after Jim’s accident, he was flown to Toronto for “medical care.” Well, there were no X-rays, MRIs, nothing except fresh bandages, despite his insistence that something was very wrong with him, with especially his neck and back. The doctor simply stated that it must have been just a static shock, because no one could live through that voltage, and he couldn’t see how a shock could injure his spine. After the 15-minute examination, we flew back home, Jim bleeding and in a lot of pain, and me very confused and angry.

Forced to find medical data himself, he found a website at www.lightning-strike.org with worldwide members and ties to some very well-known doctors.

All the symptoms he was experiencing were already well documented by hundreds of others. This was like medicine in itself. He realized he was not alone and he was not losing his mind.

The harassment from Hydro One and WSIB was unrelenting. He received constant phone calls, surprise visits at home, threats of job loss, accusations of faking the injury, cutting off benefits, etc., etc. The list is long.

In a lot of pain, Jim returned to work and tried to follow what was requested of him. And where did that get him? Nowhere… except for more pain and frustration and possibly more permanent damage, mentally and physically.

It has been almost three years since Jim’s accident, and he’s not the husband he was.

The new husband I have today tires easily, has memory problems and is very short-tempered – not to mention, in pain all the time. Basically, there is never a dull moment in our lives, from having to rush him to emergency, when I can make him go, to wondering who he’ll be today.

We are still adjusting to our new life. But I hope that others can learn from what we have endured. We are stronger than we ever thought possible. Most people are, they just never realize it until an accident such as the one affecting our family causes them to have to rise to the occasion.

 

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