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Utah boys who survived lightning strike adjust to new lives

Published October 4, 2011 12:39 pm

Tragedy • High schoolers forced to grow up fast.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A storm looms on the red rock horizon, but only a light drizzle is falling. No one runs to the cars in the parking lot for cover.

On the football field at Snow Canyon High School, a cheer goes up from the crowd.

Alex Lambson and Dane Zdunich linger beneath the tree where they always wait for a ride home. Alex, a senior who aspired to serve in the military elite, and Dane, a junior with a passion for science, chat and text message friends.

It's Oct. 5, 2010, and they have no idea how much their lives are about to change.

In the next frame of the school's surveillance video, it happens in a split second: a bright flash fills the screen and the boys fall to the ground.

A year later, the two are dealing with the repercussions from the day they were struck by lightning. They battle bodies that are forever changed, learning to navigate both their daily lives and the national attention heaped on them.

Alex, now 19, has come to the realization that he is physically disabled — difficult for anyone, but a particularly hard truth for a young man who aspired to military service and now can't pick up a pen.

Dane, now 17, hasn't had as many physical repercussions, though he's struggling to gain weight and strength. But he lost his father three months after the strike, and the spectre of future health problems haunts the fringes of daily life.

Alex has lost fine motor skills in his hands, meaning he can grip a cup but can't hold smaller objects. He also battles daily pain throughout his back, shoulders and upper arms because his muscle fibers essentially melted together during the strike.

Doctors are hopeful those muscle fibers will regrow in time and the pain will dissipate. He had to undergo excruciating treatment to restore feeling to several nerves that had stopped firing, but that is no longer an issue. He can walk and run, though balance can be a challenge, and his left side will always be a bit weaker than his right due to a stroke that occurred after the lightning strike.

After weeks in the hospital, Alex didn't return to Snow Canyon High School to finish his senior year but rather graduated by completing subject packets from his school. But, he said, he ended up with a lot of spare time each day "because those packets weren't designed for a 4.0 student."

He quickly found that he had talent in digital film editing, and he is physically capable of navigating the mouse.

"I notice a lot of teens just waste time goofing around on the Internet," he said. "If you have a lot of time to kill, find a hobby or talent that you can monetize."

In addition to redirecting his military dreams to visual editing, he's also had to ask for help, something that has never been a strength. His younger brothers help him with wrappers and jars. But he said he also spends much less time holed up in his room playing video games and more time talking with his brothers, ages 15 and 12, and his mom.

"Basically it made me realize how very fragile life is," Alex said. "It's kind of weird. You know how when you're falling asleep, your mind wanders. I used to think about the people who were in the Twin Towers who just went to a normal day of work and ended up dead or badly injured. Then something like that ended up happening to me. It made me realize how easy it is for everything to change."

Alex has had to accept massive changes, which was hard for someone who was so rigid he needed everything in his room to be in a specific place.

"I sucked it up and went to college," he said. "The transition from high school to college is a big deal anyway, but going from high school to college crippled was huge."

He is taking a full-time load, and has several accommodations, such as using his finger to write on a whiteboard for math and computer programs that let him dictate his papers rather than type them. He depends heavily on his iPad, which, unlike a typical keyboard, has digital keys that require no strength to push.

His mother, Kaleen Talley, said she cried as much during her son's first week of college as the week after the strike. She had held out hope that an extra month or two in the hospital or extra physical therapy sessions would return her son to his former physical self, but she has had to accept her son's limitations.

"Now we celebrate that he can move his pinkie," she said. "He's a miracle, considering what happened, and he's doing amazing — he's in college, he's learned to drive, he can run, he can walk, and we're ecstatic. Still the reality, it's just sad."

The differences in the boys' outcomes, though, hasn't affected their friendship.

"It sucks for both of us," Alex said. "It's not like either one of us got off easy."

Dane's pancreas gave him significant trouble for months after the strike, which made eating and absorbing nutrients difficult. Recent tests, however, have shown he's back within normal ranges, said his mother, Leslie Broderick.

Dane spent only a week in the hospital, but the first three months of recovery after the strike were overwhelming.

"He was not healed yet, and he was not himself," Broderick said. "There was a lot of care for him at home to get him back to school, and all the physical therapy he had to endure."

His father had put off classes he was taking to become a registered nurse to care for his son, and just as Dane re-entered high school in January, he died.

"That sent us all tumbling. It was devastating," Broderick said. "His dad was a huge part of the recovery, and that was a huge setback for him."

Dane, though, approaches the past year with as positive an attitude as he can.

Every day, he walks by the tree where he was struck.

"I look at it kind of strange — not sadly, not afraid, not traumatized, but in a thoughtful manner," he said. "I see that and think about the experience."

But, he says, it's mostly just school as usual, with a heavy load of Advanced Placement classes that have required the teen who scored a 33 on the ACT (and a perfect 36 on the science portion) to focus heavily on school when he's not bagging groceries at the local Lynn's grocery store.

"Even the slightest glimmer of a memorable event is erased by the torrent of mundane events that have happened there," he says of the high school experience.

He says he's also taken a more adult approach to life.

"Before, I considered things with less weight. I had a lesser understanding of things," he said. "Before, the amount of people I affected was tiny as compared to now. People across the nation and in some parts of the world have heard our story. I think it's added a certain depth that wasn't there before."

The one good thing, he says, that has come from the strike was that it helped him find his voice.

"The ability to have a voice and have that voice have some weight, to be a voice to promote good things is a very good and very great thing that came as a result of the strike," he said.

Alex agrees, and together they are hosting Dane and Alex Give Back Wednesday to celebrate their "second birthday" of Oct. 5 as a fund raiser for the American Heart Association and to launch a CPR Challenge, which will start with eight area high schools competing to get the most people CPR-certified.

"It's really the name of the event sums it all up. The community was so supportive when we were going through our trials and tribulations," Dane said. "It's fitting because CPR is what saved us and it's fitting for us to give back."


Twitter: @sheena5427 —

Dane Alex and Give Back Event

Meet Dane Zdunich and Alex Lambson in person Wednesday at an informal community picnic fundraiser. All proceeds will be donated to the CPR training program at Dixie Applied Technology College's American Heart Association branch.

When • 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday

Where • Vernon Worthen Park, 300 S. 400 East in St. George

Donations • Food provided by Great Harvest Bread Co. for a $5 donation






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