Having a live electric current course through your body is a terrifying experience not many people survive. Despite sustaining serious burns, 22-year-old Samantha Richards lived to tell her harrowing story.
It happened a week before my senior year of high school. I'd gone over to a friend’s house to hang out with him and another friend, and the three of us sat on the front porch in our hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, talking and trying to make the best of the scorching 90-degree weather.
At one point, my friend and I got into an argument and decided to take the conversation to the side of the house, where we could talk it out privately. As we went back and forth, I looked down at my phone. My friend fidgeted with his pocketknife, scraping it along the bricks on the side of the house as we leaned against the wall.
That was the last thing I remember before I suddenly blacked out.
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When I came to, I was on the other side of the street, sitting in the road. I stood up, and though I couldn't see very well, I noticed that the air was cloudy and smoky. Then I saw my friend with the pocketknife sprinting down the street away from the house. I remember being totally puzzled, but I could only concentrate on how thirsty I felt.
I walked back to the front porch, where my friend who lived in the house still was. He shrieked in horror. "Your arm! You have to take your shirt off!" I looked down at my shirt—and I saw that my arm was on fire. After quickly tearing it off (I had a tank top underneath, luckily), I noticed my arm was was burned.
Immediately I asked him, "What does my face look like?" He said it looked fine, but I felt ready to pass out, so I decided to search for water. I wandered to a nearby convenience store and began crying, because I felt so hot and my asthma began acting up and bothering me.
After buying a bottle of water, I called my cousin for help. At the time, I didn’t realize how serious my condition was and that I’d been electrocuted. I was, after all, looking at my phone with my head down, so I had no way of knowing that my friend had made contact with a cable wire—which in turn would shock us both and send electricity coursing through our bodies.
My cousin picked me up, and after 5 minutes in the car, I began feeling excruciating pain—I'd describe it as a series of intense burning and piercing sensations up and down my arm. I took the partially burned shirt I had ripped off earlier and covered my arm with it, holding the water bottle against the skin to cool the burn. Realizing the condition I was in, my cousin decided to head to the hospital.
In the ER, hospital staff and police bombarded me with questions. What happened? Where is the other person involved? I began to have an asthma attack as they cut off all my clothes to inspect my body for burns. When my mom arrived, I was given pain medicine and an IV for my dehydration. Everything seemed blurry.
Then a police officer entered the room and explained what had happened. The officer detailed how my friend began probing the cable wire behind the house. Although we weren’t touching at the time, our bodies had been in close enough proximity that the current went through his right arm then reached me before exiting through my left arm. My friend was in the same hospital, the officer said.
I ended up with mainly second-degree burns, but parts of my arm had sustained third-degree burns. My friend also sustained third-degree burns to his hand and forearm, while his face escaped injury as well. My hair also got a little fried, but thanks to a few things I did before my friend touched the wire, I was otherwise okay. First, because I reflexively covered my face with my arm, my face and chest were uninjured. The fact that I had on layers—a sports bra, a tank top, and a thick T-shirt—shielded me from full-body burns.
The other thing that kept me relatively safe was my quirky fashion sense. Even though it was a hot summer day, I was wearing Uggs. My doctor said the Uggs are what really saved me. If I left the house in my usual summer flip-flops, I would have died, since the plastic can’t absorb and stop electricity the way fur and a thick Uggs sole can. My ridiculous footwear choice, plus the fact that my friend and I weren't actually touching, allowed me to survive electrocution.
I was soon transferred to another hospital that specialized in burns later that day. For two days I felt sleepy, taking morphine for the pain while doctors told me that while most of my burned skin on my arm would fall off, other parts would need to be surgically removed, and I'd probably require skin grafts.
Either way, they told me, my skin would never look the way it did prior to the accident. Once I was back home, I tried to take good care of it as it healed, washing my skin twice a day with baby soap (which soothed the wounds) and applying a fresh bandage. School started, and the burned skin began to fall off. The skin that came in was much pinker than my regular pigment, and it made me self-conscious. I wore a protective sleeve over my arm or long-sleeve shirts to hide it.
When springtime came eight months later, my mom urged me to sit outside and let my pink-pigmented arm get some sunlight. The sun, plus the cocoa butter I rubbed on the skin, seemed to give me my natural color back. In the end, I did not have to get a single skin graft.
It's been several years since the accident, and though I'm healed and healthy, my right arm is still a little discolored, particularly where the current exited my body. (Many people think it's just a birthmark.) At the nursing home where I work as an assistant, I often run into other burn patients. I'll ask them how they were injured, curious to hear about their experience.
The burns on my arm were the only physical health issue that resulted from the electrocution. But following the accident, I had some emotional things to deal with. Mostly I felt very insecure and anxious around electric appliances. If something was unplugged that I wanted to use, I left it alone. I wouldn’t even use an electric blanket.
Gradually that anxiety disappeared, but I'm still very mindful around electricity. If the power goes out in my house, I refuse go downstairs and split the breaker. If my car breaks down, I flag someone down to jump it. Although my life is normal now, I'm still too scared to touch anything with sparks because it brings me back to that summer day.