'She's a walking, talking miracle': Woman struck by lightning at festival ready to move on

 
 
Updated 9/14/2018 10:57 AM
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  • Brittney Prehn still suffers the effects of being hit by lightning July 20 while attending the Country Thunder music Festival in Wisconsin, but her recovery has come a long way in the nearly two months since.

      Brittney Prehn still suffers the effects of being hit by lightning July 20 while attending the Country Thunder music Festival in Wisconsin, but her recovery has come a long way in the nearly two months since. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Brittney Prehn was talking on her phone when she was hit by lightning July 20 at the Country Thunder music Festival. "That phone probably actually saved my life," she says.

      Brittney Prehn was talking on her phone when she was hit by lightning July 20 at the Country Thunder music Festival. "That phone probably actually saved my life," she says. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Brittney Prehn suffered third-degree burns all over her body after being hit by lightning July 20.

      Brittney Prehn suffered third-degree burns all over her body after being hit by lightning July 20. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Brittney Prehn has paralysis on the right side of her face that may heal over time, as a result of being hit by lightning July 20.

      Brittney Prehn has paralysis on the right side of her face that may heal over time, as a result of being hit by lightning July 20. Rick West | Staff Photographer

Brittney Prehn is used to the stares. And because she can read lips, she knows strangers refer to her as the girl who was hit by lightning.

That she survived the strike not long after midnight July 20, at the Country Thunder music festival in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, is remarkable.

So is how far she has come since.

"She's a walking, talking miracle," says the Woodstock woman's mother, Lisa Anderson Prehn. "She wonders why everybody wants to interview her and people come up to her."

Makeup covers most of her burn scars and the quarter-sized hole in her head has been repaired and is covered by long, dark hair. Sitting at a table on the outdoor patio of a local restaurant, one is hard-pressed to notice anything unusual about the slender 22-year old.

But she is deaf in one ear and has partial hearing in the other. Spinal fluid still leaks from her right ear. The right side of her face is partially paralyzed and her vision blurs at times. Her hips are in constant pain and she wears a brace to keep them in place. Dizziness comes and goes.

Because her body literally is twisted, she can only walk haltingly and slowly for 5 or 10 minutes before pain forces her to sit. Some foods and drinks taste nothing like they did before. She's had three brain bleeds. She can't drive.

"I have good days and I have bad days," she said. "I have good hours and bad hours. Sometimes I don't want to get off the couch I hurt so bad."

And there is more, some of it good but puzzling. Brittney said her learning disability isn't what it was and she can comprehend, read and spell much better. "Especially spelling," she said.

These are things people wonder about and why the media has dogged her family since the strike. It's also why she agreed to meet a reporter at Niko's Red Mill Tavern in Woodstock on Thursday for her first of four interviews.

She is ready to tell her story and move on. In a sense, she is emptying the drawer of curiosity and debunking rumors.

"I don't have three toes -- I have all my toes. I'm not brain dead," she says of social media rumors. "I feel if I dwell on it and think about it too much, I'll never get past it."

A Go Fund Me Page is active and a fundraiser for Brittney featuring three bands is being held from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday, at Niko's on Lake Avenue, just west of Route 47. A $10 donation is suggested.

She'll be there and hopes to stay for the duration. But nothing is certain anymore.

Lisa Devine, who's on the board of the 3,000-member of Lightning Strike & Electric Shock Survivors International support group, said many lightning strike victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They're definitely a different person," said Devine, whose husband was struck 11 years ago and is disabled as a result.

Brittney can describe symptoms she is experiencing for doctors. But they, too, are in uncharted territory.

"Every time we ask them questions they say, 'We don't know how you're alive,'" said Brittney, who soon hopes to be able to cut her speech and physical therapy from four to two times a week. "It's a guessing game."

Brittney has attended Country Thunder since 2013 and was there this year camping with friends. She didn't hear a forecast or see lightning in the area, but sensed a storm coming that Friday night.

"I remember everything up until I got hit," said Brittney, who was using her cellphone to locate a friend when the lightning struck. "That phone probably actually saved my life. It took part of the hit -- a piece of my lightning went away with my phone."

It also blew her boot apart and left her unconscious and bleeding from the ears.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lightning is an underrated hazard that kills 50 and injures hundreds every year. Most victims are in open areas or near a tree, the agency says.

"She was in the wrong place at the wrong time," her mother, Lisa, said.

Prehn initially was taken to Centegra Hospital-McHenry, then flown to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. While in a medically-induced coma, Brittney said her aunt, Angela, who had died two years earlier, came to her.

"She was holding me and rubbing my head like when I was little," says Brittney, tearing up. "She said, 'You have to go home.' I woke up and it was my mom."

Brittney's hearing is getting better and the paralysis lessening. The Woodstock High School grad had been studying special education in college and hopes to continue in about a year.

"I definitely push every day harder and harder. They look up to me. I'm doing it for my sisters," she said of her three siblings, ages 13 to 19.

"I would wish this on no one," she continued. "But I rather it be me than someone with no support system like I have."

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