PEMBROKE — Last week, 15-year-old Dalton Raulerson of Pembroke suited up for his first game as a member of the Pinewood Christian Academy varsity football team.
It marked a remarkable recovery for Raulerson from an incident few at the Evans County school are likely to forget and an aftermath many ascribe to a higher power.
But Raulerson has no memory of what happened a little more than a year ago.
"The only thing I remember that day was waking up to eat at Pembroke Pizza with my mom," he said. "The last thing I remember was her driving me to practice."
Aug. 12, 2009
The lightning bolt that hit Raulerson on Aug. 12, 2009, came from out of the blue on what was otherwise a sunny day.
Keith Wasson is head football coach, athletic director and assistant headmaster at PCA, which has about 530 students and is a Georgia Independent Schools Association powerhouse in a number of sports.
Wasson said there was no warning, no rumble of thunder, no sign of an approaching storm. Instead there was a sudden loud noise and it "felt as if someone had dropped a 100 pound sack of potatoes on my shoulders."
"There were about 70 of us out here at the time," he said. "(The lightning) knocked everybody to the ground. Dalton was the only one who didn’t get up."
Raulerson’s parents, Lawrence and Tonya Raulerson, say Wasson and his assistant coaches acted heroically, doing everything they could to restart their son’s heart and keep it beating until paramedics arrived.
Then Raulerson was taken by ambulance first to Claxton Hospital, then to Memorial Medical Center in Savannah. He spent nine days at Memorial, part of that time in critical condition and a medically induced coma while doctors tried to assess his injuries.
There were plenty.
"He suffered from severe burns on his body caused from the exit points of the lightning, collapsed lungs, severe muscle strain and severe ear damage," Tonya wrote in an e-mail.
Doctors, she said, were quick to "admit they had never seen or heard of a victim Dalton’s age surviving a direct hit of lightning with the extent of his injuries."
But Dalton did more than just survive. Eventually he recovered all but about 25 percent of his hearing. He also worked out all summer so he could play football for the Patriots this fall.
"He actually wanted to come back and play football last year," Wasson said.
Dalton, who stands 5 feet, 8 inches and weights 151 pounds, wasn’t allowed to return to the team. But he played junior high basketball. And he went out again for football this season.
"I love playing sports," Dalton said, "especially football. I have played football for my school since I was in the fifth grade. Now, more than ever, I want to play because I have worked so hard trying to get back into shape."
He also wanted to show that lightning wasn’t going to stop him.
"I think a lot of people thought I would not play this year because of what happened," he said. "A lot of my friends didn’t even want to play last year after they saw what happened to me."
It’s estimated that between 1,000 to 2,000 people worldwide are struck by lightning each year, and around 150 to 300 people die from such strikes — often because their hearts stop and no one is around to administer CPR.
In Dalton’s case, it’s apparent the quick actions of the coaches saved his life.
"God creates miracles through heroes here on earth," Tonya Raulerson said. "Dalton’s coaches are an example of those heroes."
And as news of the lightning strike spread, Dalton and his family found themselves at the center of a lot of attention.
Dalton got hundreds of cards, letters and books while he was recuperating. Gifts included a signed Georgia Southern football, an Atlanta Falcons jersey and tickets to a game, a box of gifts from Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., a jersey from Stratford, the team that participated in summer camp with PCA in 2009, and a trip to meet University of Georgia coach Mark Richt before the LSU game in October.
Dalton understands the reason his story struck such a chord with so many.
"Usually, if someone gets a direct hit from lightning, they don’t live to talk about it," he said. "People tell me all the time I am one of God’s miracles."
He also found himself to be something of a celebrity at school — so much so that during the school’s homecoming, students wore T-shirts and wristbands honoring Dalton.
"When I first returned to school, all my friends treated me like I was someone famous," Dalton said. "They were all so nice to me. I would even have people I didn’t know come up to me and talk to me. It was pretty cool. After a while it kind of got back to normal."
Yet the attention doesn’t seem to have gone to Dalton’s head.
"He’s a great kid," Wasson said. "He’s kind of quiet, doesn’t say a whole lot, but he’s a very dependable, very dedicated kid."
The road back
Dalton said his recovery was hard because "I wasn’t able for a long time to do a lot of the things I could do before the accident."
"I didn’t fully understand what my body had been through at first, so I got irritated when I would try to run or play basketball," he said. "Also, my parents always worried about me doing too much too soon, so I know it was hard for them as well."
Tonya said her son’s injury had "an everlasting" impact on their lives.
"We could never imagine anything as horrible as this incident happening to one of our children," she said. "But it did, and it made us stop and think about all the little things we had taken for granted."
It also made them closer as a family and stronger in their faith, the Raulersons say.
"We feel that God has special plans for Dalton and there isn’t a day that passes where we don’t praise Him," Tonya said.
Wasson said the incident and Dalton’s recovery has had a lasting impact on everyone who witnessed them. "Family, faith, you re-examine your priorities in all phases of life," he said. "It was a miracle, no doubt about it."