“God has given me a second chance”

Local resident struck by lightning; wife saves his life

by Patty Unruh

Few of us go from living our quiet, ordinary lives one day to being the subjects of national media attention the next. Yet that is just what happened to Jerry and Cora Jean Leenheer on Wednesday, July 15, when Jerry, age 71, was struck by lightning.

The couple lives in the rural Robinson Hill area of Jefferson County, just off of Highway 46 near Golden. They have made this their home since 1981 and are friends with many in adjacent Gilpin County.

The Leenheers have been inundated with requests for interviews in the past few days, telling their story on Denver’s Channel 4 and Channel 31 news stations and giving their story on July 21 to the national television program Inside Edition (IE). The story with a happy ending, Jerry noted, “has gone viral.”

The pair was patient and gracious – in other words, just being themselves – throughout more than three hours of telling and retelling their story for IE, posing for photos, and displaying Jerry’s lightning-scorched clothing.

The couple, who celebrated 41 years of marriage this month, held hands as they recounted their ordeal.

Jerry was out trimming trees that day for fire mitigation, accompanied by his dog Josie. “I had two more to go,” he related. “It was not even sprinkling; there was just a small, insignificant cloud. I was the recipient of the first strike.”

The lightning struck the tree he was working on, searing a scar down the trunk to six feet above the ground – about Jerry’s height. It jumped from the tree to the back of Jerry’s head and neck, then traveled to his shoulders, down his arms, and exited through his fingertips, striking the dog, who died but took the blow that otherwise would have gone through Jerry’s legs. The bolt tore off the top of Jerry’s hat, ripped a huge hole out of his shirt, and blew the ends out of his gloves.

It was one of the most unexpected things Jerry had ever experienced. He had no sensation of the hair on his head standing up or of a static charge in the air, which are signs that a lightning strike is imminent. And, he said, the dog would have given him a warning. The storm formed within five minutes or less, and Jerry doesn’t believe there was anything he could have done to avoid being struck.

He said, “I don’t remember how it felt to be struck by the lightning, and I didn’t hear its sound. I was instantly unconscious. Everything went black, and the next thing I knew, Cora Jean was looking in my face and saying, ‘You’ve been hit by a lightning bolt. Help is on the way.’ I was surprised that I didn’t feel worse.”

Cora Jean was in the house tending to chores. She heard thunder and knew that Jerry would be careful, but went to the front window to look for him. Her husband was visible by the trees several yards away on their mountain property, and it appeared to her that he was sitting down. Suddenly, it began to rain and hail, so she got their pickup truck and drove out to where Jerry was, intending to give him a ride back to the house. Then she saw that he was not sitting, but lying down, and she knew something was wrong. Leaving the truck running, Cora Jean hurried to Jerry.

He was lying flat on his back, just staring emptily into space. He had dirt and pine needles on his face and had no pulse. The dog was lying at his head, perpendicular to him and not moving.

“I performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Jerry for 15 minutes, periodically yelling ‘Help! 911!’ and hoping someone would hear and come. I just kept praying that the Lord would send someone. I prayed for the Lord to bring him back.” She took off her moccasins and placed them under Jerry’s head as support.

Finally, a neighbor came driving by slowly. Cora Jean sprinted barefoot up the hill and flagged him down with the news that her husband had been struck by lightning and urging him to call 911. Then she dashed back to do more CPR. After another five minutes, Jerry made some gurgling sounds. Then he began to breathe, rolled over, and sat up.

“I said, ‘Oh God, he’s back! Thank you!’”

As responders arrived, Jerry told his wife, “I guess I owe you my life.”

Amazingly, Cora Jean was never trained in CPR. She just recalled how to do it from things she had heard and read. She also persevered for as long as it took.

Jerry does not recall the ride in the Flight for Life helicopter to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Lakewood, but he learned that the facility contains a Lightning Data Center, with a worldwide panel of professionals in medicine, meteorology, engineering, and photography. They also include as members, individuals that have been struck by lightning, and Jerry was scheduled to tell his experience to the group this week.

Jerry’s doctors performed a full body MRI to check for body damage. All tests were negative. A CAT scan also revealed no broken ribs from the CPR.

“My heart is all right, and my brain will be all right,” Jerry reported. He had burns on his arms and fingers, which were very painful. His right ear was deafened by the strike, but he hopes to regain his hearing.

Jerry was released from the hospital on Monday, July 20. Rest has been difficult, he admitted, because of pain in his arms, fingers, and neck from the burns he received. The lightning bolt caused internal cell damage and swelling. Doctors anticipate a recovery period of about two weeks.

Jerry’s shirt “still smells like fire and brimstone,” he said, and Cora Jean chuckled, “When we got home and he took a bath, the bathroom smelled like fireworks.”

The Leenheers rely on their strong Christian faith at all times, including this crisis. Jerry believes that God prompted his wife to check on him.

“In a sense, I feel like I have been resurrected from the dead. I know God is not finished with me yet. I think about that all the time.”

Cora Jean added, “The Bible verse that has helped me is the one that says, ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.’ The lightning strike was certainly trouble.”

She sees God’s hand in everything that was done for them. For example, her neighbor Caleb Skeen is a volunteer with the Golden Gate Fire Protection District (GGFPD). He had arrived home only five minutes before getting the call of the lightning strike and responded immediately. Other responders included Timberline Fire Protection District, the Jefferson County Sheriff, and American Medical Response ambulance. A deputy sheriff brought the dog to the garage to keep her from scavengers and drove Cora Jean to the hospital. The fire department buried Josie for the Leenheers, erecting a small white cross over her grave.

Jerry was a project manager for the U.S. Geological Survey at the Denver Federal Center for 36 years before he retired. Cora Jean also worked at the Center as an analyst prior to raising their two children, who are now adults. The Leenheers enjoy spending time with their grandchildren and also enjoy singing with the Peak to Peak Chorale. Jerry and Cora Jean also do a lot of bicycling, and one of Jerry’s plans, if the Lord and the doctor are willing, “is to bicycle from the Texas panhandle to the Missouri border in October.”

The IE crew asked the couple what they have taken away from all of this. Jerry responded, “God has given me a second chance. How am I going to live to please him better?” Referring to his wife’s persistence in saving him through CPR, he advised, “Do what you can do, and keep at it.”

Cora Jean agreed. “If he went, at least I wanted to know that I’d done all I could.”

She concluded, “We don’t know what God’s purpose is in all this publicity, but if thousands of people can hear our story and hear us give glory to God, that means a lot.”

This has been a dangerous year for lightning. Jerry is one of about two dozen people who have been struck by lightning in Colorado so far. This past Friday, July 17, a newlywed Denver couple fell victim to a lightning strike while hiking in Chaffee County just six days after their wedding. The bride became the first lightning fatality in Colorado this year, according to a report. The odds of being struck by lightning are one in 10,000.23232

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