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A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck By Lightning
Stock image - cover art may vary
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0140179372
ISBN-13: 9780140179378
Publisher: Penguin Books
Release Date: June, 1995
Length: 208 Pages
Weight: 8 ounces
Dimensions: 7.6 X 5 X 0.6 inches
Language: English

A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck By Lightning

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A powerful chronicle of a wounded woman’s exploration of nature and self After nature writer Gretel Ehrlich was struck by lightning near her Wyoming ranch and almost died, she embarked on a painstaking and visionary journey back to the land of the living. With the help of an extraordinary cardiologist and the companionship of her...
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Customer Reviews

  A Stunning Memoir

This stunning book is about a woman who was struck by a bolt from the blue and lived to learn from it--and to teach others what she has learned. As a story, the plot is simple: a woman is walking with her dogs on her Wyoming ranch when she is struck by lightning. Gravely, almost fatally injured, she begins a two-year battle back to health, helped by parents, friends, a doctor, and a dog.

But this almost surreal plot, compelling as it is, is not the most fascinating aspect of this quite remarkable book. What happens when you're struck by lightning? Here is how Ehrlich tells it:

"I woke in a pool of blood, lying on my stomach some distance from where I should have been, flung at an odd angle to one side of the dirt path. The whole sky had grown dark. Was it evening, and if so, which one? How many minutes or hours had elapsed since I lost consciousness, and where were the dogs? I tried to call out to them but my voice didn't work. The muscles in my throat were paralyzed and I couldn't swallow. Were the dogs dead? Everything was terribly wrong. I had trouble seeing, talking, breathing, and I couldn't move my legs or right arm. Nothing remained in my memory--no sounds, flashes, smells, no warnings of any kind...When thunder exploded over me, I knew I had been hit by lightning."

Erlich spent the next months on the brink of death, her nervous system seared almost beyond repair, trying to find a doctor who knew enough about the effects of electrocution to help her heal. That part of her search was facilitated by her parents, who took her to California and located an extraordinarily caring cardiologist who began to work with her. With his help, Ehrlich began to understand the physical consequences of a lighting strike. As a reader, I was fascinated with this aspect of her experience: what happens in the heart, in the brain, and throughout the body when millions of volts of electricity surge through the human system, short-circuiting the delicate human network. Her need to know became so strong that it later led her to witness open-heart surgery, to become a "traveler, a Marco Polo who had arrived in a place so exotic, few had seen it before."

In her effort to satisfy this compelling need to understand and explain, Ehrlich explores the phenomenon from all angles. She studies the thunderstorms "that keep the global circuits going." She talks with others who have been similarly injured and found a growing network of survivors. She attends a conference and listens to the stories of 65 others, many far more disabled than she, all committed to the need to share, to transform society's ignorance about the dangers of electrical shock. Afterward, she reflects on "those humans who had awakened after being hit and became shamans and healers, and wondered what this new life of mine would be, carved from a ruined body and a ruined marriage, and what special passageways I could hollow out as in a labyrinth of dead ends."

Lightning always follows the path of least resistance, Ehrlich says. It certainly struck her when she was most vulnerable. Separated and preparing for divorce, she was about to leave the ranch where she had lived for fifteen years. Her efforts to recover from the lightning strike took her to Santa Barbara. As she points out, it was an uncanny coincidence: the city is named for a woman whose murderer was struck by lightning, and who later became a saint, the protectress of those threatened by lightning and fire. With her was her dog Sam, who had also been struck, and whose devoted love carried her through the darkest hours of the next few years. "The role of supernatural helpers--guides, ferrymen, or harnessed dogs--stands for the guardian who carries the human spirit forward, whether from death back to life or the other way around....Sam is my guide, my Virgil through these never-ending gaps...that seem to lie before me."

Like those others who became "shamans and healers" after their lightning strike, Ehrlich comes to her own awakening, understanding and valuing in new ways the fragile but durable body in which we all live this human life. And for her, as for many of us, it is the writing process itself that becomes the vehicle for enlightenment. If you are looking for a story of true grace under fire, you must read this. It will show you how to go deeply into the experience without being swallowed by it, how to explore the pain without being consumed by it, and how to open the wound and see the beauty of it.

Susan Wittig Albert
for Story Circle Book Reviews

  Read and learn

I chose to read this book simply because I've enjoyed Ehrlich's style and prose previously. I did not expect to learn so much about human physiological response to electrical injuries, and how unknowledgable and unresponsive the medical community is to those persons who suffer such injuries. This is an excellent source book for persons who have suffered electrical injury,for both the description of the vagarities of symptoms, with Medicine's inability to measure such injures by traditional testing, and for the reassurance offered by naming victim support groups. As a medical professional, I have offered this book to several persons who have suffered electrical injury, and it has helped them cope.
  Good Book Club Book

My book group sustained a spirited discussion of A Match to the Heart. Some found Ehrlich's exposition seriously lacking the heart she writes about, while others were satisfied that we weren't going to get to know Dr. Blaine Braniff, cardiologist, any better. All of us appreciated the very fine writing. Ehrlich's intricate metaphoric musings make this a great selection for a book group looking for non-fiction focused on nature, the human body, a little Buddhism, and a dog named Sam
  What a long strange trip...

Four not five because it won't change my life; four not three because I'm happy to own it and suspect I'll be wanting to read it again. Local libraries didn't have a copy within reach, and I was impatient after two people recommended the book to me in two days.

Life = recovery from major injury is like that (like what Gretel describes in the book). My own path involves art, and a lightning strike, and doctors who thought Ativan was appropriate treatment, and a long winding trip back where every stage feels like progress, only until more progress is made.

Lightning changes the way you process the world. That experience is conveyed in the book but it's possible some readers might not recognize that is some of what they're reading.

Agreed, there's not a lot of hard science. That wasn't available in 1994. The book wanders. Forcibly re-wired brains do that. Skim the part that doesn't catch your attention; the topic shifts are generously marked. The book is self-centered. Illness and injury will do that to you. Stories of recovery that trace the reality of how long and slow the journey can be are useful. Match to the Heart may well be a book that gets passed on to friends in need of that knowledge.
  A book about a physical and spiritual journey.

In this book, Ehrlich uses many different techniques that all work together to make a good book. Basic ground rules of writing command us to ?show, don't tell? and keep the reader as involved as possible in the story. In general, Ehrlich uses special techniques where the story of her journey might become too abstract, too metaphysical, or too obtuse, or too personal to sustain us as readers. Here are a few techniques I found interesting.

If I understand Ehrlich's intent, this is a book about a journey. But the journey isn't just a physical journey (Wyoming to California to North Carolina to California then back to Wyoming), it's also a spiritual, religious and emotional journey. In this sense then, this is partly a book about ideas.

Interestingly, Ehrlich does not begin the book with a big set of ideas. She begins in the present tense, a voice and tense of intimacy and immediacy. She places us at the beginning in a dream or a dreamstate she experienced at the moment of the lightning strike. It seems to me, this sets Ehrlich up nicely to deal with the potential problems of a ?talky, head-game? narrative. My guess is she knows she's got a long journey ahead of her, filled with speculation, thoughts, feelings, readings, science facts, and what not, so she looks for devices to keep the narrative grounded and interesting. Her first technique is the present tense opening. Another technique she uses is to concentrate her details on the natural world. Although we learn about the physics of lightning, Ehrlich spends countless paragraphs describing every species of plant and animal one can encounter in California or Wyoming. With such a heavy dose of color, shape, sound and smell details I never encounter the accumulated feeling that I am too much absorbed in the narrator's head.

Ehrlich's attention to the sensory details around her help us trust her as a narrator on subjects we don't understand. We trust her when she tells us how kelp smell, how fish look and feel, how the birds fly, the feeling of snow between her toes. Likewise, when she tells us something about lightning, about it's electrical charge, about the currents it follows, or tells us something about Tibetan philosophy, we believe her. Her credibility as an observer of nature carries over to her explanation of abstract or unobservable phenomenon. This makes the whole story much more believable, richer, and more concrete to us readers.

In one section, Ehrlich talks about a legend she read about a lighting victim always being thirsty. In the next paragraph she switches to a scenic description of her filling water bottles because she's always thirsty. She goes on to cite some more similarities between her situation and the legend she read. This works to her advantage as a credible narrator because now, in other places, I will subconsciously project the description of other legends onto her.

In Chapter 24, Ehrlich comes right out and tells us why the book is structured the way it is. She says it is shaped like a convection cloud, and that inside the narrative would zigzag like lightning. When I read this page, I admit it did make the structure of the book clearer to me, but I have to admit I don't like it. First of all, she says she dreamed this. I don't believe it. It seems incredible that in the middle of this search for peace and health, she would dream about the structure of a book. This bothers me most because, now I doubt all her dreams. When is she really dreaming and when is she dreaming for the convenience of putting something interestingly metaphysical at just the right place in the book.

By contrast, the surgery scene is told mostly in straightforward scene. We hear the dialogue, see the things she sees without too much reflection and very little mysticism. This strikes me as a wise move, because by that point in the book, I needed a break from thinking too hard. It was nice to get a straightforward dose of scene, something fascinatingly interesting, yet at the same time as presented in scene form, it remained very present and accessible to me. I enjoyed just sitting back and watching the show. This let me catch my breath before hurtling into the thicker and thicker mix of narratives coming together at the end of the book.

All in all, Ehrlich pulls off a masterful collection of writing techniques to tell a compelling story.