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Wednesday, May 27, 2009 12:20 pm

High-octane intervention

Parole officer’s near-death experience sends him searching for “the gas-pump lady”

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Jeff Hart stands in the spot where, on May 15, he was struck by lightning.
The bolt burned a hole in the T-shirt he was wearing.

From the kitchen table where he was eating supper with his family, Jeff Hart saw the clouds change direction. They rolled east, then shifted suddenly west, like they had just decided to make a U-turn. Maybe we should go down to the basement, Jeff thought.

While his wife Julie helped their daughter Bella out of her highchair, Jeff stepped outside to get a better view of the Auburn sky. A moment later, Julie headed toward the front door to check on her husband, and as she crossed the living room, she heard the television weatherman mention “deadly cloud-to-ground lightning.” Just then, Julie heard a loud crack.

She couldn’t see Jeff; he must have gone around the corner of the garage, she thought. But he reappeared at the end of the sidewalk, looking slightly dazed, with his right hand tucked oddly into his T-shirt.

“Why are you posing like Napoleon?” Julie joked. Ignoring her question, Jeff proceeded slowly toward the house. Once inside, he pulled his hand out of the fresh rip in his shirt and stared at his palm. “I just got struck by lightning,” he said.

The singed hole in Jeff’s tee suggested that the lightning had entered around his rib cage. Julie — a physicians’ assistant by profession — knew instantly that Jeff could have a heart attack, but when she checked his pulse, she heard no arrhythmia. Her next concern was the possibility of tissue damage around the exit wounds, and within a few minutes, those emerged as a pair of nickel-size blisters on his torso. Yet Jeff didn’t seem to be in any pain. He told Julie that he felt too jittery and itchy to sit down, but didn’t want to go to the emergency room. She phoned one of the medical doctors she works for at Springfield Clinic to persuade Jeff that he needed to get to Memorial Medical Center.

At the hospital, Jeff was immediately admitted to the intensive care unit. As all test results came back normal, however, Jeff became more of a host than a patient, posing for the parade of doctors who stopped by to snap cell phone pics of this guy who had survived a lightning strike. The next morning, he was discharged and sent home.

That was Saturday, May 16. On Sunday, May 17, Jeff felt well enough to man his usual spot behind the drum kit with the band at First United Methodist Church. Other than sore ribs and scabs on the small exit burns, he's now feeling fine. Jeff fervently believes the key to his survival was an encounter he had on May 14, the day before his electrifying experience.

Jeff, 41, works for the Illinois Department of Corrections as a field supervisor over a four-county squad of parole officers. On May 14, he stopped at Thornton’s on Mound Road in Decatur to refuel his squad car. As he leaned against the vehicle, he exuded the prickly persona that comes naturally with an IDOC-logo polo and an exposed service weapon. “Diligence,” he calls it. “I will not even be on my cell phone if I’m pumping gas.”

He noticed a woman peeking at him from the other side of the pumps, and fixed his gaze in her direction. They made eye contact, and the woman — a “well-dressed soccer-mom type,” Jeff says — stepped toward him shyly, like she was being propelled by some invisible hand.

“Officer, this is going to sound strange,” she said, “but I feel led to pray for you.”

“Sure, pray it up,” Jeff responded. “I’ll take all the prayer I can get.”

The woman placed one hand on his shoulder and prayed for a minute or two, asking God to bestow blessings on him, protect him in the course of his duties, and place angels around him. As she walked back to her van, the woman twice told Jeff, “God bless you.”

He didn’t notice the make or color of her van (“maybe charcoal?”), he didn’t get her license plate number, and he can’t even describe what she looked like. “I make a horrible eye witness in this case,” he admits. But neither he nor his wife Julie can get this woman out of their minds.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time Jeff told me about it,” Julie says. “But on the way to the emergency room, all he could talk about was ‘that woman praying for me.’ ”

Jeff and Julie describe themselves as Christians, so deeply involved in their faith and their church that Jeff has resolved to enter seminary after he retires from IDOC. This experience with the stranger at the gas pump followed a day later by a lightning strike further fortified their belief.

“I do believe in the power of prayer,” Jeff says. “Only fools believe in coincidence when it comes to spiritual things, and this was just a case in point. I would really just like to thank her.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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