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A Flash of Fame For a Good Cause

By Michael Colton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Lightning Lady Lysa Selfon suffered burns when she was struck by lightning at RFK. (Photo by James A. Parcell)
Most people achieve media celebrity these days in unsavory ways: They accuse someone of something. Shoot someone. Pretend to be someone they're not. Have sex with someone they shouldn't.

But Lysa Selfon's modicum of fame came like a bolt out of the sky. She certainly didn't wish for it, or seek it.

No one wants to get hit by lightning at a rock concert.

"I didn't earn it," says the woman now known as "Lightning Girl" to her friends, of all the media attention she's received and the gifts rock stars sent her. "It doesn't feel like mine because I didn't earn it."

But she's trying to make up for that. Weeks after a frighteningly bright and loud surge of electricity singled her out from among 66,000 concertgoers at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, Selfon lingers in the public eye.

There she is on MTV, chatting with the stunning Serena Altschul and looking equally radiant in a powder-blue outfit and makeup that disguises her remaining burns. There she is guest-deejaying on WHFS radio. There she is in an upcoming issue of Teen People magazine, near, presumably, yet another spread on Leo.

Media loves tragedy like misery loves company, but Selfon, 25, is not sharing her brink-of-death story to hog the spotlight or gratify her ego. She has enough concerns to take up her time, with daily doctor visits for her lingering health problems, a pottery store she co-owns in Dupont Circle and a third year of George Washington University Law School beckoning.

But considering that her heart had stopped when she was whisked away from RFK Stadium June 13, Selfon wants to thank the medical professionals who brought her back – and return the favor. She's created the Burning Bush Fund to benefit the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center, where she recovered from the second- and third-degree burns that covered more than 20 percent of her body.

"I wanted a way to say thank you for saving my life," she says. "Nothing ever is adequate, but because I was getting so much attention – because I was struck at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, which was a huge public event because of all the bands, because of the issue, because it was in D.C. and the president was in China – I thought, you know, great, we might as well take advantage of this and try to earn some money." One charity – for Tibetan freedom – has begat another.

As a result of her promotion of the Burning Bush Fund, it's already collected $3,000 (a third of it contributed by WHFS), though it has a long way to go before achieving her goal of $50,000. She's currently negotiating deals to produce benefit CDs featuring local bands or bands from the concert.

Her activities seem more remarkable considering she's still in the midst of her recovery. As she sits in priMUDonnas, her funky, colorful paint-your-own pottery store decorated with flea market furniture and a jukebox, Selfon's wounds are not immediately evident. Her hair is growing back over the seared section of her scalp. A slight redness on her freckly cheek makes her look like just another summer sunburn casualty. But at the top of her white T-shirt and below her shorts, the burns peek out, gnarled and red. She has to wear sunblock outside for at least the next year, as well as a big straw hat, to protect her healing skin.

The burns – the worst of which are on her chest, where the metal underwire of her bra attracted electricity, probably causing her cardiac arrest – are just the beginning of her problems. She has a deviated septum as a result of falling on her face when the lightning struck; she'll have a rhinoplasty next week. The fall also chipped three teeth and mangled her lip. Her balance is screwed up because the lightning blew a hole in her right eardrum: She can't walk alone, because she's "all wobbly like a Weeble." Damaged nerve endings in her arms make it difficult to write and type. Her short-term memory is fuzzy. Energy is fleeting; a morning shower can be so exhausting that she has to lie down.

This is not to say that she's unhappy, or angry, or regretful. Tall, pert, chatty and a little hyperactive, Selfon hasn't lost her vitality in the past agonizing seven weeks. She has no depression or bitterness; she says she's never had a "Why me?" moment. (About 400 Americans are struck by lightning every year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; around 300 survive.)

"Bad things happen to good people and you move on," Selfon, who plans to enter First Amendment law, says with a shrug. "I've always been hurting myself. I got dropped in dance class one time, broke my coccyx. I've had a couple of car accidents, a couple skiing accidents. It's always been a way of life. Some people have illnesses. Some people have family strain. I have accidents."

Her mother, Rosanne, enters the store with a massive lunch of fruits, vegetables and tuna. (Lysa is supposed to eat 3,000 calories a day to keep her energy up.) Rosanne Selfon, who lives in Lancaster, Pa., has been staying with her daughter since the accident. She takes care of her when she's tired or on Percocet, a painkiller, and helps her into the tight spandex shorts and sports bras that are supposed to prevent her burns from scarring.

"So many people expected her to say this cataclysmic change had happened to her, that she's now become a good person," says Rosanne Selfon. "But Lysa has always been an intrinsically very good person."

She's had quite an effect on one of her saviors, John Shaw, a trauma technician at Arlington Hospital. Shaw was standing near Lysa when the lightning struck and immediately came to her aid; he's since remained close with the Selfons, becoming, Lysa says, "an honorary big brother."

"She's a really super-sweet girl," says Shaw, 34, about his new little sister. "It's her nature to be upbeat, strong-willed and strong-minded and outgoing. It amazes me that through all of this media attention she's stayed so grounded."

Selfon has little memory of her first encounter with Shaw. She remembers seeing the Dave Matthews Band perform, then Herbie Hancock. She remembers calling a friend elsewhere in the stadium on her cell phone, which she was still holding when the lightning struck her in the head. It came by surprise, preceding a thunderstorm by several minutes.

The rest had to be filled in by her sister, Amanda, who was by her side at the time. How she lay on the ground with blood trickling out of her mouth. How her pulse stopped for more than five minutes. How the quick response of paramedics saved her.

The next thing she remembers came hours later, when she woke up at Washington Hospital Center and saw her Pennsylvania rabbi and his wife at the foot of the bed. "I remember thinking, 'What the hell are they doing in Washington?' " she says.

The Milarepa Fund, the concert's sponsor, gave her a book of photos of the second day of the concert, which she spent in the hospital. She also has an MTV clip of Sean Lennon announcing to the crowd that day that she was still alive and doing okay. It makes her cringe with embarrassment, as a crowd of thousands cheers for her.

The book is one of many gifts she received, some collected in a scrapbook along with news clippings of her ordeal. There are letters from a prison inmate and a member of the Tibetan Cabinet. She got a generic get-well card from the Clintons – she volunteered on the 1996 campaign, and has a Clinton collage framed and mounted on her apartment wall – but received nothing personal, she believes, because the Tibetan Freedom Concert was too politically touchy.

She has a card signed by most of the festival's participants, though only a few of the signatures are legible. R.E.M sent a note on the back of its set list, along with 10 CDs; the Dave Matthews Band sent T-shirts and CDs; Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam penned a note. The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis visited her in the hospital, and Live, a band from her native Pennsylvania, gave her $1,000 to help cover her medical expenses. Perhaps they felt guilty for playing their hit song "Lightning Crashes" at the concert.

But then there are the Beastie Boys, who helped organize the concert. They signed a card, but that's it. "I love the Beastie Boys," she says, momentarily allowing herself to act a bit spoiled: After all, the Beastie Boys didn't send her a copy of their new album. "It just seems like, well, everyone else thought to do it. And I'm waiting so hard. Waiting so much that everyone was offering to buy me 'Hello Nasty,' and I said, 'Don't buy me it, I'm going to get it from them.' "

An ex-boyfriend proffered a copy – but she's still waiting.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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