Author Katherine E. Standefer lives with an insidious horror. She talks about it frankly, almost lovingly, but the implanted cardiac defibrillator was supposed to make her life easier after a rare diagnosis called for the device to be surgically placed into her chest. Then 10 years ago, she experienced “three accidental shocks to the heart,” which has left her with a “nest of snapped off, stripped wires stuck in my right ventricle,” as she put it.
In “Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life,” her intimate memoir about health, illness, and the invisible reverberating effects of our medical system, Standefer recounts the astonishing true story of the diagnosis that upended her rugged life in the mountains of Wyoming and sent her tumbling into a fraught maze of cardiology units, dramatic surgeries, and slow, painful recoveries. As her life increasingly revolved around the internal defibrillator freshly wired into her heart, she became consumed with questions about the supply chain that allows such an ostensibly miraculous device to exist.
“The book opens with me taking three accidental shocks to the heart from my implanted cardiac defibrillator. And that was a moment that it really occurred to me that this device inside me could do more harm in my life than good. I already had had some questions about it. And this moment really tipped the balance because having that 2,000 volts of electricity move through my body while I was awake, as the result of a software error, and receiving almost no empathy from the medical practitioners who I eventually saw at the hospital, it just really changed me and changed my sense of the device being inside me. It had been more of a lifesaving technology, and now it felt more like a predator,” she explained. “I really started asking, what is this inside me? And how can I understand better? This chunk of metal that is a part of my body now. It sounds absolutely bizarre to say it, but I was lying on the ground, looking at the stars, smelling my own burned tissues after I took those shocks to the heart, and I was thinking about supply chain questions. And to pursue those questions, I think, was a way of trying to understand both the fear that I now carried around the technology and also some of my own grief around being in the situation at all. There are questions you can’t really answer by going after them. But following a device across the world is one thing you can do.”
Standefer will take about her book and the journey that it entailed during Thursday’s Authors Uncovered event at the Wilkinson Public Library at 5:30 p.m. Child care and pizza for the kids is available, starting at 5 p.m., for those who want to attend the book talk. Anyone who wants to take advantage of the child care should email adult programs specialist Laura Colbert at [email protected]. Free promo copies are still available for people who sign up online at telluridelibrary.org/events in advance.
Standefer’s questions sent her on a worldwide reporting trip to trace the device’s materials back to their roots like “a dog with a bone,” as the New York Times described her tenacity to chase the story.
From the sterile labs of a medical device manufacturer in southern California to the tantalum and tin mines seized by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a nickel and cobalt mine carved out of endemic Madagascar jungle, Standefer’s “Lightning Flowers” takes readers on a global reckoning with the social and environmental costs of a technology that promises to be lifesaving but is much more complicated.
Deeply personal and sharply reported, Standefer’s book takes a hard look at technological mythos, health care and our cultural relationship to medical technology, raising important questions about our obligations to one another and the cost of saving one life.
Standefer learned a lot about herself and living with the device inside of her, especially in a country with a health care system like America’s, throughout the process of writing the book over the past decade.
“The final situation remains the final situation, which is that I carry this nest of wire in my heart, and I live within a medical system in which I can never rest easy knowing that I will have access to the care I need on the day I need it at a price that won’t ruin my life. And that’s the truth. And I wish that weren’t true, but it is,” she said.
“Lightning Flowers,” Standefer’s debut book was a finalist for the 2021 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice/Staff Pick, and shortlisted for the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Prize from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Her previous writing appeared in “The Best American Essays 2016.” Standefer was a 2018 Logan Nonfiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good and earned her MFA in Nonfiction at the University of Arizona.