Review of Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life by Katherine E. Standefer

Book cover of Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life by Katherine E. Standefer. Cover is deep blue. Letters are red. There is a silhouette of a face in profile, created by a system of red branches and flowers, veined in white.

When I first read the description of this memoir, all I could think was “This is my kind of book.” Katherine Standefer writes about the connection between the failures and successes of medicine in the United States, the ethics of mining and technology, environmentalism, and our flawed approach to death all in one beautiful, poignant book using her near-encounters with death, and living with the possibility of death, as the touchpoint. 

The desire to read her book continued as I moved through her rich but never indulgent prose. Each of Standefer’s words is important and the personal experiences in the pages weave together with descriptions of mining operations and medical procedures, battles with insurance companies, and the exploitation of people and resources around the world. 

Her book illustrates that the personal is, indeed, political, but also shows how intertwined the entire global network is. Borders truly are imaginary, because everything we do here impacts those on the other side of the planet— and those down the street from us. 

The book moves from Kati’s diagnosis of congenital long QT syndrome and treatment struggles, to her future as she travels to Madagascar to learn how the material she now carries in her body came to be there, and back to her past as she fights for her life: both the life she imagined and the life she now lives with her illness. 

When she travels to Madagascar and visits mines and an ore preparation plant, to understand and witness the processes involved in extracting metals from the earth and turning them into something usable. Solvents, known carcinogens, explosive and toxic, are used to process the slurry rested from the rock.

The alchemy of making pure metal is one of taking the world apart. 

Lightning Flowers, 78. Katherine E. Standefer

The taking apart of the world cannot be undone, no matter how many conservation and “offset” measures the companies take–voluntarily or, more likely forced by governmental regulations and consumer conscience. In many cases, as you’ll see if you read her book, the conservation efforts cause more damage or really do nothing to repair what was done. 

Taking apart the world, it turns out, also involves taking apart communities, cultures, forests, ecosystems, and carefully developed ways of life. People are secondary to the profit goals of mining companies, and the technology goals of computer, phone, car, and medical technology companies that use the metals that go into batteries that go into our phones, earbuds, etc., and that are mostly used in single-use products. 

For some products we can easily see that they aren’t worth the trade off. Yet, when it comes to Standefer’s Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD), a device that is supposed to save her life, the question becomes more complex. Single-use when it comes to medical devices seems much more justified than the planned obsolescence of phones, computers, and earbuds. 

For medical devices, we have to consider sterility, reliability of the device, the efforts required to remove and replace a device (surgery, recovery, disruption to life, risk of infection and sepsis). Some of these concerns are justification for single-use devices, but others (the struggles of surgery) should encourage more efforts to ensure that devices will outlast the patient, and to find alternatives to the devices. 

Kati’s description of taking the world apart runs parallel to taking her own body apart in a way that evokes the deep connection that exists between human bodies and the planet we inhabit. The negligence of her doctors also runs parallel to the corporate negligence when it comes to dismantling the earth and the ecosystems (human and nonhuman) that inhabit it. The way human civilization has moved through time, using “progress” as the goal, and using the amassing of capital as the main defining feature of progress, is perfectly paralleled in the microcosm of Kati’s own body and experiences in medicine. Her doctors seem to see no problem with the idea of embedding technology in her body, nor do they seem interested in exploring alternatives beyond what they are familiar with. 

Some of the most frustrating moments, as a reader, and I’m sure multiplied infinitely for Kati, are the simple refusals of doctors to hear her, or validate her concerns. Her first doctor put her on beta blockers, and told her to simply adjust to her completely changed life. A surgeon wanting to do a procedure he did not have the experience for, without care for her welfare. The heavy relief when, at the Mayo Clinic, she is asked for her whole story and actually listened to. 

This is what much of the book comes to: the refusal to listen because of the narrow frame of reference we inhabit, the narrow definitions we’ve assigned to things like “health” and “progress” and “reasonable risk.” The choices people and corporations have decided are worthwhile for development, for economic gain, and for our limited definition of progress. 

Kati asks the difficult questions about what is necessary when it comes to medicine and technology and invites us to question our definitions of health, life, and death. A beautifully and powerfully crafted book you will be glad you read.

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