Spring 2021

Lightning Flowers

My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life

The debut book by Katherine E. Standefer ’14, “Lightning Flowers,” tells the story of the author’s troubled relationship to her own implanted cardioverter defibrillator within the context of the American health care system, and her global journey to understand what it costs to save one Western life. “Lightning Flowers” was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice/Staff Pick. Standefer’s writing has also appeared in Best American Essays 2016. She teaches for Ashland University’s Low-Residency MFA.

Lightning Flowers Excerpt

In the days after the shocks, I slept in fits. I bent over my scorched heart. I stood before the mirror, staring at my flawless skin. There were no marks. If I had been struck by lightning, my chest might have borne the thin branched burns where electricity followed water in the body. But this was an internal strike, a direct hit. No lightning flowers spread like pink trees across my breasts.  

Now the anger mounted. My arms were sore from the spasms brought on by electricity, my breasts raw down deep. “It was a misfire,” I kept saying aloud, to those who were there that night and those who weren’t. But in truth, it was not a misfire; the device had done exactly what it was programmed to do. Even though I had been told by Dr. Oza that I would not be shocked unless my heart rate reached 200 beats per minute for six beats or more, there had been some other box checked in my software: “If any.” 

If any condition for action is met, rather than if all conditions are met. In theory, the ICD was advanced enough to know whether my heart’s morphology was normal. It shouldn’t have been confused by a heart rate pushed high by exercise, a totally normal heartbeat unfolding at 170 beats per minute. But if any. My heart rate had stayed above 170 for more than three minutes, the product of a slightly out-of-shape grad student careening around a soccer field in her long underwear and old cleats, and that, apparently, was also a condition specified inside the device’s settings. As I watched the guy on the other team who had fallen get up, the battery generated 820 volts of electricity, the capacitor holding it back until it was fully amassed. Then it discharged into the center of my heart.

In the weeks afterward, I stood in coffeeshops expecting to be shocked; I rode my bike expecting to be shocked; I warned my first-year writing students of my condition, in case something were to happen at the head of the room. Never mind that the settings had been fixed. I could feel the sensation saved up in my tissues, the burning that would come, the sickening thump, the scream. Now I understood there existed in me a machine I could not control, subject to both human and mechanical errors. The part of me that never wanted the device had been reignited and burned steadily. After sepsis I had recognized, finally, that having an ICD implanted did not exempt me from death; after the shocks, I saw for the first time that the ICD could as easily kill me as save me. The promise of being a cyborg was hollow.

New Reflections, As Shared with Arizona Alumni Magazine

“Lightning Flowers” is the story of brutal things happening in my body. The book tethered me to the earth, and I felt very clearly that this was why I was here. It became my will to live, my center of gravity.

When you live in relationship to death in the way that I have, you understand it will never be possible to prevent anyone’s death. You can prevent death in one moment, but death will still come. And our culture has lost that death is the source of regeneration. There’s no garden without compost. There’s no forest without the layer of leaves and pine needles that fall, that molder over the winter. 

Health is being in alignment with what is. You can be dying and still be in health. You can actually heal toward death. I wonder what we would look like as a collective if there was more room within our systems and within our personal ways of viewing ourselves, within our ecology, for allowing things to be beautiful and powerful exactly as they are.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we are collectively in a death initiation process. The question, for all of us, is no different from the question for the person who gets into their car to go to work and learns their mother has Stage 4 cancer and suddenly she is gone very quickly. These tragedies are always present and always available to us. And how do we live in the face of them?

There aren’t many people, elders, around to show us how to live in the face of things like death. In an individualistic culture, it’s hard to find the beauty in death. Part of what collective cultural death stories or death rituals do is remind us that death is cyclical, it’s ever-present, it’s fundamentally something that happens to a collective.

When we as a collective have touchstones for attending to the way people come and people go, and seasons come and seasons go, and things are rotting and then things are fertile, then it makes sense. And then it’s possible to live with it. When we are not collectively oriented to an experience larger than ourselves, communities larger than ourselves, we get lost in it. 

I am interested to see to what extent our culture finds its feet beneath it, to what extent our culture can reconnect with the touchstones that other cultures have always had, that our culture dismantled or discarded at some point. Can we grow up in a way that allows us to actually grieve the loss of so many people, the loss of ways of life, and still be rooted in the understanding of the turning of the cycle, that beautiful things will be born from this?