Lightning flowers are the ornate branching patterns that appear on the skin of people struck by lightning. Google some photos and you’ll see the amazing designs that come from such trauma. The flowers look like forest ferns or some of the more delicate corals on tropical reefs. Researchers say they’re caused by blood corpuscles shocked by the jolt of electricity. They go away eventually. Not so the memory of the experience.
If you’ve spent any time in the high country, you’ve had experience with lightning. Gretel Ehrlich once lived and wrote in Cora and detailed her struggle to recover from a Wyoming lightning strike in “A Match to the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Being Struck by Lightning.” Now comes a new book by someone who spends a lot of time in Wyoming. Katherine “Kati” Standefer was a climbing guide and ski instructor in Jackson Hole. She writes about her experience with another kind of lightning, one closer to her heart, in “Lightning Flowers: A Discovery of What it Costs to Save a Life.”
In 2009, Standefer was 24 and living in Jackson. She was busy balancing a budding relationship, several jobs, performing in a local band and jaunts to the outdoors. She began to experience shortness of breath and heart rhythms so intense that it felt like “my heart was beating out of my body.” This caused some serious anxiety attacks. The Chicago native brushed it all off because she was 24, invulnerable and living her dream.
In what Standefer calls “the last morning of my first life,” she passed out in a Jackson parking lot close to the Center for the Arts, where her band sometimes played. People came to her aid, thinking she might be a diabetic in crisis. She was hauled off to St. John’s Medical Center. After tests, a physician told her that she might have Congenital Long QT Syndrome. Her younger sister Christine was diagnosed two years earlier and wore a defibrillator implanted above her left breast. Should she experience a heart stoppage dubbed Sudden Cardiac Death by cardiologists, it would shock her with up to 1,000 volts to restart the heart. Some 325,000 Americans annually die from SCD, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Doctors said that Standefer needed one of these devices to live a normal life.
Problem was, she had stopped her catastrophic health insurance plan and there was no way she could afford an operation that costs almost $200,000. She researched other possibilities but in Wyoming there were few options.
That’s when she became a 21st-century medical vagabond. She found out that Colorado had an indigent care program for state residents. She made the decision to leave her life in Jackson behind and move back to Colorado (she’d graduated from Colorado College) so she could get the life-saving operation.
Thus began her “second life” that she documents in the book. It included adventures and misadventures in the worlds of medicine and health insurance. There was a return to depending on her parents, investigations into various procedures and hair-raising experiences with implants — she has now had three.
As she lay on the ground after her first implant malfunctioned and shocked her — in 2012 while she was playing soccer in Tucson — a thought materialized. What if the elements used in her device were like the conflict diamonds that spawned civil war, rape and environmental destruction?
Standefer had always been a writer. Now she felt she had an intriguing story to tell. She was attending the University of Arizona creative nonfiction writing program and was encouraged to research her subject, no matter where it took her.
She visited the California lab that built her defibrillator. She went to the Mayo Clinic to find out why her experience had been so terrible, and maybe get an answer for her condition along the way. She explored the mines of Madagascar and Rwanda. She talked to miners and the impoverished people who lived with the poisonous byproducts of modern medical engineering. And then it was time to write the book.
“Lightning Flowers” explores two questions, Standefer told an audience during a Nov. 18 Zoom reading co-sponsored by Jackson Hole Writers Conference and Jackson Hole Book Trader. The first is: What happens to a 24-year-old who passes out in a parking lot and tries to access proper medical care? And the second: What does it cost to save a life?
It’s hard to name the most traumatic part of her tale. She found out the hard way what so many experience when they enter the convoluted American medical system: It’s a jungle out there. And when she’s in the jungles of Madagascar, she discovers that her device made of nickel, cobalt and other rare elements may have saved her life but, in the process, made life miserable for mine workers and their families.
Standefer is a wonderful writer. Some of her descriptions are poetic, as in these lines from her prologue: “the night I took three shocks to the heart I was marked, called into the world in a way I could not turn away from. What can save us, I would learn, never comes without cost. Some people say lightning strikes cure blindness: This is my version.”
In other spots, she reveals the dark humor that a good writer can find inside of trying circumstances. She calls the intricate medical device in her chest the “titanium can.” She often refers to recipients of cardiac implants as cyborgs.
She wrote some of the book as a fellow at the Jentel Foundation near Sheridan. Her other writing spots include locations in and near Jackson Hole, including Kelly and Jackson, the “Idaho side of the Tetons” and Livingston, Montana. She felt the same energy as she worked inside on her eight-year project as she did as a young college graduate getting to know the area.
Her mountains of research caused her to write long — she noted during the Nov. 21 workshop that her editor asked her to cut 50,000 words from the manuscript. That’s around 200 pages of typescript copy. Even though she cut and revised some details of her dogged research, there are parts of the book dealing with heart mechanics, medical procedures and arcane insurance rules that can challenge readers. It’s in the telling of her own story where she shines.
She now lives on a mesa near Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her chickens, as her bio says. Sometimes she watches the lightning draw patterns over the Sangre de Cristo Range. She thinks of lightning flowers, and about the magical and ominous thing she carries within her.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.