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This Medical Memoir Reads Like a Detective Story

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Three years later, while she was playing soccer, the device shocked her three times, hitting her heart with 2,000 volts of electricity and leaving her with an understandable, debilitating fear of feeling that “hot whip” again.

This is when Standefer really began to consider the cost of the defibrillator — not just in terms of her own peace of mind, but also the toll it’s taken on the environment. She was haunted by the idea that her device contains “conflict minerals,” the ill-gotten gains of greedy miners. We join her on a pilgrimage to the manufacturing facility in Sylmar, Calif., where she hoped to figure out “whether the thing in my body was worth making.” And then on to Madagascar, as she tours a nickel and cobalt mine, “trying to understand what it took to pull metal from the ground”; and finally to Rwanda, to a mine that produces ilmenite, the mineral that becomes titanium. She writes, “I had a titanium can at the top of my left breast. I had to visit.”

Standefer alternates investigative chapters with passages about her personal life, including career changes, financial worries and her struggle to build an independent adult life while enduring endless medical travails. I preferred these chapters to the journalistic ones, not because the travel stories weren’t gripping, but because I couldn’t get enough of Standefer’s unsinkable spirit and eye for little moments of grace — for instance, her dad reading to her from “A Light in the Attic,” by Shel Silverstein. “The sound of his voice made me want to cry out of sweetness,” she writes. “But instead I settled back into it. I took careful, measured breaths into the deepest parts of my lungs.”

Standefer is — and I mean this as the highest compliment — like a dog with a bone. She will not rest until she has answers. Her quest made me wonder, what if we all questioned our impact on the planet with such determination? What if we insisted on following lines that connect us to other parts of a bigger picture? “Lightning Flowers” may inspire you to launch a quest of your own. Don’t forget to pack the original multipurpose tool: a pen.

[ Read an excerpt from “Lightning Flowers.” ]

  • How does Katherine Standefer’s age work to her advantage and disadvantage as her story unfolds? How is her case a microcosm of the state of health care in our country?

  • Was there a moment in this book when you felt the solution was worse than the problem? If so, when? Would you have chosen to do anything differently?

Brain on Fire,” by Susannah Cahalan. A reporter recalls her descent into what appeared to be madness but was, in fact, something else altogether. Like Standefer, she describes the loneliness of being “an interesting case.”

Inferno,” by Catherine Cho. Cho’s memoir toggles back and forth between her darkest days with postpartum psychosis and the events that led her to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Her journey is an indictment of the culture of whispers around mothers and mental illness.

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