Katherine Standefer knew she would get a book published one day having won writing awards throughout grade school, middle school, Hersey High School, college and grad school. But the 36-year-old Arlington Heights native didn’t know it would almost kill her.
“This book has been my entire life,” Standefer says of “Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life.” Lightning flowers are the thin, branched burns that uncoil from the heads and necks of lightning-strike victims.
Winning acclaim, this first book by Arlington Heights native Katherine Standefer details the long and scary relationship she has with the medical device implanted in her body. The cover was designed by Juliana Lee, art director at Little, Brown and Company. – Courtesy of Katherine Standefer
The lightning strike that forever changed Standefer’s life came from inside her body, when the defibrillator planted inside her chest to address a heart rhythm condition delivered unnecessary electrical shocks in November 2012 as the 27-year-old graduate student was playing a friendly game of soccer in Tucson, Arizona.
“I thought someone had kicked in my spine,” Standefer says of the first blast of 2,000 volts. The defibrillator, an internal version of the electrical paddles used to restart hearts in a hospital, fired two more times. Standefer’s hands curled into fists. It took her a few seconds to realize the noise she was hearing was her own screams.
“It’s otherworldly,” she says. Lying on her back, “the sky came into view,” Standefer writes. “A ring of faces. The sharp white field lights. The smell of burning, which was me.”
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Then came the epiphany that forced Standefer to question everything, leading her on an odyssey navigating a medical maze and insurance bureaucracy and took her to mineral mines in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and other places in search of answers.
“If the defibrillator just saved my life. If a defibrillator is just metal. If metal is mined earth. If children sometimes work in mines, if tunnels collapse, if warlords profit, if women are raped, if mountains are dismantled and made toxic. If mined earth just saved my life: Was it worth it?” Standefer writes.
“Lightning Flowers” took her eight years to write and recently was selected a favorite of The New York Times Book Review, featured in People magazine and NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and named one of the best books of fall 2020 by O, The Oprah Magazine.
“What is this thing inside me? And what is my relationship with it?” Standefer asks.
Wearing her high school’s writing award medal, Katherine Standefer shares a moment with Mike Belito, one of her English teachers at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. – Courtesy of Standefer family
The middle of three sisters born to Judy and Mark Standefer, Katherine Standefer filled journals upon journals as a girl. “She’s always been a writer,” says Judy Standefer, who taught preschool and early childhood classes at First United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights for 27 years.
As a fifth-grader at Olive-Mary Stitt Elementary School, Standefer’s writing impressed teacher Teja Kics, who entered the girl in a statewide writing contest, and Standefer won an Illinois Young Authors Award.
“She put such thought and feeling into everything we did,” remembers Kics, who taught Standefer in fourth and fifth grades and recently hosted her book club group at her home in Palatine, featuring an online discussion with Standefer. “She was the same way in grade school, always looking deep into everything she touched.”
At Hersey High School, Standefer won a national writing award.
“Kati’s a great citizen,” Mark Standefer says of his daughter, noting she cares about her family and friends, but also the community, the nation and the world, even when that can be dangerous. Before she left for Africa to investigate the mines that produce the materials used in her defibrillator, she asked her parents to pay for “ransom and kidnap insurance,” says her dad, a lawyer. “We’ve been with her every step of the way.”
Their youngest daughter, Christine, had life-threatening cardiac issues during her first year of college, and needed surgery to implant a defibrillator. “It has saved her life,” Judy Standefer says of the daughter who is 32 and living in Colorado, where she does business development for a software company.
She was diagnosed with long QT syndrome, a congenital condition that can produce fast and irregular heartbeats and cause fainting, seizures or death. Her great-great-grandmother died unexpectedly at age 20 in 1899 of an what relatives thought was a heart attack. Katherine Standefer didn’t have health insurance and kept rejecting her parents’ offer to pay for the simple test to see if she had long QT syndrome.
During her senior year at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Katherine Standefer won a national writing competition, and also won the Hersey High School Writing Award medal hanging around her neck. – Courtesy of Standefer family
After getting degrees in sociology and fiction writing at Colorado College, Katherine Standefer moved to Jackson, Wyoming, to be a writer. To support her passion, she worked as a ski instructor, taught climbing skills, led hikes and did a host of other jobs. On June 19, 2009, she was a fit 24-year-old who ran up mountains, drank water from the mountain snow melt, and passed out in a parking lot. She was told she needed a defibrillator.
Scared that a visit to a doctor would label her with a preexisting condition that would prevent her from being able to get health insurance, Standefer moved to Boulder, Colorado, on Labor Day weekend, and used her savings, money from her parents and donations from the medical community to get the surgery to implant a defibrillator on Oct. 26, 2009.
“It was five months of thinking I was going to die,” she remembers.
When her device delivered those unnecessary shocks in 2012, Standefer began writing about the experience as her thesis for her master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. But it turned into so much more.
“I really went on an underworld journey to write this book,” Standefer says, explaining how it affected her relationships and career, led to other physical issues, including a nest of broken wires in her heart, and still has her struggling with the decision about what to do with the defibrillator implanted above her left breast. “How do you come back to the living? My relationship with my own death made it difficult to live. The book was my will to live. It was the thing I could focus on.”
Having worked at a sexual health clinic, and taught classes at several colleges in writing about medical issues, trauma and sex, Standefer currently teaches in Ashland University of Ohio’s master of fine arts program. The success of her book has opened up other speaking gigs, but “acclaim doesn’t necessarily equal money,” says Standefer, who lives in a house surrounded by juniper and pinyon pine trees on a mesa about 20 minutes outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has five chickens and a job as a bartender.
“That’s the 3 o’clock Amtrak,” Standefer says after a train whistle interrupts our Zoom conference. When spotty internet service ends the interview early, Standefer drives to a parking lot near the towers to get a better connection.
She receives fan mail from around the globe, thanks to her katherinestandefer.com website, and has even sold some copies of her book to customers who strike up conversations while she makes them a drink. Having lost a relationship during her ordeal, she’s looking to jump back into the active life she had. But writing, no doubt, always will be a part of it.
“Books should do something the culture needs you to do,” Standefer says. “How can I be of service?”