Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life

Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life
Little, Brown Spark, 2020.
$28.00, 288 pages. 


Next time you brush your teeth, consider Madagascar. In Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life, Katherine E. Standefer describes an industrial mining project located along the island nation’s southeastern coast. On land that was once littoral forest, ilmenite is extracted. This mineral is found in the sand, which is blasted with water to create a slurry that is sifted to isolate the ore. After that, engineering utilizes gravity and magnets to separate metal from mineral. This purification process provides us with titanium dioxide, an element used in ordinary commodities like smartphones, sunscreen, jewelry, and chewing gum. It’s an excellent whitening agent, found in paints, paper, and plastics. Also, your toothpaste.

Like most Western consumers, my grasp of how this works is limited. I recognize that titanium will brighten my smile, but I don’t understand how. Similarly, how exactly the chemical compound is procured is beyond me, as is the series of steps that facilitate its inclusion into everyday products. A complex global supply chain ensures distance, alleviating the burden of thinking too hard about the origins of goods. Although I’m certain that mining and manufacturing endanger the health of people and places, I’m detached from the bulk of harm. This luxury comes at a price, but it’s not one I pay for directly.

What if you tried to determine the cost? Figuring out where to begin could be a challenge. For Standefer, the starting point was clear—she looked toward the cardioverter defibrillator implanted in her chest, asking, “If mined earth just saved my life: Was it worth it?

This insoluble question underpins Standefer’s debut book. A contemporary medical memoir analyzing the inadequacy of the U.S. health care system and the inequity of resource extraction, Lightning Flowers takes readers through an existential examination of lifesaving technology. The story is shaped by Standefer’s search for answers, both as a patient and a writer. She details the complicated business of seeking care after her body goes haywire. In her mid-twenties and contending with the frustrations of medical insurance (or a lack thereof), she undergoes surgery to become equipped with a device meant to deliver electric pulses to her heart should it malfunction. Afterward, she attempts to find out where the device came from and how it was made.

“That I had metal in my body was so obvious as to be absurd. That that metal had an origin—that it had been tugged from the insides of mountains—descended on me like a long-buried memory,” writes Standefer in a chapter detailing her visit to a medical device manufacturing facility in California. The author’s search for deeper understanding also takes her to the mines of Madagascar and Rwanda, where villages and forests are wiped out to accommodate industry. In conjunction with scrutinizing resource extraction, Standefer tells an intense story of medical anxiety and trauma. She chronicles her ordeal navigating bureaucracy and undergoing surgery. Embroiled in a health care system where profit mandates influence individual outcomes, she rightfully points out the abundance of flaws and gaps.

Mortality is a central theme throughout Lightning Flowers. Although Standefer’s narrative mostly revolves around her personal experiences, many of the book’s most compelling moments derive from her consideration of the ecological impacts and human toll associated with making metal, a process she poetically refers to as “taking the world apart.” She does not, in fact, uncover the cost of saving a life, but her record of grappling with this uncertainty may lead you to reassess some of the commonplace comforts you’ve come to take for granted.

Andru Okun is a freelance writer living in New Orleans


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