Life with Sudden Death

Title: Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure
Published by: Counterpoint
Release Date: 2009
Pages: 256
ISBN13: 978-1582435220
Buy the Book: AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound


When I was forty-five years old, I was identified as a person at risk. A sample of my DNA revealed an inherited genetic mutation. Ironically, because I was in excellent health according to all conventional measures of cardiovascular fitness, I was told that the first symptom I would experience would be sudden death—an unforeseeable, instant, and total failure of the system that sustains my heart beat.

I was alone at home when a nurse from the Harvard genetics lab called with the bad news. It was as if the story of my life had been cut in half. That genetic diagnosis suddenly illuminated my past, and it considerably darkened my future.

For the first time in my life, I felt like my father’s son. I was the youngest of nine children, and my father had died—suddenly, inexplicably—when I was three. He was forty-four. We’d understood this as god’s will. We were good Catholics. Years later, one of my brothers died—suddenly, inexplicably—when he was fifty-three. Again, the family diagnosis was god’s will.

I thought I was safe. I was so clearly and singularly identified with my mother’s side of the family in appearance, temperament, and family lore that I believed a long life was my birthright. But when my phone call with that nurse ended, I realized my inherited sense of self was a fiction.

And that’s when I lost control of the story of my life.

As I entered the strange and secretive world of modern medicine, I really thought I was simply choosing to prevent my sudden death. But the medical intervention to prevent my sudden death almost killed me—more than once. Five years, four surgeries, and three implanted devices later, I see that I was effectively adopted by a close-knit family of genetic researchers, clinicians and surgeons, and medical-device manufacturers. I knew I was dependent on them, and I soon learned that they were not entirely dependable. But did I really trust my own version of the story?

I wrote Life with Sudden Death to answer a simple question: Who has the authority to tell the story of your life?

Read an excerpt


“A remarkable memoir . . . Even in summary, it's a compelling story, but it's Downing's intelligence, his bone-dry wit, his carefully measured sorrow, carefully controlled rage, and beautifully wrought prose that make this memoir such a standout. His writing has the cerebral precision and focus of Joan Didion's, but it's got other kinds of fullness and heart too. Downing describes a series of harrowing journeys through a preeminent Boston hospital, in which a less vigilant patient than himself would surely have fared less well - never mind what would have become of someone uninsured or completely uninformed . . . Yet it isn't social commentary or critique that makes Life with Sudden Death so memorable. It's the unsentimental way Downing writes about wonder, gratitude, love, art, and even religion.  It's passages like this: ‘My mother and I both lived long enough to understand that we had loved other people better and had been better loved by others, too. What we had was the singular authority to say, I know you.’ And lines like this: ‘If you are about to die, I have a hotel to recommend with wrought-iron balconies hanging above the Arno and coffee service from friendly guys in tuxedos. Compared with the hospital, they're giving the rooms away.’”
Elizabeth Benedict, Huffington Post

"Effective immediately, I am making Life with Sudden Death required reading each year for our trainees . . . it will make them better doctors."
William H. Maisel, MD, MPH, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston

"Recommended Reading . .  Full of closely observed details"
San Francisco Chronicle

“Don't you love discovering a new-to-you author who has already written numerous books that you now can't wait to read? Michael Downing is that kind of revelation to me. This memoir, about finding out that he has a genetic disposition to sudden early death from heart failure, is teeming with insight, observation, and keenly intelligent thought. Plus: the guy can write the pants off most memoirists . . . it delivers far more than you thought possible.”
Christie @


Excerpted from a pre-publication interview with Michael Downing. His new book, Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure, was published in October 2009 by Counterpoint.

What does it mean to live with sudden death?
It’s like being a suicide bomber wired up with just enough TNT to kill yourself—but no one can tell you where the trigger is located or how to prevent an explosion.

Is that why you wrote the book—to try to figure out why this happened to you?
I’ve come to see that my story is a cautionary tale about the future of health care in America. More and more, our doctors will rely on genetic identification of nascent disease and potential problems. I mean, if you were told you could avoid a terrible illness or your premature death, wouldn’t you pursue preventive intervention?

I simply didn’t understand the unadvertised risks of standard operating procedures in hospitals. And I was in a better position than many people. I had a job with great health insurance, and I live in Boston. The Harvard teaching hospital where I was treated consistently turns up in lists of the Top Ten best medical centers in the country.

And I wasn’t sick. Until I submitted a sample of my DNA for genetic testing, I was healthy by every conventional measure. My problems began as preventive medicine. I had no apparent heart disease, but because of a genetic mutation, I was implanted with a defibrillator—just in case. Five years, four surgeries, and three implanted devices later, I find that famous ounce of prevention weighs pretty heavily on me.

And yet the book is often funny, starting with the early chapters, where you draw readers into your attempts to negotiate a safe place in a big, complicated family after your father’s death in 1961.
I grew up in the shadow of my father’s sudden death. I was happy as a kid, but by the age of six I knew that no lived moment would ever be as important or impressive as the moment my father died—which happened when I was too young to register the significance. In effect, I had no role in the family story. I’d missed the central event in the life of the family, and I never really knew the central character.

I had to invent a role for myself—and then pray I could pull it off.

Prayer was almost a full-time occupation for you as a young boy. Do you think that was typical of people who grew up at the end of the Baby Boom?
You know, there’s the Little League, and then there’s the Yankees and Red Sox.

We prayed so much that one of the older kids gave my mother a kneeling pad for her birthday to use during the nightly family Rosary, litanies, and devotions—which were just a small part of our daily dose of religion. By the time I was in high school, my mother and several of my elder siblings started having visions. They spoke in tongues. Prophecies sometimes popped into their heads, often involving useful advice for people like me, who obviously weren’t getting any gifts of their own from the Holy Spirit. Occasionally, they prayed so hard they passed out—though they lobbied hard for the rest of us to use the phrase “slain in the spirit.”

And then sudden death struck your family again in 2003, changing the course of your adult life.
One of my brothers died in December 2003—suddenly, without apparent cause. I’m not sure that what happened in the wake of his death changed my life. But my experience with doctors and medical-device manufacturers after 2003 almost ended my life—more than once.

Didn’t that change the way you think about yourself?
Well, suddenly, and repeatedly, I was a patient. But that was a weirdly familiar role. It was almost exactly the same as being the youngest of nine kids—and the only gay sibling—in a profoundly pious Catholic family.

Is that what inspired the structure of Life with Sudden Death?
Yes. I realized the lessons I was forced to learn as an adult patient were the lessons I’d been taught as a child. That’s why the chapter titles are the same for Part I: Elementary School and Part II: Medical School. My life story seems to be a two-act comedy of errors.

You see, that geneticist referred me to a cardiologist, who referred me to internists and more heart specialists, who referred me to an electrophysiologist—they were all colleagues in ongoing research and clinical trials—and before I knew it, I’d been adopted by a new family. I was an atheist by then, but I guess I had to put my faith somewhere. I didn’t see it at the time, but I put my faith in those doctors. Apparently, I was used to people diagnosing what was wrong with me and predicting my tragic end if I didn’t follow their advice.

Advance readers of Life with Sudden Death say your account of meetings with doctors, your use of your own medical record, and the fantastic notes you took are a kind of how-to manual for transforming the role of the patient.
If you want to know everything you don’t want to know about health care in the United States, pick up a staph infection at a major research or teaching hospital and start asking questions.

To prevent my sudden death, a defibrillator was implanted in my chest and hard-wired with electrical leads threaded through a vein and screwed into the wall of my heart. Unfortunately, along with that device, I was given a staph infection, which almost killed me. I had to have emergency surgery to remove the device and the wires. This was performed without general anesthesia, and then I was right back where I’d started—at risk of sudden death.

After six weeks with a central venous catheter and injecting myself three times a day with antibiotics, I had a third surgery. I was implanted with another life-saving defibrillator. I really believed I was safe until, one morning in the fall of 2007, I read a hair-raising story in New York Times. The electrical wire anchored to my heart, a highly touted new design, was failing at an alarming rate in thousands of implanted patients—several of whom had died.

My life-saving device was a threat to my life.

When did you decide to write a book about your experience?
I started to write this book when I realized my experience was not just a case of very bad luck.

Every day in this country, 250 people die of hospital-acquired infections—almost 100,000 people annually. More than 150,000 defibrillators are implanted every year. And every year, tens of thousands of those implanted devices are identified as faulty—fatally failing to deliver a therapeutic shock when needed; delivering repeated, unwarranted electrical shocks; leaking battery-fluid. The same model of failure-prone electrical wire that was anchored into my heart was implanted in almost 250,000 people.

I wasn’t alone, but I didn’t know who to trust.

When the Medtronic Corporation was compelled to issue a recall, I received a letter from the company, and one from the FDA. They both speculated that I was more likely die as a result of the surgery to extract the wire than as a result of that wire fraying and causing my device to malfunction. This didn’t really clarify my options. However, it did mean that my medical insurance would not cover the cost of a precautionary surgery to have that wire replaced.

If I got lucky—if I could somehow prove that the wire in my heart was fraying before I dropped dead— Medtronic would give me a new wire and $800 toward the replacement surgery, which typically costs between $30,000 and $60,000.

Medtronic’s device sales that year topped $12 billion.

Has writing the book helped you to see your future more clearly?
I’m not making any predictions.

A few years back, after my third surgery, I considered myself a pretty savvy patient. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be implanted with a faulty medical device—a device which the manufacturer, many doctors, and even the FDA considered a potential risk to my health and well-being.

All I can is, I’m not dead yet. In hospital terminology, this is known as patient making progress.