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Leap of faith 

Local author C.J. Lyons draws on real-life medical experience

CJ Lyons believes if you have a dream, you have to go for it. So after a successful 17-year career as a doctor, she decided to write a novel. She left her medical practice behind, causing her partner to ask, “Are you sure you don’t need counseling?”

“I’m trained in pediatric emergency medicine,” Lyons says. “I worked in many hospitals. A little more than a year ago, I took a leap of faith. I knew if I was going to try this writing thing, I would have to do it.”

It turned out to be a good move. Lyons’ first novel, Lifelines, a medical thriller, was accepted by Penguin Books and is now on bookstore shelves. It has gotten rave reviews from several bestselling authors, including Heather Graham, David Morrell, Allison Brennan and Susan Wiggs. Graham has even dedicated her book The Dead Room in part to Lyons.

“I’ve been writing all my life,. I never thought seriously about getting published until a few years ago. It’s pretty addictive. I honestly think I would need a 12-step program to stop,” Lyons says.

“I told stories when I was young, which got me put into time-out. I used to use my mom’s hair curlers as finger puppets. I learned to read at an early age and started writing down stories in elementary school.”

Lyons originally thought of being a theater major in college with the idea of doing theater tech. “My sophomore year. I was in a general biology class at the University of North Carolina,” she says.

“One day, a professor said the medical examiner had a homeless person he was doing an autopsy on, if anyone cared to attend. Three of us attended. One was a big beefy guy who said, ‘My dad’s an orthopedic surgeon and I’m going to be one, too,’” Lyons says. “The other was my roommate.

“We put on gloves and held organs. It was fascinating to me. There’s just an infinite variety in the human body. When you look at us, you think everyone is the same, but we’re not. Even this man who had no family, in death he became larger than life.”

The experience was so powerful, Lyons switched her major to pre-med. She studied at the University of Florida medical school.

“I loved going there,” Lyons says. “I figured I was doing something different that hadn’t been done before.”

An ER doctor sees just about everything, and Lyons shares some very interesting stories with her readers. Many of the scenes are so real, the reader feels they are sitting in the hospital’s waiting room, watching the drama unfold around them.

The novel is set in Pittsburgh, a city Lyons knows well. “I did my internship in Pittsburgh and loved it,” she says.

“How best to describe this for the reader? I wanted a stranger-comes-to-town type story, like Shane. I’m telling a thriller through the point of view of only women.”

The story opens on July 1, Transition Day, when new interns arrive at the hospital. It also happens to be the first day of work for the book’s main character, Dr. Lydia Fiore, a new ER attending physician at the Angels of Mercy Medical Center.

“I developed a character who grew up in Los Angeles, as far away from Pittsburgh as possible,” Lyons says. “She comes to town and knows no none.”

Lyons immediately puts her character in hot water. “What’s the worst thing that can happen to her?” she asks.

“Lydia starts working at the hospital on July 1, the most dangerous day of the year. It’s only by the grace of God and good nurses that hospitals don’t lose anyone on that day.

“I decided I was going to have her lose a patient and not know why,” Lyons says. “On her first day of work, she’s ready to lose everything -- her job, her career, her reputation.”

Fortunately for Lydia, she finds three loyal friends among her co-workers at the hospital and one hunky paramedic who becomes her romantic interest. “In the end, it’s not just about saving her, but the entire city,” Lyons says.

Lyons hasn’t gotten anything but praise for her novel. “I was not expecting this response,” she says.

“A lot has been from guys, which is surprising. The target audience is women.”

Now when Lyons walks in a bookstore, her book is there. “It still doesn’t feel real,” she says. “I just got back from a trip to New York City. I went to seven bookstores in Manhattan and I signed all the copies they had there. It was so wild. It was everywhere! I did my first reading the week before, and these total strangers came in to hear about me and my book. I’m still kind of pinching myself to make sure it’s real.”

Lyons has been having such a good time, she’s decided to stick with writing. “For the first time in 17 years, I’m getting a full night’s sleep,” she says. “I do miss the patients a lot. But after awhile, I realized all the things I didn’t miss – arguing with insurance companies, watching friends get sued.”

Lyons is originally from State College, Pa. She grew up in Colorado and Montana, and now lives on Hilton Head Island.

“I found a condo, a fixer-upper in Hilton Head. It’s about two blocks from the beach. Walking on the beach is the best way to solve most problems.”

Lifelines is a fast-paced, exciting book that will keep readers hooked from the first page. For those who think there are too many loose ends, don’t worry – answers are coming.

Lifelines is the start of a series,” Lyons says. “My editor has Catalyst, which continues with the same characters. It will come out early in 2009. And I’m already toying with all kinds of ideas to go into the third book.”

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Linda Sickler

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