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Cryonics Institute freezes dead for ‘reanimation’ 

Souls on ice

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Religious question aside, Joe Kowalsky sees cryonics as another form of surgery, albeit a still-developing one. Of today’s frozen patients, he says, “These are the Barney Clarks, the pioneers,” referring to the first human recipient of an artificial heart. Too sick for a heart transplant, Clark knew his chances were slim for long-term survival. But in 1982, he went ahead in the interest of advancing science, sparking a media frenzy and debates about appropriate treatments for “terminal” patients. He lived for 112 days; today, researchers are still working to perfect the artificial heart. 

Kowalsky wants to advance cryonics the way Barney Clark advanced the artificial heart, and to that end he’s helped establish the Organ Cryopreservation Prize, offering $50,000 for the successful freezing and thawing of human organs for transplantation. The project earned him a visit with   Leonard Nimoy, which he considers a highlight of his life.

Like many cryonicists, Kowalsky has had time to plan and consider, and if all goes well he’ll have a long and full life. In late 2012, 23-year-old  Suozzi, a neuroscience student from St. Louis, Missouri, posted to the online forum Reddit, explaining that she had only months to live. On her blog, she explained she’d decided on cryopreservation. “Many of you know that I’m agnostic; I don’t have any clue what happens when you die, but have no reason to think that my consciousness will continue on after death,” she wrote. Her Christian parents balked at the decision, which they believed rejected the idea of a soul, and of Heaven. Neither would help her pay for the procedure. But, she wrote, “The only thing that I can think to make me feel a little more at ease with my death is to secure cryopreservation plans on the off-chance that they figure out how to revive people in the future. The way I see it, it’s a better bet than decomposing or getting cremated.”

Lacking life insurance to pay for cryonics, Suozzi asked Reddit readers for help. “I wish I could give a particularly compelling reason why I deserve another chance at life,” she wrote, “but there’s not much to say. I’m still just a kid, and hadn’t even finished college when I was diagnosed. Unfortunately the most interesting thing I have yet to do is get a terminal disease at a young age.” With the help of Society for Venturism, a cryonics advocacy and support group, she met her fundraising goal. In January 2013, she was preserved at Alcor. 

Her story reached Aaron Winborn, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, man who’d also been diagnosed with a terminal disease and sought financial help for cryopreservation. In August 2012, Winborn, then 45, had tried to clip his fingernails. When he couldn’t, he assumed the clippers were faulty. Later, he needed help getting his luggage into the overhead bin on an airplane. His arms suddenly weren’t strong enough. He kept getting weaker, with no apparent cause. Doctors ran tests, then more tests. They ruled out everything until they could say: Winborn had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

His doctor explained to him that ALS is incurable, that Winborn would likely be dead in two to three years. Before then, his motor functions would gradually deteriorate, eventually leaving him conscious but locked within his own body. His diaphragm would fail; breathing machines and a tracheostomy would be necessary to keep him alive. 

Knowing he’d soon be unable to climb stairs, Winborn and his wife and two young daughters moved to a ranch-style house in a grassy green neighborhood in suburban Harrisburg, Soon he was in a motorized wheelchair, halved tennis balls attached to the rung beneath his feet. It became difficult for him to understand spoken language, and he could type only using a special eye-tracking technology. He continued working as a web developer, moving his computer to the living room, in front of a wide picture window looking out onto the street. 

He’d considered cryonics before, but hadn’t thought about life insurance because he felt so young. “When I was 12, I simply assumed that people live forever; if other people didn’t, certainly I would,” he says. After the diagnosis, insurance was no longer an option. Like Suozzi, he appealed to the Society for Venturism, which raised the money to have him preserved at the Cryonics Institute. 

“We’re all born with a death sentence,” he says. “I was probably born with a death sentence that was more clear than others — it’s largely genetic.” But he worries about the effect on his children, not just of his absence, but of his bodily presence; of being there but not being there. He wants them to have closure, to not spend their lives waiting for Daddy to wake up. When his older daughter, Ashlin, first heard about his diagnosis and preservation plan, she was 7. Her first reaction was to ask if she could be frozen, too. 

“I told her she had to wait until she’s 18.”

He wrote a story for his children called “Where Did Daddy Go?” In it, a young girl searches for her father. She asks the sun, the ocean, the moon, and the earth. Each has an answer, then tells her to go ask another someone. Her older sister says, “Little sister, Dad had big dreams, and he told me once that after he died, that he would have his body frozen, and that maybe someday, they might build giant robot factories in the sky that might be able to help him live again. But I think you should ask Mom.”

And her mother responds, “Well, Daddy did die, as we all will someday. I don’t know about the robot thing, but I know that your father loved you with all his heart, and would have done anything to be with us now. That wasn’t possible, though, because his body got too sick to keep going. But I do know that whatever happens, he will always be right there, in our hearts and memories.”

When Aaron Winborn thinks about the future, he has hope. He thinks about beating ALS by going through death and coming out the other side. It’s a way of hastening the future. “The society that reanimates me would be advanced enough to reanimate me,” he says, “would be progressive enough to do so, and compassionate enough to do so. That sounds like a society I wouldn’t mind coming back to.”

He doesn’t know if it will work — in fact, he figures he has somewhere between a .8 percent chance and a 30 percent chance. But going into the ground has a 0 percent chance of coming back. “I just think I’d like to gamble for the future,” he says. He’d rather get there the long way, as he puts it, but since that’s not an option, he’s ready to try cryonics. As his ALS progresses, he will likely reach a point where he is trapped in his own body, free to think but unable to move. He will have to choose between dying or having a machine breathe for him. It’s comforting, he says, to be able to decline medical intervention: “So I get to choose when I plan to go.” 

If he could, he says, he knows how he would go. “I’d like to take a road trip up to Detroit,” to the Cryonics Institute, he says, where he’d have a big party, say his goodbyes to everyone before making his way into the cold unknown, and then, finally, “unplug myself and wake up in the future.”

Jesse Hicks is a freelance writer in Detroit specializing in science and technology features.

View more photos from inside the Cryonics Institute here.

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