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The Cryonics Institute’s 80th Patient: By Ben Best

by System Administrator / Thursday, 10 May 2007 /

The 80th patient of the Cryonics Institute (CI) was a 67-year-old woman who deanimated in Europe and was cryopreserved by her son. The patient succumbed to cancer while being held in the arms of her son in her home. Her dying wish was to be cryopreserved. According to her son she was pronounced dead within 15 minutes by a family doctor. Water ice from the family fridge was placed around her head until a funeral director arrived soon after, transported her to a funeral home and placed her in a freezer, which may have held her at −25ºC.

She was held in the freezer for two weeks while her son sold property, obtained dry ice and arranged for shipment to North America. CI Facilities Manager Andy Zawacki told the son not to ship his mother until all funding and contracts were in place, but the son sent his mother to Michigan anyway. Because he did not have adequate funding, CI was unable to accept his mother. For five years the son paid funeral directors to hold his mother on dry ice, ultimately spending nearly as much for on-going dry ice storage as he would have paid for for the entire cryopreservation.

The patient was kept in an electric freezer into which the dry ice was placed. The electric freezer undoubtedly reduced the sublimation of the dry ice, while providing some backup. The son maintains that his mother has been maintained on dry ice without interruption, an ordeal he described as "torture", following the "hell" he went through in preserving and transporting his mother upon her legal death.

If the patient was maintained on dry ice without interruption for five years, the preservation of her tissue should not be too bad (within the context of having been straight-frozen). Sperm held on dry ice for six months only shows a partial decline in fertility. Meat in a freezer is possibly ruined after long storage times by dehydration, but this effect would not be seen at dry ice temperature because vapor pressure (sublimation of water) is virtually zero at that temperature. Very low temperature is why comets do not vaporize in the vacuum of space.

In mid April, 2007 the son began wiring money to the CI bank account. Within a couple of weeks the patient was fully funded. The son accompanied the patient during shipment to CI. I had told him to use lots of dry ice for shipment, but there were only two blocks by her head when she arrived. She was still fully dressed, as if for a funeral, which is why Facilities Manager Andy Zawacki believes that she had probably been embalmed. The son, however, insists that she was not embalmed. If she had been embalmed it would have been beneficial in this case, insofar as the formaldehyde would have preserved brain structure if there were elevations in temperature.

At the foundation of embalming is formalin, an aqueous solution saturated with formaldehyde gas, which constitutes 40% by volume and 37% by weight of the solution. Formaldehyde coagulates protoplasmic protein, turning it from a soft soluble form to a hard insoluble form which is resistant to both autolytic and bacterial proteolytic enzymes. Moreover, formaldehyde kills bacteria by coagulating bacterial protoplasm and has a drying effect upon tissue because of its strong affinity for water. Because formaldehyde preserves lipids as well as proteins, it would seem to be especially of value for the brain. A study of human brains preserved in formaldehyde for up to 24 years showed that the preservation of lipids was not uniform: cholesterol, cerebrosides, sulphatides, phosphoinositides and sphingomyelin remained unaffected, whereas lecithin, phosphatidylethanolamine and phosphadidylserine were broken down [THE JOURNAL OF HISTOCHEMISTRY AND CYTOCHEMISTRY; 10:704-709 (1962)]. Because unbuffered formaldehyde solutions are acidic, at least part of these breakdowns are attributed to slow hydrolysis.

Because the patient was already frozen it was difficult to place temperature probes. The control probe was placed on the cheek and another probe was placed in the nose, but could not go very deep. In fact, the nose probe did not give readings much different than the cheek probe, so it could hardly be regarded as an indication of brain core temperature.

The patient was placed into CI's computer-controlled cooling box and was cooled in a straight-line manner from dry ice temperature (or beginning temperature) to liquid nitrogen temperature in about 15 hours. I put some bedding next to the cooling box so I could monitor the cooling overnight while catching some sleep. Our new software is equipped with an alarm which sounds if the actual temperature drifts too far from the target temperature along the cooling curve.

At around 4am I was awakened by the alarm. Not long thereafter the low oxygen detector on the wall sounded. The cooling box was shooting liquid nitrogen continuously into the box, but the temperature would not drop below −117ºC. Finally, we found another thermocouple reader and determined that the actual temperature on the skin of the patient was close to liquid nitrogen temperature. The patient was maintained near liquid nitrogen temperature (just above −196ºC) in the cooling box until she was transferred to liquid nitrogen in a cryostat.

Consulting with the software engineer the next day we determined that in fixing earlier problems by upgrading the system from LabVIEW version 7 to LabVIEW version 8 the default temperature calibration was for J−type thermocouples (which have a −117ºC minimum) rather than T−type thermocouples. It may have been divine providence that we discovered this in straight-cooling a frozen patient where it made no difference in the outcome. We had all done thorough testing, but not to liquid nitrogen temperature. Another irritant was the fact that the laptop was going into sleep mode periodically. This did not interrupt the actual cooling, but it did stop data-logging -- producing flat spots on the curve. That problem has been remedied for the future by right-clicking on the desktop, selecting screen saver display properties and changing the power scheme settings to NEVER.

We removed the patient from the cooling box while she was still on her backboard and in her sleeping bag. The sleeping bag was zipped shut (the zipper is remarkably able to endure liquid nitrogen temperature). I soaked the sleeping bag near the patient's head with liquid nitrogen from a bucket while Andy secured the patient to her backboard with ropes and straps. The 80th patient became the second patient in HSSV−6−8 cryostat and may have been the first patient ever placed in liquid nitrogen wearing high-heeled shoes.

The devotion of this patient's son to her cryopreservation has been extraordinary, even in the history of cryonics. The only comparable cases of such family maintenance at cryogenic (or near-cryogenic) temperature was for Dr. James Bedford from 1967 to 1982 (no other cryonics cases before 1973 survived) and the maintenance in dry ice of Trygve Bauge's grandfather. Far too often family members have begun cryopreservation and then lost interest in continuing to cover costs. This is the reason cryonics organizations have a firm policy of not accepting patients without full funding. It is sad that this man has had to endure such "torture" and "hell" (as he has called it), but it is also a tribute to his determination. He ultimately paid nearly twice the total cost under conditions very financially difficult for him. Policies cannot predict character, but his character will not be forgotten. May he someday be reunited with his reanimated mother. We at the Cryonics Institute will do our part to make this possible.