When an 87-year-old Californian was driven to an operating room outside of Phoenix last year, the pandemic was at its peak and medical protocols were turned upside down across the country.
In a case like his, 14 or more bags of fluids would normally have been pumped into him, but that was a problem now.
Had he contracted the coronavirus, tiny aerosol droplets could have escaped and infected the staff, so the surgical team had introduced new procedures that made the treatment less effective but used fewer fluids.
It was a clever workaround, especially considering the patient had been legally pronounced dead more than a day earlier.
It had arrived at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation's operating room – in an industrial park near the airport in Scottsdale, Arizona – wrapped in dry ice and ready for "cryopreservation," or freezing, in the hope that one day, maybe in Decades or centuries, could be brought back to life.
As it turns out, the pandemic that has affected billions of lives around the world is also affecting the non-living.
From Moscow to Phoenix and from China to rural Australia, key players in the ultra-low temperature corpse preservation business say the pandemic has re-stressed an industry that has long faced skepticism or overt hostility from medical and legal institutions, those dismissed it as quack science or fraud.
In some cases, Covid-19 precautions have limited the parts of the body that can be pumped full of protective chemicals to help contain the damage caused by freezing.
Alcor, which has been in business since 1972, enacted new rules in its operating room last year restricting the use of its medical-grade antifreeze to the patient's brain, leaving anything below the neck exposed.
In the Californian case, it was worse because he had died without entering into the normal legal and financial arrangements with Alcor, leaving no standby team available for his death. By the time he got to Alcor's facility, too much time had passed for the team to successfully circulate the protective chemicals, even in the brain.
That meant that when the patient was finally wrapped in a sleeping bag and kept in a large thermos-like aluminum container with liquid nitrogen, which cooled him to minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 196 degrees Celsius), ice crystals formed between the cells of his body, which drills countless holes in cell membranes.
Max More, the 57-year-old former president of Alcor, said the damage caused by this patient's “straight freeze” could likely be repaired by future scientists, especially if there was limited damage to the brain, which are often removed and stored alone in what is known in the trade as a “neuro” preservation.
"I've always been signed up for neurotherapy myself," said Mr. More. “I don't really understand why people want to take their broken old body with them. In the future it will probably be easier to start from scratch and simply regenerate the body anyway. "
"For me, the important thing is up here," he said, pointing to his sandy blonde hair in a zoom call. "That's where my personality and my memories live … everything else is replaceable."
Proponents of cryonics insist that death is a process of deterioration, not just the moment the heart stops, and that quick intervention can act as a "freezing frame" on life so that the super-chilled preservation can serve as an ambulance into the future can.
They usually admit that there is no guarantee that future science will ever be able to repair and resuscitate the body, but even a long shot is better than the chance of resuscitation – zero – if the body turns to dust or ashes will. If you start dead, they say, you have nothing to lose.
During the pandemic, increased awareness of mortality appears to have led to greater interest in signing up for cryopreservation procedures, which can cost more than $ 200,000.
"Perhaps the coronavirus made it clear to them that their life is the most important thing they have and they wanted to invest in their own future," said Valeriya Udalova, 61, the managing director of KrioRus, who has worked in Moscow since 2006 and KrioRus Alcor said they had received a record number of inquiries in the past few months.
Jim Yount, who has been a member of the American Cryonics Society for 49 years, said he had often seen health crises or the death of a loved one bring cryonics to the fore.
"Something like Covid makes it clear that you are not immortal," said Yount, 78, during a recent job at the organization's Silicon Valley office.
The American Cryonics Society has been providing support services since 1969, but stores its 30 cryopreserved members with another organization, the Cryonics Institute, near Detroit.
Alcor, the most expensive and well-known cryonics company in the United States, said the pandemic had forced it to cancel public tours of its Scottsdale facility. It was also more difficult to reach customers quickly, both due to travel restrictions and restrictions on access to hospitals.
“We usually like to come to the hospital beforehand if we know in advance that the patient is in the terminal stage, so that we can talk to the staff, learn about the structure and get the patient out as quickly as possible. “Said Mr. More, who is now Alcor's spokesman.
The company stocked up on chemicals at the beginning of the pandemic, he said, "but actually we dodged our members because luckily we had very few deaths."
Having performed an average of about one cryopreservation per month in the 18 months leading up to the pandemic, Alcor has only performed six since January 2020, possibly due to a combination of luck and customers who heeded the company's request to avoid risky activities during the pandemic .
KrioRus, the only operator with cryostorage facilities in Europe, has been busier than ever and, according to Ms. Udalova, carried out nine cryopreservations during the pandemic, some of the deaths being indirectly caused by Covid.
Visa and quarantine regulations threatened delays of up to four weeks in getting their bodies, and the company often relied on small local workers to deal with its customers who died in South Korea, France, Ukraine and Russia.
Various problems have arisen in Australia, which has had some of the most restrictive Covid border controls in the world.
The startup Southern Cryonics was unable to fly in foreign experts to train its employees, forcing it to postpone the planned opening of a warehouse for 40 corpses for a year.
In China, the newest major cryonics company, the Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute had to stop public visits to its facility in Jinan, capital of Shandong Province, making it difficult to recruit customers.
The cost of, perhaps, possibly living a little longer
More than 50 years after the first cryopreservation, around 500 people are now stored in vats worldwide, the vast majority of them in the United States.
For example, the Cryonics Institute holds 206 corpses, while Alcor has 182 corpses or neuros from people aged 2 to 101 years. KrioRus has 80, and there are a handful of others held by smaller businesses.
The Chinese conducted their first cryopreservation in 2017, and Yinfeng's storage tanks only hold a dozen customers. However, Aaron Drake, the company's clinical director who moved to China after seven years as head of Alcor's medical response team, noted that it took Alcor more than three times as long to reach that number of preserved bodies.
Yinfeng has topped the market alongside Alcor, who charges $ 200,000 for a full body treatment and $ 80,000 for a neuro.
Alcor has the largest number of people committed to paying their dues: 1,385 people from 34 countries. (The fees are often funded with life insurance policies.) The Chinese have around 60 committed customers, while KrioRus claims it has recruited 400 customers from 20 countries.
The Cryonics Institute has a different business model, charging base fees as low as $ 28,000, with up to $ 60,000 more if members want transportation and fast "standby" teams like Alcor's.
KrioRus is even cheaper, though it plans to increase its fees once it completes its current move from a corrugated iron warehouse 30 miles northeast of Moscow to a much larger facility in Tver, 170 miles northwest of the capital.
The main reason Alcor's fees are much higher is that the company is investing $ 115,000 of its "full-body fee" in a trust fund to help ensure future care for its patients, such as: B. the filling of the liquid nitrogen. This trust is managed by Morgan Stanley and is now worth more than $ 15 million.
Mr Drake said he believes the Chinese are "hopeful that they can overtake American companies and they have built a program that can".
The strongest reason for believing China will dominate the field is not only its population of 1.4 billion people, but also its domestic attitude towards cryopreservation. Far from being limited to the scientific fringes, Yinfeng is the only cryonics group that is government backed and accepted by mainstream researchers.
"Our small business unit is owned by a private biotech company that has approximately 8,000 employees and works with the government on many projects," said Drake. It is "well integrated into the hospital systems and cooperates with research institutes and universities".
Cooperation in China is a far cry from the situation in Russia, where Evgeny Alexandrov, chairman of a pseudoscience commission set up by the Official Academy of Sciences, ridiculed cryonics as "an exclusively commercial enterprise with no scientific basis". ”
In the United States, the Society of Cryobiology, whose members are studying the effects of low temperatures on living tissue for procedures such as IVF, passed statutes in the 1980s threatening to expel any member who participated in “any freezing practice or application Deceased "participates in anticipation of their resuscitation."
Former company president Arthur Rowe wrote that "believing cryonics could resuscitate someone who was frozen is like believing you can turn hamburgers back into a cow," while another former president said the work the cadaver freezer was "cheating rather than either belief or science."
Society has since relaxed, and while its formal position is that cryonics is "an act of speculation or hope, not science," it no longer prohibits its members from the practice.
Alcor's Mr. More said there was much less hostility from medical and scientific institutions than there was five years ago when there was often tension between rapid response teams and hospitals.
“It was pretty common for us to show up at a hospital and try to explain what we were doing and they'd say, 'You want to do what? Not in my hospital, you don't! ’" He said.
“They wouldn't let us in so we'd have to wait outside and it would slow things down, but that just doesn't happen anymore. Usually the employees have seen one of the documentaries on science channels and know something about our work. "
"Typically the reaction now is: 'Oh, that's fascinating, I've never seen that before." "
Peter Tsolakides, 71, a former Exxon Mobil marketing director and founder of Australian startup Southern Cryonics, said he was grateful that people in the country were "open to new things."
"I don't think there will be any public opposition here and the Ministry of Health has been really positive and helpful," he said.
An important difference between Yinfeng and most other operators is the Chinese company's greater willingness to sustain people who die without showing any interest in being put on hold.
This is viewed as an important ethical issue in the West as it could be quite a shock to someone to die, perhaps after coming to terms with their fate, only to wake up blinking at a laboratory ceiling light a few decades ago or centuries later.
"We don't like taking on third-party cases," said Mr More. "When someone calls and says, 'Uncle Fred is dying, I want to cryopreserve him,' we have to ask a series of questions before we even think about taking this case."
“Is there any evidence that Uncle Fred was actually interested in being cryopreserved? Because if not, we don't want it. Are there family members who are really against it? Because we don't want to lead a legal dispute. "
The procedural bias in the United States makes its cryonics companies particularly nervous. There have been many lawsuits from relatives of the deceased trying to stop the expensive cryonics procedure.
"You have relatives who think, 'Now you are dead, I can override your wishes and just take your money,'" said Mr. More. "It's amazing how often people try that."
A client's relatives did not tell Alcor that he had died and instead had him embalmed and buried in Europe. When Alcor found out about this a year later, it confirmed that his contract said he wanted to be cryopreserved regardless of the time, so the company received an injunction and had the body returned to Arizona.
Mr Drake said that the priority Western society gives individual choice in such cases is "a great difference from Eastern culture".
"In China, it has to do with what family members want, as well as medical treatment," he said. “Let's say grandpa gets cancer in China. Often times they don't even tell Grandpa that he has cancer and the other family members decide what treatments should be given. "
"You could then say, 'Let's cryopreserve grandpa,' and it has to be unanimous approval from the whole family – but not the person who is actually going through it."
Ms. Udalova said the Russian system was somewhere in the middle. Someone who dies without leaving written evidence of their intentions can still be cryopreserved if two witnesses testify that the deceased wanted to.
This can help explain a fascinating difference in the gender ratio of the individuals received.
For Alcor's clients, men outweigh women by almost one to one, and the imbalance is even greater for those registered with the Australian start-up. But there is an almost balanced gender ratio among the 80 patients of KrioRus.
"That is due to a cultural situation here in Russia," said Ms. Udalova from her office in the north of Moscow.
"Our customers are mostly men, but often they cryopreserve their mothers first because Russian men are only raised by their mothers."
When these male customers eventually go to their mothers in the company's metal containers, the gender ratio will likely move in the direction of more men, she said.
The Chinese, like the Russian men who want to start every new life with their mother by their side, are also amazed by the tendency of American men to plan a solo journey into the future.
"In the States, some family members sign up together, but there are a lot more individuals who sign up themselves and the Chinese don't really understand that," Drake said.
"I think in almost all cases in China a family member has signed their loved one who is near death."
In the future, if waking up is not a pleasure, there is a growing trend in the United States for people to pay tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to cryopreserve their pets, the cost being largely dependent on the size of the animal.
"If you want us to make your horse it will be different from your cat's brain," said Mr. More. "Right now we seem to have more pets than humans, and that's fine for dogs, but it's a little difficult for cats and anything smaller because of their tiny blood vessels."
“If you want to house a whole large dog, it costs about the same as a human because of its size. My wife and I cryopreserved our dog Oscar. He was a big gold scribble, but we basically just saved his brain to make it more affordable because I'm in Neuro anyway. "
In Russia, KrioRus' preserved cats and dogs have been joined by five hamsters, two rabbits and a chinchilla.
Life after freezing
To ease the jolt in trying to resume life in the future, most cryonics companies offer keeping keepsakes, "memory books", and digital discs to help a resuscitated patient rebuild memories or simply cope with nostalgia . Alcor uses a Kansas salt mine for storage and is also working on ways to put money in a personal trust to help fund a future life.
A final benefit that the Chinese cryonics enjoy is a more accommodating cultural environment, as Western religions focus more on the concepts of heaven and hell, and the body and brain are just the repositories of an eternal soul, not machines that can be toggled off and on at.
For example, Mr. More has little patience with religious critics of cryonics. “Where in the Bible, in the Koran or in the Bhagavad Gita it says: 'You shouldn't do cryonics'? It doesn't. In fact, there are some people in the Bible who have lived for centuries. "
"Remember," he added, "we're not talking about making people live forever, just maybe a few hundred years longer, and that's nothing compared to eternity."
When Christians complain that they don't want to be taken back from heaven by resuscitating their bodies, Mr. More reminds them that they may be traveling from the other direction.
“Are you sure you're not going downstairs?” He asks. “And if so, don't you want an escape clause? Cryonics may give you a chance to come back and do some good works so you have a better chance of getting to Heaven. "
Ms. Udalova in Moscow said some of her clients are covering their base by opting for both cryonics and a church funeral.
"Russian priests always agree to hold the service," she said. "You only have dry ice in the coffin in the church."