As a kid I had a terror of dying. That’s pretty common and most people grow out of it. The mentality that binds cryonicists, though, is that we won’t accept the status quo. I signed up for cryonics in 1992, when I was 20. When I’m pronounced legally “dead”, my body will be cryonically preserved in the hope that science will eventually work out how to engineer a new me.
The only cryonics storage facilities are in the US and Russia. So while my day job is as a student landlord, in my spare time I run Cryonics UK and train a cryonics emergency team in my own home. We’re ready to administer the medical procedures needed to stabilise and cool a body before it is flown to the US on dry ice.
Around 40 people are on our emergency list – people who can call us and say, “I’m going, please help me.” They pay roughly £20 a month to cover the upkeep of our equipment and ambulance. To call us out when the time comes costs about £20,000, plus there’s the cost of long-term storage. With Alcor, one of two US storage services, the total bill will be $95,000 for “head only” and $215,000 for “whole body”. Most people cover that with life insurance.
I understand it’s a gamble – I could be burning my money. But the choice as I see it is pretty clear: it’s either a shot at life this way, or certain death.
Within 10 minutes of a patient stopping breathing, we aim to administer oxygen and chest compressions and place the body in a portable ice bath for cooling. Then there are drugs to stabilise biological systems before the body is removed in our ambulance to a mortuary. There, the blood is flushed from the body and replaced with an antifreeze solution. Within 24 hours of death, the body must have been cooled to at least -20C.
It’s a race against time, so for cryonicists there is a certain irony in the fact that it might be seen as a bonus to be told you’re terminally ill – at least it’s not a road accident; this way there will be time to prepare. As soon as we’re alerted, we start calling the patient’s doctor, coroner, mortuary shipping service, embalmer, airline, US embassy and Homeland Security to smooth the way. These days, no one blinks an eyelid. Not long ago, they saw us as cranks.
Once, though, I dealt with a patient who had been so concerned about what the neighbours might think that they hadn’t told anyone about their plans to be cryonically preserved. The hospital, GP and relatives were all in the dark. You can’t expect to drop that kind of thing on your family and for them not to be upset.
I’ve been involved in seven real-life cases. My first was in 2000. I sat with the patient in hospital for a week. Most of the time he was knocked out on diamorphine but we did talk a little. When you see someone take their last breath, they’re not just a body to you, they’re still a person. I did manual chest compressions on him and I saw it as delivering first aid – we treat patients with care and respect.
When I next saw the body after the journey to the mortuary, there was a slight shock at the sight, there always is. But you can’t afford to stand around, so you have to snap out of it.
In “head only” cases, we have to separate it from the body. Once, all the volunteers were exhausted but we had a head being cooled in a box. One of us had to hang around to monitor the process, so I babysat the head while everyone else got some sleep.
It doesn’t matter what happens to your feet, your ears and the rest. All that matters is that your brain data is preserved for future generations to do something with it. The big question is, what will that be? I may be revived into a world that I don’t understand and I can’t cope with. But I don’t have to stay, do I?
My wife and mum are neutral about the idea. Neither of them has a fear of death. My dad, on the other hand, says it’s immoral. But to me, it’s no more so than having a heart transplant – either way you’re trying to avoid death.