Cryonics: Bodies in deep freeze in Arizona

NEW YORK – When Mark Mehlestein’s heart stops beating, he will be pronounced dead by a physician. Yet, within moments, a small group of people will take his body and place it in a separate medical facility. They will perform aggressive life support measures, cool his body and drain his blood and replace it with an organ preservation solution. Then his head will be severed and placed in a container, where the temperature will gradually drop to that of liquid nitrogen.

But Mehlestein will still not be dead, at least according to him. As a member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, Mehlestein believes in cryonics. Its basic principle is that current medical technology is not advanced enough to save lives. Therefore, ill people are frozen, or “suspended,” in the hopes that, someday, medical science will catch up and they may be treated and brought back to life.

Mehlestein, for his part, expects to awake healthy, sometime in the future.

“Human beings are an arrangement of atoms,” the 49-year-old computer scientist from Tucson, Ariz., said. “I believe there is no reason why this shouldn’t work.”

Established in 1972, Alcor is the largest provider of cryonics services worldwide, and one of only three such facilities in the United States. With 660 members signed up for future preservation, it has become the main address for those seeking immortality.

The foundation entered the national spotlight in July 2002, after it was alleged to have frozen the body of baseball great Ted Williams. While Alcor refuses to discuss specific cases, it confirms that it has 59 “patients” in its Scottsdale, Ariz., facility.

“We look at these people as damaged, as injured, but they are not dead,” explains Ralph Merkle, a professor of computing at Georgia Tech and a member of Alcor’s scientific advisory board. “Today’s doctors may say that they are dead. But we want a second opinion 100 years from now.”

Others share his view. A small facility in California performs the procedure, and the Cryonics Institute in Michigan was licensed earlier this year as a cemetery, allowing it to continue operations under state regulations. That institute has 51 patients and nearly 400 members.

Cryonics proponents are banking on advances in the field of nanotechnology, which would allow doctors to treat patients on a molecular level, thus leading the way to a possible remedy for currently incurable cases of cancer and AIDS. The patients would be treated, released from suspension and renew their lives. This prospect does not seem unlikely to the true believers.

“The future should sound futuristic,” Merkle said. “It’s the future.”

Since the publication of Robert Ettinger’s “The Prospect of Immortality” in 1962, cryonics has fascinated sci-fi enthusiasts around the world. Dr. James Bedford, a retired psychology professor, was the first person to be frozen in 1967, and his body is still held at the Alcor facility. Most of Alcor’s members are “male, geeky, techie types,” according to Tanya Jones, Alcor’s chief operating officer.

Alcor patients include AIDS and cancer patients and many who died of old age. One man committed suicide. His family hopes that eventually he will be revived and a cure can be found for his depression.

Jones, 35, said that although her “medical training is informal,” she has taken part in about a third of the procedures since 1990. After each member is pronounced legally dead, Alcor takes custody of his or her remains and begins preserving them. Members have two options: whole-body suspensions and those in which the head is removed.

It’s not cheap: The price of the former is $120,000, while the later goes for $50,000. The charges are usually financed by the members’ life insurance policies.

Recent technological advances allow Alcor to suspend patients in liquid, thus eliminating the tissue damage caused by freezing and increasing the odds of revival in the future.

Jones views cryonics as a “very natural extension of life” and considers the post-mortem operation a type of life insurance.

“The alternative is not a bad thing,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ve lost nothing. But if it does work, I have a chance for another life.”

Not everyone is as optimistic. Many see the practice as a scam and question its medical and scientific basis. In February, the Arizona House Health Committee unanimously voted in favor of a bill to require Alcor to be regulated by the state funeral board.

Cryonics also unsettled some religious leaders. “We believe that the way to immortality is through death, not technology,” said Dr. Dale Irvin, dean of the New York Theological Seminary. “Our society is in denial about death. Cryonics seems to be an expression of that.”

Such reservations do not deter cryonics supporters. “The basic concept is simple,” Merkle said, adding that he simply wants to live as long as he possibly can. “The purpose is to save lives.”

Jones went one step further. “This whole country was founded on the pioneer experience, trying to escape oppressive systems,” she said. “Death is the most oppressive system I know.”