Science Is Changing What It Means to Be Dead

Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng/
If you could freeze yourself until a future age, are you sure you’d want to?

By Judith ShulevitzNew Republic

There are worse ways to die than by freezing. To be sure, it’s extremely unpleasant, but only for a while. At first, the cold gnaws at your skin, which soon goes slightly numb, the blood shunted away from the surface to protect your inner organs. Your body shakes as it tries to gin up heat, your heartbeat quickens, your breath comes faster, but the farther your body temperature drops from its usual 98-plus degrees, the less you feel or understand. At about five degrees below normal, you develop amnesia. As more warmth seeps out, you grow apathetic, then fall into a stupor. Just before you lose consciousness, you may engage in a mysterious activity called „paradoxical undressing“ripping your clothes offprobably because at this point the blood floods back to your skin and you are suddenly very hot. Your kidneys start to fail. Urine may flow out of you, though you probably won’t notice; nor will you be aware that your breathing has now slowed while carbon monoxide builds up inside you. Your metabolism sputters like an engine out of gas. Your heartbeat becomes erratic. When your temperature sinks to about 75 degrees, your heart stops. Very shortly after that, your brain flatlines.

One of the ironies of hypothermia, the extreme loss of body heat, is that the attendant shutdown of somatic processes can save as well as kill you. A stilled heart and brain need little oxygen. A stalled metabolism slows the breakdown of cells and organs. This is why the frozen can sometimes be brought back to life. It’s also the reason doctors deliberately chill the living; it buys them time to operate on people suffering from cardiac arrest, extreme bodily trauma, and stroke. The virtues of cooling the injured have been known since the Greek physician Hippocrates recommended packing wounded soldiers in snow and ice, but the modern science of therapeutic freezing dates back around 80 years. Emergency-room physicians at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are preparing to take the procedure further by removing the blood of people likely to die from knife and gunshot wounds and pumping icy saltwater into their veins, reducing their body temperatures to 50 degrees. This is an unprecedented degree of frigidity, to be imposed with record swiftness. These doctors will flash-freeze their patients to apparent death in order to then have a better chance of keeping them alive.

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