This lengthy human interest article looks at the cryonics industry through the lens of one person's end of life decisions and efforts to organize a good cryopreservation. Cryonics is the low-temperature storage of at least the brain immediately following clinical death, preserving the fine structure that encodes the data of the mind. It offers the only chance at a longer life in the future for those who will die before the advent of rejuvenation therapies, and it is a great pity that cryonics remains a niche industry while tens of millions go the grave and oblivion every year.
In the moments just before Kim Suozzi died of cancer at age 23, it fell to her boyfriend, Josh Schisler, to follow through with the plan to freeze her brain. As her pulse monitor sounded its alarm and her breath grew ragged, he fumbled for his phone. Fighting the emotion that threatened to paralyze him, he alerted the cryonics team waiting nearby and called the hospice nurses to come pronounce her dead. Any delay would jeopardize the chance to maybe, someday, resurrect her mind.
They knew how strange it sounded, the hope that Kim's brain could be preserved in subzero storage so that decades or centuries from now, if science advanced, her billions of interconnected neurons could be scanned, analyzed and converted into computer code that mimicked how they once worked. But Kim's terminal prognosis came at the start of a global push to understand the brain. And some of the tools and techniques emerging from neuroscience laboratories were beginning to bear some resemblance to those long envisioned in futurist fantasies. Might her actual brain be repaired so she could "wake up" one day, the dominant dream of cryonics for the last half-century? She did not rule it out. But they also imagined a different outcome, that she might rejoin the world in an artificial body or a computer-simulated environment, or perhaps both, feeling and sensing through a silicon chip rather than a brain.
She agreed to let a reporter speak to her family and friends and chart her remaining months and her bid for another chance at life, with one restriction: "I don't want you to think I have any idea what the future will be like," she wrote in a text message. "So I mean, don't portray it like I know." In a culture that places a premium on the graceful acceptance of death, the couple faced a wave of hostility, tempered by sympathy for Kim's desire, as she explained it, "not to miss it all." Family members and strangers alike told them they were wasting Kim's precious remaining time on a pipe dream. Kim herself would allow only that "if it does happen to work, it would be incredible." "Dying," her father admonished gently, "is a part of life." Yet as the brain preservation research that was just starting as Kim's life was ending begins to bear fruit, the questions the couple faced may ultimately confront more of us with implications that could be preposterously profound.