Zhan Wenlian died three months ago. Today, however, her body is neither cremated nor buried — instead, it is preserved in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees Celsius, waiting to be brought back to life one day.
Zhan, 49, is the first person to be cryopreserved in China, state newspaper Science and Technology Daily reported Monday. After battling lung cancer for more than a year, she was declared clinically deceased when her heart and lungs stopped working at around 4 a.m. on May 8 at Qilu Hospital of Shandong University, in eastern China. Ten minutes later, her body was prepared for cryopreservation at the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute.
The process took more than two days to complete. Between clinical death and the operation, medical staff had to artificially keep blood and oxygen circulating through Zhan’s body. Next, they had to replace the blood and water in her body with an antifreeze solution that would resist crystallizing even at extremely low temperatures. Finally, they laid Zhan in a cryopreservation pod — the only one of its kind in the world — that automatically dropped her body temperature to well below freezing.
For most patients, the cost of cryopreservation is prohibitively expensive. The liquid nitrogen alone costs around 50,000 yuan ($7,500) annually and must be replenished every 10 to 15 days. In the report, the institute stated that it was covering most of the expenses.
The Science and Technology Daily report referred to Dr. Aaron Drake, a leading expert in cryonics, as having participated in over 70 similar cases. When Drake used to work for Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an American nonprofit that advocates for and performs cryonics, he would call clients like Zhan “patients” because of his belief that death is not final, but capable of being reversed.
Science fiction fans, too, have been familiar with the concept for decades. In 1967, Dr. James Bedford, a psychology professor at the University of California, became the first person to be cryopreserved after he died of renal cancer at 72. His body remains frozen at Alcor today, along with those of around 150 other “patients.”
But the concept of cryopreservation is still relatively new in China. In 2015, Du Hong, editor of the Hugo Award-winning book “The Three-Body Problem,” was the first person in China to put her trust in this futuristic technology, electing to have her brain preserved at Alcor after her death. At a total cost of $120,000, she hoped this “meaningful” research might one day bring her back to life.
For those who cannot resign themselves to the reality of losing loved ones, cryopreservation offers some final hope. Zhan’s doctor, Lei Weifu, believes the technology is the only thing capable of relieving family members’ pain and, ultimately, of answering the great metaphysical questions of life and death. “The patient does not seem dead,” Lei told Sichuan-based media outlet Hongxing News on Sunday. “Their life just seems paused.”
When Lei explained the procedure to Zhan’s husband, Gui Junmin, he was unhesitating. “I trust this new technology — it’s entirely possible [that it can revive life],” Gui told Science and Technology Daily.
But despite optimism from some parties, moral dilemmas abound. “If we were solely pursuing cryopreservation, we would start the operation before death,” an employee at the Yifeng institute told Hongxing News. “But current laws mean we can only start the process after clinical death, following the same principals as organ donation.”
Due to the dearth of official regulations governing China’s nascent cryopreservation industry, Zhan’s body is classified as a donation to technological research — meaning Zhan and Gui are not technically clients, and so the Yinfeng institute will bear no legal responsibility should the project prove unsuccessful. “We can’t accurately predict a timeline for the development of future medical technologies,” read the agreement Gui signed with Yinfeng. “Resuscitation will depend on a huge amount of medical progress being made.”
Online, meanwhile, opinions are divided. Some, like Gui, trust in the technology, while others wonder whether it might be a scam. The U.S. saw similar debates years ago, culminating in 2009, when former Alcor employee Larry Johnson came forward claiming to have witnessed one patient’s skull being removed using a hammer and chisel and another patient with AIDS injected with a muscle relaxant that may have hastened his death.
But Gui, Zhang’s husband, doesn’t seem to care about such matters. “We just wanted to do this, and nobody could deter me,” he said. “Some friends and colleagues gossiping when they don’t know anything about this — I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care. This deeply personal experience affects me more than anyone.”
Editor: David Paulk.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that each time liquid nitrogen is replenished — every 10 to 15 days — it costs around 50,000 yuan. This is the cost of a full year’s worth.
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