From Cryonics, December 1990
by Linda Chamberlain
Note: This is a personal account by Linda Chamberlain of the cryopreservation of her mother. See also the technical report Cryopreservation Case Report: Arlene Frances Fried, which is one of the most comprehensive studies made of a cryopreservation case.
Arlene’s blue eyes sparkled as she told the hospice nurse, “I feel wonderful!” Her voice was weak. It trembled as she continued. “When Linda was about to have her first Christmas, I had a cyst on my ovaries about the size of a grapefruit. I hated the thought of being in the hospital. I’d miss Linda’s first Christmas. My doctor told me I could use morphine to get me through to January. My husband’s sister, a nurse, gave me the injections. Since my doctor told me I wasn’t the type to become addicted,” Arlene’s eyes sparkled again, “I used to say I needed more morphine even when I didn’t!”
My mother was quite a character, a great role model in many ways, and a woman who became a strong cryonics convert in the last few months of her life. Twenty years ago cryonics was, to Arlene, just another of those phases her daughter was going through. Ten years ago, it was less satisfying than reincarnation. Even five years ago, when I finally got her to sign suspension paperwork, she did it only for me — not out of personal devotion to the idea.
But coming face-to-face with terminal cancer at the young age of 68 brought about a tremendous change in her attitude. She told me that her conversion resulted from more and more scientists being supportive of cryonics. A cursory understanding of nanotechnology helped, too.
The change, whatever the cause, was dramatic. When she learned about her cancer in January, she still told her friends and the hospice nurses about cryonics only at my urging. My feed-back from these people remained that “she’s only doing this because you want it.” But by May she told everyone proudly that she was a “committed cryonicist.” The hospice nurses invited her to speak about her involvement in cryonics at their monthly meeting. She told me with excitement that she needed 12 information packages. Arlene never made that presentation. Her health failed too soon.
This brings up two important points about her change in attitude. First, it is much easier to work with doctors and nurses when they know that the family interests are not in conflict with their patient’s. Second (and another important factor in Arlene’s conversion), her enthusiasm greatly improved the response we received from the health care givers.
Never would I have thought that Arlene would care whether or not these people respected her views. In fact, her life had been a constant struggle against societal mores she felt were wrong. But, as startling as it was, Arlene admitted that her greatest motive in hiding behind me on this issue was her fear of the loss of their respect. She told me a couple of times (in those final days her short-term memory faded, and we heard many stories more than once) that she earlier “could just see the headlines!” She drew a newspaper banner in the air over her frail body. “Scandal in Sonoma. Local Woman Frozen!”
She was nervous when we first made an appointment with her general practitioner. She knew my main purposes were to inform him about our cryonics goals and gain his cooperation. She feared deeply that he would be “turned off.” She feared that a doctor with whom she had bonded over the years — with whom a deep and mutual relationship had formed — would be lost.
But to her relief and joy, Arlene found her doctor responding with quiet acceptance and willingness to help. We first noticed her attitude shift at this point. Her oncologist was less enthusiastic, but didn’t indicate that he would oppose her wishes. (Although later he would become unpleasant to work with.) Arlene’s spirits were raised another notch when she heard that the mortician (a woman) had smiled proudly and said, “Just think! Right here in Sonoma!” And the positive trend continued.
A few days later, I met the head hospice nurse for the first time when she came to make her scheduled house call. As I informed her about mother’s arrangements, she displayed genuine enthusiasm and eagerness for more information about Alcor and cryonics. I provided her with a “blue book,” which she quickly snatched and protectively stashed into her briefcase as she “asked” if she could keep it.
I answered her questions about what would be done after Arlene deanimated (heart-lung resuscitator applied to circulate protective drugs and prevent coagulation, to prevent acidosis, stabilize cell membranes, adjust metabolism, calcium channel blockers, blood volume expanders, free radical protection, et cetera, followed by an ice bath to lower body temperature and limit ischemic damage). The hospice nurse left excited that day. Arlene grew more excited too, and her attitude and commitment raised another notch.
The hospice nurse called the next morning. She had discussed our needs with the supervisor at the hospital, who was concerned for the hospital’s liability. The hospital administration wanted to help us, but their legal staff informed them that they could not become involved in any cryonics operations — they must limit themselves to their normal hospice activities.
I felt my first dose of fear that we might run into opposition. I was also fearful that this might burst Arlene’s enthusiasm. I assured the hospice nurse that Alcor had all the trained personnel needed. I told her that all we needed was someone to pronounce legal death so Alcor personnel could proceed without delay. I was assured that they could help us in this regard.
Mother, who had been sleeping, displayed a sudden and surprising awareness. She sat up in her reclining chair and asked, “If I die suddenly, can you pack my head in ice until Linda can get here?”
The hospice nurse said, “No Arlene. That isn’t part of our hospice role.” Arlene sat back. It worried her, but she didn’t ask me how I planned to solve the problem. I wish she had. The next day, when her best friend, Coleene (a pseudonym), came by to visit, she told her friend that cryonics had become a very personal commitment for her and since the hospice nurse couldn’t pack her head in ice, would Coleene do that for her!
Coleene paled, but held her voice steady and agreed. I would have advised my mother against such a request had I known her plans. That was too much to ask of someone who does not share our view of cryonics. But Arlene’s spontaneous question gave me no way to change things.
The next morning, Coleene called to tell me of the sleepless night she had had, bound up in anxiety over the thought of packing Arlene’s head in ice — after she’d died — and misery at the thought of breaking a promise to her best friend. I assured Coleene that I understood her dilemma and that we would be able to handle the problem.
As things turned out, a tumor in Mother’s brain caused her to lose the use of her right hand and leg. We needed someone who could live with Arlene and help make her daily routine easier. She did not want to live in Tahoe (she hated snow), and being removed from her own home, friends, and pussycats would have been a hardship we did not want to impose.
I called Alcor to see if they could suggest any suspension members who could fill this need (and put ice on Arlene’s head in an emergency!). Mike Darwin and the staff at Alcor immediately came up with several candidates. Benjamin Hartwick was a single young man, an Alcor suspension member, between jobs, and found the notion of spending a few months in California’s wine country while helping another Alcor member a pleasant one.
In return for room and board and a salary, we were able to provide 24-hour companionship for Arlene (the hospice nurses visited her home several times a week to provide nursing care). Details were beginning to come together nicely. And most important of all, Benjamin liked cats. The feeding and pampering of Arlene’s three cats, to the standard and style to which they were accustomed, was Arlene’s primary qualification requirement for her companion.
Arlene began to improve. Dramatically. She could sign her name again, she could walk (short distances) without assistance, sometimes even without a walker. She could even do a “bump and grind” for appropriate visitors! With Benjamin’s care and companionship she was up and around again and hopeful that she might actually be in remission.
We were warned that she had a very aggressive form of cancer, that it would be an up-and-down course, and, worst of all, that just when she felt strong, it might suddenly take a nasty turn. That is what happened. The cruelty of her disease revealed itself. Arlene was suddenly bed-bound again and without appetite. Without energy to enjoy life. A tragedy for one who had always lived life to the hilt.
Being a Kaiser patient, and with a new Kaiser hospital just finished in her area, Arlene now had a new oncologist (a change we both welcomed). Our deflation over Arlene’s downturn would find some counterbalance in our visit to the new doctor.
Although most of the medical professionals with whom we had dealt up to this point were cooperative, I still confronted the tedious necessity of educating them on the subject of cryonics. Inside my own head I began to sound like a broken record. To my astonishment, though, when I explained our objectives to the new oncologist, he responded with, “Is she neuro or whole body?”
This doctor had been the oncologist of a cancer patient frozen by Alcor several years earlier! And, in his own words, he was impressed with Alcor, their people, their equipment, their knowledge, their commitment, and the way they move all those people and all that medical equipment around the country to freeze their members!”
Now we had a cooperative mortician, two cooperative physicians, and hospice nurses. Next we needed to find an air ambulance to fly Arlene (in her ice and water bath) and the Alcor team to Riverside — after stabilization at the mortuary — to complete the suspension. The first company I called was enormously helpful and cooperative. The owner even gave me his home phone number in case any problems occurred while he was not there. He even encouraged me to use the private number 24 hours a day if I needed assistance.
In spite of all this good fortune, Arlene became very depressed. She had given up hope of a remission as her energy levels had continued to fall. The cancer wasted her flesh rapidly (she lost 90 pounds between January and June). Without hope of remission, she did not want to draw out her decline. To Arlene, the thought of dying in a hospital with breathing tubes in her nose and feeding tubes in her stomach was unbearable. She asked her oncologist how much pain medicine to take in order to die.
We were alarmed by this, and worried that Arlene might do something without discussing it with us first. . . something which could cause her to become a Coroner’s case. We discussed Arlene’s idea with her general practitioner to see how he would respond. Although it would not be an unusual situation, he told us he would have to report it to the Coroner. Understanding the situation, Arlene agreed not to do anything which might put her in danger of an autopsy (for suicide) without first discussing it with us.
This required a great deal of courage from Arlene. Before her conversion to cryonics, she had made up her mind that she did not want a wasting death or to force family and other loved ones to suffer through a slow termination. She had resolved (if such a disease should befall her) to die of carbon monoxide poisoning in her own garage — taking her cats with her.
We talked to the hospice nurses and to her general practitioner to see if there were any humane alternatives open to her. If she refused food and water, we were told, the current medical ethics would accept this as a natural death.
There seemed no other way. Yet if an experimental animal were treated the way dying human beings are required to be treated, the researchers would be jailed for “cruelty to animals.” Society would allow her cats to have a humane death, but Arlene must suffer.
I asked her to tell me honestly if I asked too much of her. I knew that earlier she had only been signed up to be frozen “because I wanted it for her.” Now I was asking her to give up her “painless death,” to suffer the slow and degrading death required by our current societal ethics. I loved her and wanted her to share the future. She had given me life. Now, I wanted to give her life. But. . . was I asking her to pay a price that — to her — might be too great, even for a loved one?
We both had tears in our eyes. She thought it over. Then she took my hands in her own and said calmly, “I want to be frozen. We’re tough broads. We can do this.”
The next day, Arlene stopped taking food or liquids. Actually, she had eaten almost nothing for three weeks, due to the effects of her cancer. We called to inform Alcor of her decision. Without food and water, few people survive more than seven to ten days.
The hospice nurses visited Arlene daily and were on-call by beeper to pronounce death. But their best response time would be 10 to 20 minutes. For a cryonicist, this is an eternity of cellular degradation. We had to do better. At our request, her GP wrote orders for a registered nurse to pronounce. We would hire RN’s to stay with Arlene 24 hours a day when the end was near. It was the only way we could overcome a 10 to 20 minute wait after legal death before Alcor could begin stabilization procedures.
Once again the responsiveness and interest of the director of the nursing registry amazed me. It wasn’t the first registry called, but we were again met with genuine hospitality and eagerness to be involved in our cryonics operation. In fact, the director asked for literature to offer to others as “all we have now is information about the Neptune Society.”
On her third day without water, Arlene’s energy level dropped markedly lower, though she could still swish out her own dry mouth with water and use her spittoon. She could also still light her own cigarettes. Arlene loved smoking (even though they were the cause of her early deanimation), and she enjoyed her cigarettes to the end.
She woke in a panic. She knew her garage was stuffed with boxes full of cryonics equipment — the Pizer tank, the Thumper, oxygen, and a freezer with 200 pounds of crushed ice. But where were the Alcor people? “What if I die suddenly,” she asked. “Get the equipment in the house! Get the medications ready! When will Alcor get here?!”
“Mike Darwin’s plane will be in at 8 PM tonight,” we assured her. “He’ll call in the rest of the team when its time.”
Those last few days were far more difficult than all the previous months put together. Waiting for someone we loved to deanimate. But Arlene had enough grit for all of us. While watching a news program about armed forces in one of the many trouble spots somewhere abroad, she shook her head and said, “Are you sure you want to stick around? Why not book passage on my cruise ship and come with me?”
Even though the end of her own first life cycle loomed near, she characteristically thought of others. Thomas Donaldson had come to Sonoma with several other Alcor members to meet Arlene (some suspension team members, others just concerned members). She liked Thomas a lot, admired his courage, and spoke of him often. One day she expressed her feelings of admiration for his struggle against the system; she wanted to make a video tape that might in some way assist Thomas. The effort exhausted her. She slept the rest of the day.
Too many things had gone well. We were well overdue for some bad luck. Our first serious roadblock was an attempt to get an apnea monitor to check Arlene’s breathing while she slept. We feared she might die in her sleep and be unnoticed for many minutes. Unfortunately, all the local oxygen suppliers had this equipment only for infants, and would not alter the equipment for an adult. Even Mike Darwin could not get them to make the alteration for us.
The next — and worst — problem began when we called the nursing registry to arrange for the RNs who would stay with Arlene around the clock. Fortunately, Arlene lived longer than we expected, giving us more time to solve this brewing and potentially dangerous situation.
In spite of the extremely positive response I’d received earlier, we were now into the weekend and a different person was in charge. No plea would get us in touch with the earlier and more sympathetic director. This new person required that we have a signed letter at the house from Arlene’s physician, giving orders to have death pronounced by an RN. Even after we obtained the required letter, they couldn’t find a single RN who would work with us. . . who didn’t have ethical problems with our situation.
I asked the hospice nurse on duty to assure them. Unfortunately, the nurse on duty had to be the one with the least enthusiasm for our project. Her conversation with the registry nurse resulted in her own heightened concern about liability. (We’d apparently brought a very hostile person into the loop, and she was quickly eroding relationships we had spent much time building.) The hospice director now informed us that their legal counsel recommended that not even they should pronounce for us, that only the physician should pronounce!
We found ourselves so positioned that only the physician could pronounce — and, doctor’s schedules being what they are, we might be faced with hours of ischemia before the physician arrived. This could not be tolerated.
Fortunately, the stand-by crew at the home now included Jerry Leaf. We had the best on hand to fight for us. I asked the hospice nurse to make her normal morning house call so that Jerry could talk to her and find out why we were suddenly held to standards greater than those normal for the community.
After discussing the situation with the hospice nurse, Jerry found out the problem and began to plan the solution. The hospice director had requested legal advice (up to this time, they had not been worried about liability because the physician had given them directions to pronounce for him). Unfortunately, too many attorneys will respond to any unfamiliar situation not by investigating it first, but by going the conservative route, advising their clients not to get involved.
Jerry Leaf had one of the Alcor attorneys call the hospital legal counsel. That did the job! Hospice was once again on our side and cooperative. But we were back to square one again. The hospice nurses would pronounce, but by beeper they were still 10 to 20 minutes away at best. Notwithstanding our close brush with hours of delay, this was still unacceptable.
I called every nursing registry in the area. The hospice nurses were asked for assistance in finding registered nurses to help (the hospice nurses themselves could not stay 24 hours a day because of their other patients’ needs). Some registries expressed willingness to assist, but we were still unable to find RNs willing to take the assignment. It’s a small community, and we were beginning to think that they were all talking to each other — spreading the “fear meme” amongst themselves.
Then, the unexpected. A white-faced Benjamin Hartwick came outside to get me. “The Coroner’s on the phone. He wants to talk to you.”
When I walked into the family room to take the call, everyone looked uneasy. But our dread was without need. The Chief Deputy Coroner turned out to be friend rather than foe. A windfall just when we most needed one!
The community was buzzing, and the Coroner had been called by the unfriendly nursing registry. Already familiar with cryonics (did he attend a Coroner’s convention and hear Alcor speakers on the subject?), he was friendly to our intentions. He even called the sheriff and explained what we were doing so we wouldn’t have any problems if they were called by alarmed neighbors or others who might not understand and be concerned. He offered any assistance we might need.
We were thankful for this turn of events, but didn’t yet completely appreciate how useful his assistance would be. We still had not found a nursing agency that could — or would — supply us with 24 hour RNs. While brainstorming on how to solve this problem, Benjamin Hartwick came up with the suggestion that I make a list of all the health care (and other) professionals who had been cooperative, then call them and explain our problem, asking for suggestions and/or assistance.
We came up with a list of five names. I sat down at the phone, opened my notebook, and searched for a blank sheet of paper. Flipping through note-filled pages, my eyes scanned the list of nursing agencies previously called.
For the first time, I noticed a name on the list — right in the middle — which did not look familiar. Searching further through my notes, I could find no indication of calling this agency previously. Fatigue changed to excitement. I dialed the phone number and asked for the director.
There was one important difference this time: I gave the nursing director the phone number of the Chief Deputy Coroner and asked her to call him to verify that our needs were legal and represented no liability to their agency. Within a half hour, the nursing director called me back. She had spoken to the Coroner, to Arlene’s physician, and the hospice nurses, and was already at work locating RNs to help us! We had 24-hour nursing assistance within eight hours.
Working in an upstairs bedroom with nothing more than a video camera, a box of snapshots, and a tape recorder, Fred (my partner and husband) made a memorial video tape. With a background of music from the Carl Sagan “Cosmos” television series, he created a slide show from photographs, starting with Arlene’s baby pictures, working through her teens, her early marriages, cruises, and other vacations, her retirement years, and her last birthday party (in March). We showed this ten-minute video to all the nurses, the mortician, even the pilot of her air transport plane (who stopped by her home to pick up advance payment).
We felt that if these people knew something about Arlene’s life, if they could see some of the sparkle and joy that once lived in those blue eyes, if they could think of her as a joyous human being who loved living. . . they might be infected somewhat with our own attitude: that we were saving her life, not just engaging in some unconventional death ceremony. It had a profound effect on everyone.
Earlier, when I’d gone to the bank to get a cashier’s check to pay for the medical air ambulance, the cashier displayed courteous curiosity about why we had to airlift my mother to Southern California. “Aren’t there closer hospitals?” she asked. “There’s only one place in the whole world that can save her life,” I said. “And we’re thankful they exist.”
The bank cashier smiled sadly and said, “You’re lucky they’re there. Good luck.” I smiled back, thanked her, and said goodbye.
A little earlier Arlene had asked how she would get to Riverside. I told her a Cessna 421 would be waiting for her at the Santa Rosa Airport. I raised my hand in the air and said, “We’ll get on that plane and fly. . . .” She interrupted me with a weak smile, and raised her own trembling hand to join mine. Her eyes looked up toward the ceiling, and in a small, frail voice she said, “to the stars.”
Those who knew Arlene would smile at knowing her spunk prevailed to the end. Frail and spent as she was, her spirit was undaunted. When asked what she thought about the young man who would pilot her plane, her blue eyes sparkled and she said, “what a hunk!”
If there were two primary philosophical ideals that could sum up Arlene’s life for those who didn’t know her, they would be (1) “Pleasure should be the business of life,” and (2) “The more love you put out, the more you’ll get back.”
Arlene lived her life fully and joyously. Every nurse and other person who met her — even when she was weak and found it difficult to speak — described her as “a great lady,” or “a character,” or “a wonderful spirit.” Near the end, Fred told her to rest and leave the work to us. She replied, “But I want to see what’s going to happen!” Fred smiled and said, “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, Mama-san. You’ll have to wait and watch it all on video tape.”
Arlene would smile weakly when we passed a cold, wet swab between her lips and gums. She was too weak to utter words. When it became clear that deanimation was very near, we made sure she had enough pain medication to keep her sleeping and comfortable. I removed her ankh (Egyptian symbol for life) and placed it around my own neck. I removed her Alcor bracelet and put it on my own wrist; later to be worn always on my key ring (just as Fred has kept his father’s bracelet on his key ring for the last fifteen years — since his father was frozen).
All the struggle and turmoil to find a registered nurse to be with Arlene when she deanimated paid off. A nurse who had become very interested in cryonics (she slept in a sleeping bag in the back yard between shifts, rather than go home and possibly miss being on hand when Arlene deanimated) was with us when Arlene’s heart rate rose and her blood pressure dropped correspondingly. “You’d better come,” the nurse called to those making preparations in the next room. “She’s going.”
When Arlene’s heart stopped, the RN stood and moved aside. Mike Darwin and Benjamin Hartwick stepped in, picked her up, and carried her to the Pizer tank. Arlene was pronounced at 5:47 PM on June 9, 1990. The mechanical heart compressor was on her within two minutes after her heart had stopped!
Another RN (also very responsive and cooperative) had just arrived, an hour early for her shift, also anxious to be there when the suspension began. She was about ten minutes too late to see the very earliest firestorm of activity, but she didn’t miss out altogether, as she would have if she had not come early. Both nurses’ eyes were the size of milk saucers as eight Alcor team members (Fred and Linda Chamberlain, Jerry Leaf, Mike Darwin, Benjamin Hartwick, Naomi Reynolds, Keith Henson, and Arel Lucas) worked like unstoppable freight trains. The nurse who had slept in the back yard jumped in a couple of times and helped. The two of them came by the mortuary for a while and observed the washout. Both of them were so impressed that they have offered to assist other Alcor members in the future.
Due to weight, we had to have two planes. Naomi and Arlene flew in one. Mike Darwin, Jerry Leaf, and Fred and I were in the other. Benjamin Hartwick, Arel Lucas, and Keith Henson remained in Sonoma to clean up and prepare to get the Alcor equipment back to Riverside as soon as possible.
My heart raced as Arlene’s plane rolled down the runway. It being night, I could not see the Seneca lift into the air, but my heart soared with excitement and joy. As our own plane, the Cessna 421, took to the sky, the city lights below twinkled happily at us. As we rose above the clouds, moonlight danced on the cotton fluffs below, giving a surrealistic glow to our surroundings. I was ecstatic with the thought that Arlene would soon board Starship Alcor for a very special cruise through time.
We’d made a promise long ago, to meet again in the future at the most elegant lounge on the moons of Saturn, overlooking the rings, and to toast the old days: the struggle to survive. It will become a centennial event: meeting to share travelers’ tales. And being there, together, I know Arlene’s blue eyes will sparkle as we toast to success and to being together again!
A very special thanks to all those who helped save Arlene’s life: those on standby for nearly a week in Sonoma as well as those at Alcor Central who stayed up all night to see her suspension through. And thanks also to every Alcor member, for helping to support the organization which made it all possible. May we all toast to success and share a future cram-packed with reunions and the sharing of travelers, tales!
See also the technical report on this case, Cryopreservation Case Report: Arlene Frances Fried, which is one of the most comprehensive studies made of a cryopreservation case.