The Cryonic Suspension of Stanley Penksa

From Cryonics, 1st Quarter 1996

By Tanya Jones

Stanislaw “Stanley” Penksa was born on April 13, 1896 to a blacksmith and his wife and was the second of five children. His parents came to the United States in 1890, hailing from Novytarg, Poland. Stanley, or “Stash” as his parents called him, had an older brother named Walter. Two years later, he had a younger sister. Susan lived to be only four. She was badly burned when she pulled a pan of grease from the stove. With wounds covering most of her body, little Susan went into shock and died before her family could reach the nearest doctor, who lived a full ten miles away. Five years later, sister Catherine was born, followed later by brother Joseph.

On the day the Titanic sank in 1912, the family moved from their home in Pennsylvania to the coal-mining town of Glenwhite, West Virginia. There, his family lived in a four-room house, with all the children sharing a bedroom. Mr. Penksa had been hired to take care of the mules which pulled the coal carts into the mines. Stanley and Walter also worked in the mines. Walter’s job was to manage the pumps which drained water from the tunnels, while Stanley operated and maintained the motor which hauled the carts. Together, they made S40 each month. It was in the mines that Stanley met Fred Blake. Fred’s job was to shoe the mules, and they became good friends. Fred later went on to play baseball, pitching for the Philadelphia Philles and the Chicago Cubs. Although they worked hard each day, they still found time for a little mischief. For fun, he and his friends would sneak into the St. Stanislaw Church and ring the bell.

When Stanley was 17, he left Glenwhite and went to Washington D.C. While there, he received a patent for a bathing suit insert which could be used as a floatation de-vice if the swimmer tired. (A few years later, he would decline an offer of $2,000 for the rights to the patent.) This was his second patent. The first was for an air mattress, although it was never developed because the glue he used was thought to be inferior.

After thoroughly exploring the Smithsonian Institute and the wonderful world of patents, Stanley went north to New York. There he boarded with a woman named Mrs. Buck and spent most of his time doing repair work on brick buildings. He was making about $100 each month, sending most of it home to help his family. Once, when he wanted to get more work, Stanley walked the streets with a sign advertising his services. This brought an avalanche of jobs, which would later fund his first construction ventures. He would eventually build and sell houses but lose everything when the Depression hit and his debts were too high. Stanley was undaunted. He went right back to work, starting over as a locksmith. Again he succeeded in working his way to building not only beautiful homes, but apartments and factories as well.

Contracting was Stanley’s most enduring profession, continuing for about forty years. But there were others along the way: during World War I, he was an “investigator”, a time about which he was secretive to the end; later in life, he raised Christmas trees with his brother and lived in a house on 30 acres at the end of Penksa Road in Worcester County; and he was even employed as a reporter for the New York News. As a reporter, he witnessed three executions, and Stanley would grin as he described sneaking into the autopsy room to watch the victims steam during the autopsy. Perhaps his greatest passion, eclipsing even his construction work, was his 47-year involvement with the Rotarians. He visited six continents, each time making certain to attend his Rotary meetings. He collected many Rotarian banners, which now proudly hang with the Worcester Rotary.

It’s hard to tell what drew Stanley to cryonics, but it also sparked a great interest. Like many cryonicists, he never married or raised a family. He received Cryonicsmagazine for many years to deciding to go further, but then he signed up quickly and wanted to know what else he could do. For things to go well during a cryonic suspension transport, steps have to be made in advance to inform local emergency officials (anyone who would be involved in a sudden death) about Stanley’s cryonic suspension arrangements. Stanley and his health care aide did what they could, but a little more was needed. Steve Bridge and I travelled to upstate New York in the spring of 1993 to negotiate the terms of Stanley’s eventual suspension. We spoke to the Fire Chief about pronouncement and emergency response. We spoke to the Coroner about autopsies and “embalming”. Steve and I gave a presentation to the hospital ethics committee. The reactions were mixed. Everyone we saw spoke well of Stanley and considered him a pillar of the community. Many newspaper clippings detail his donations to various local civic organizations, including the hospital and fire department. Perhaps they wanted to try and repay him for his generosity, for although our initial trip yielded little in the way of written affirmations of assistance, when the time came to suspend Stanley, cooperation came from every necessary corner of the county.

The last time we saw Stanley, before his suspension, was in the late summer of 1994. He had come to us, wanting to see the facility before he died. Stanley would frequently remind us that his doctor had pronounced him fit enough to live to at least 105 and happily spoke about the future and reaching 100 years of age. He gave us all a chuckle at his determination and optimism when he flew home with a copy of The 120 Year Diet.

By the time he reached 99½, Stanley’s health was worsening. His cognitive awareness was failing, and with each passing season came progressively worse bouts of pneumonia. By now, he was bedridden. Still, his heart held steady. On the morning of November 26, 1995, that would change.

That morning, Stanley’s staff had been unable to wake him, and called Alcor and the paramedics at about 8:10am (MST). When the paramedics arrived, they began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) but were unable to maintain a pulse. Stanley was rushed to the hospital, where his condition was stabilized. The emergency room physician even called Alcor and told Steve Bridge that Stanley was doing well and speculated that he might be able to go home after a brief hospitalization. Initially, we had been told that Stanley had already been pronounced, so this was welcome news. Still, Hugh Hixon and I took off for New York, just in case things took a turn for the worse. We had just taken off for Atlanta (the first leg of our journey) when word came in that “worse” arrived, and Stanley had just been pronounced legally dead at 11:45 (EST). The emergency room physician who had previously called helped to pack him in ice and administered both CPR and the medications described in a letter I’d written the year before. Stanley received heparin, sodium bicarbonate, streptokinase, and Maalox before being transferred to the local mortuary to await transport.

Hugh and I flew into Albany and drove for an hour or so before arriving at the mortuary at 9:30pm (EST). Frank Heller, the mortician and County Coroner, who had met with Steve and me during our reconnaissance mission. He was both familiar with our protocol and quite willing to help. He performed the femoral cutdown while Hugh and I prepared the tubing and Viaspan. The cutdown began at 10:40pm and was completed in 10 minutes, at which time we began the Viaspan flush. By 11:07, the flush (of about 15 liters) was complete, though there were signs that the perfusion was not as thorough as we would have liked. We then packed our patient in ice for an early morning flight to Phoenix. All of the ice used had been taken from a freezer that Stanley had purchased to store ice for an emergency. (It was a very good thing that Stanley had taken this precaution, because ice would have been hard to find!)

Hugh and I then spent a couple of hours at a hotel half-way to the airport, getting some sleep before leaving. (Steve Bridge coordinated all transportation arrangements for our team. He has been doing this during our recent suspensions, and he does it well.)

Because it was the high-traffic Thanksgiving weekend, we were booked on different flights. It’s unusual to split our team like this, but there was no alternative. The first air-line Steve tried couldn’t get the patient on a flight that would arrive in Phoenix sooner than 5:30 the next evening. He then contacted United Airlines. Their representative, Janet Fiedler, could do better. Routing through Chicago, the patient could arrive at 2:50 in the afternoon. There were earlier flights with seats available, but the cargo section of the airport was closed until six the next morning, with “check-in” required at least two hours before departure. So we split up, and I took a 6:00am flight, and while Hugh would accompany the patient four hours later.

We weren’t the only ones looking for tickets. A crew from the Discovery channel filmed most aspects of the transport and each subsequent part of the cryonic suspension for a documentary on Alcor and cryonics. They kept surprisingly out of the way, and even lent a hand. The producer, Bill Hayes, took most of the photos in our file of this suspension. Ms. Fiedler had even arranged for access to the tarmac, so they could film the patient being loaded on the aircraft — something that few cryonicists ever see! She may even have been responsible for getting the film crew seats on the same plane.

I arrived in Phoenix late the next morning. When I got to the lab, I found that our crack prep team had been working hard through the night to get things ready. Derek Ryan and Matt Milkovich had gotten together and mixed the perfusate. Scott Herman, who would be out of town the next day, joined Mike Perry in setting up the cooldown system before he left. Scott had also worked with Sergei and Victor Ochkur to prepare the operating room. When I got to the facility, almost everything was in place, and the members of our suspension team had been contacted and were scheduled to arrive an hour or so later.

The patient arrived at Alcor around 5:00pm (MST) and surgery began shortly thereafter. Rhonda Iacuzzo prepared the burrholes, while Keith Henson and Naomi Reynolds assisted Dr. McEachern with the open heart surgery. When the burrholes were complete, Rhonda moved to her usual position as surgical nurse. The surgery went smoothly, and none of the complications one would expect to occur during surgery on a centenarian (like the tearing of a fragile aorta, as occurred with a past patient) happened. Ralph Whelan and Jay Skeer were the perfusionists, and they managed to filter high-concentration perfusate while simultaneously pumping the low-concentration perfusate into the patient. Judy Muhlestein and Matthew Sullivan collaborated on the sample collection, and Brian Shock calculated glycerol concentrations. As has been the trend with recent suspensions, this one went more smoothly than the last.

The perfusion was stopped at 10:26pm, and the final molar glycerol concentrations measured were 6.92 (arterial) and 6.45 (venous). The final burrhole sample was taken eleven minutes after the last arterial and venous samples and was 5.65 M. The cooldown went fairly smoothly, al-though a few problems arose with the automated system. Still, it may have been our best cooldown ever — our new protocol was found to greatly reduce cracking, as monitored by a detection device being developed by Hugh Hixon.

Later, we were all given a bit of a scare during the final-stage transfer — between the cooldown dewar and the permanent storage dewar. The electric winch used to transfer the whole body pods between dewars broke while we were trying to raise Stanley from the cooldown dewar. A bad solder joint in the controller caused the winch to work for raising the patient, but only sporadically for lowering him. With some effort, Dave Pizer was able to re-establish the broken connection long enough for Stanley to be returned to liquid nitrogen. According to Hugh Hixon’s calculations, the patient did not warm significantly. The faulty switch has now been repaired, and a manual system has been installed as a backup.

Stanley Penksa is the thirty-first Alcor patient (12th whole body), and is one of the earliest-born people in cryonic suspension today.