Death and taxes, as they say, are the only sure things in life. But death just got a little less certain, thanks to trials that will put seriously wounded patients in suspended animation. It could prove to be an incredible leap forward in medicine. The only question is what if you don’t want to wake up in the future?
To be clear, this kind of suspended animation isn’t the same as in science fiction movies, where astronauts wake up after hundreds of years in a pod on a spaceship. Instead, as this NBC News article explains, doctors in five US medical centres will use a cold saline solution to replace blood in “patients who’ve sustained gunshot or knife wounds that were so severe their hearts stopped.”
Researchers hope that the method will buy doctors an hour or two, enough time to save patients whose hearts have stopped due to blood loss. After the injuries are repaired, blood is pumped back into the patient, replacing the cold saline. Trials with pigs have been promising, with animals being “brought back from a suspended state undamaged.”
The most interesting part, though, is the potential to extend that window of suspended animation from hours to days?or even longer. Dr. Peter Rhee is a professor of surgery and the chief of trauma and critical care at the University of Arizona. As he told NBC News, “These are just baby steps, this idea of putting a person in a state where they are not really alive or dead. How long can that period be? We don’t know.”
And That’s where things could get tricky. Suppose that, in the next decade, the saline method is perfected to the point where you can be kept in suspended animation for months. Maybe even a year. Doctors heal your body, and you wake up in a world where things have changed. Perhaps a loved one has died. Maybe your job is gone, or global warming has levelled your town with a tsunami.
You never asked to be kept alive in a suspended state, and you’d much rather be floating happily in the afterlife of your choice.
Have we gone too far in our medical meddling? No, and here’s why.
Suspended animation, for all that it sounds like something out of Futurama, isn’t an ethical leap from many procedures we already use. One example is medically induced comas, many of them months long, like the one described in this CNN piece. Or the emergency medical care that might save a patient’s life but leave them unable to survive without relying on things like breathing tubes or other devices.
In many of those cases, patients are unconscious and unable to consent to a specific procedure, much as they would be in the case of suspended animation. But there are established protocols in place to deal with those scenarios, and they can apply to new medical treatments as well as old.
And if suspended animation does become a procedure that could keep you alive for years, it would be a simple thing to add such consent (or refusal) to a medical database or organ donor card. Individuals could even set a time limit?say, a few months but no longer than a year.
Will suspended animation, even for an hour, really work or is it just so much science fiction? Only real-life medical trials will tell, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.