Matters of Life and Death:
The Suspension of Michael Friedman

From Cryonics, July 1992

Part 1: Alcor’s 22nd Patient

Compiled from reports by Michael Perry and Ralph Whelan

Michael Louis Friedman, an Alcor Suspension Member since 1987, was put into cryonic suspension on June 2nd, one day after being shot in the back of the head. An attorney, Friedman was gunned down in a Los Angeles law library, slain by a disgruntled client he hardly knew. The client, 62-year-old James Sinclair, had a grudge against the police for alleged misconduct, and also a history of mental problems. The 38-year-old Friedman had agreed to take his case when another attorney dropped it after being threatened. Still trying to familiarize himself and photocopying some documents, Friedman was shot at least four times in the back of the head with a 9mm pistol. Then, when this gun jammed, Sinclair turned another weapon, a .380 caliber pistol, on himself.

Sinclair’s suicide in fact simplified the procedure for obtaining his victim’s body from the coroner’s office, since there was no prosecution to worry about. But the delay was considerable — about 26 hours — and the body meanwhile was autopsied. There are so many coroner’s cases to deal with in L.A., several dozen per day, of which roughly one in ten are murder victims, that a body will often lay in a morgue refrigerator, at above-freezing temperature, for two weeks before it is autopsied! The coroner, in deference to Mr. Friedman’s wishes to be cryonically suspended (with considerable negotiating by Alcor attorneys), agreed to process the case as fast as possible, and to refrain from sectioning the brain, though it was removed from the skull. Though it appears that we will be paying the Los Angeles Medical Examiner’s Office overtime fees for putting our patient ahead of some forty other cases, we at least secured his release in hours instead of days.

The brain, despite having visible tracks from the shooting and some of the pathologist’s cuts, seemed amazingly intact. The biggest problem, no doubt, was the long period of warm ischemia. Due to the wounds, Friedman was not perfused but only straight-frozen. His brain is being stored separately from the rest of his body because it was removed by the L.A. Medical Examiner to extract bullets. Since he was signed up as a whole-body, his other remains are also being preserved.

The story of Michael Friedman has an almost unbelievable, ironic twist. On Sunday, May 31, the day before he was shot, Friedman had a telephone conversation with Dave Pizer in Phoenix, Arizona. The topic: the possibility of filing suit in Los Angeles County for the right of a murdered cryonicist to be suspended without autopsy! Mr. Friedman was interested in taking the case. Unfortunately, he fell victim himself before he was able to do so.

Part 2: Matters of Life and Death

by Charles Platt

I was driving on the Riverside Freeway at the moment when Michael Friedman was murdered in downtown LA. I knew nothing about him, then. I had flown in to Los Angeles that morning from New York City on a one-week visit to gather material for a book that I’m writing about cryonics.

I didn’t find out about the shooting till I went out for an early evening meal and used the restaurant’s pay phone to call Mike Perry, Alcor’s programmer and caretaker. “This may not be a good time to talk,” Mike told me in his characteristically laconic style. “I have to spend a while putting labels on bottles. It looks as if we have an emergency suspension.”

Several months previously, I’d asked Alcor if I could help out at some future suspension. I wanted to experience it so that I could write about it authoritatively and convey to the general public the optimistic, life-affirming aspects. Now, by coincidence, within hours of my arrival, a suspension was about to take place just a couple of miles from where I stood.

I felt a quick leap of excitement. And then, just as quickly, I felt a twist of guilt; because this was a tragic event resulting from someone’s loss of life. And yet — perhaps I was not the only one who felt some excitement as well as a sense of dread. A suspension brings us into tangible, intimate contact with the essential mysteries of life and death. This is powerful stuff; it’s the stuff that we ourselves are made of. Inevitably there’s excitement here — the excitement of a chance to achieve some understanding, maybe even a sense of revelation, about the condition of being human.

I drove over to Alcor and found Mike Darwin dressed in surgical scrubs, shuffling surplus equipment out of the operating room. I was surprised to see him because I knew there had been hard feelings recently between him and some staff members. Still, he had contracted to provide his services during suspensions, and I soon saw that there was a clear, implicit understanding: at a time like this, personal differences were instantly put aside.

When I asked if I could help in any way, Alcor’s president, Carlos Mondragon, suggested that I could drive the ambulance when it went out to collect the patient. He also asked if I would take photographs of the suspension. I said I’d be glad to, although privately I wondered how I would react to being in intimate contact with a deanimated person. But I didn’t share my fears.

I was issued some scrubs of my own and felt foolishly naive, not knowing whether to put them on over my clothes or take my clothes off first. (Answer: strip down to underwear.) Then I started helping to rearrange equipment in the O.R., while Carlos placed urgent phone calls to attorneys and tried to get more information about what had happened to our patient.

Finally the O.R. was more or less ready, and there was nothing to do but wait and see whether a judge could be found to sign a restraining order against an autopsy. We still didn’t know much; just that Michael Friedman was an attorney and an Alcor Suspension Member who had been shot in the back of the head by one of his clients. We didn’t know what caliber of gun had been used, or to what extent Friedman’s brain had been damaged. Everyone was pessimistic about his chances, and Mike Darwin spent a fair amount of time trying to decide what suspension protocol would be most appropriate for a man who had sustained major head injuries. “I need a neurosurgeon,” he complained, looking weary in the knowledge that none was available.

Meanwhile, two Alcor volunteers called us with bulletins every twenty minutes from the coroner’s office. No pay phone was available in the office, so they were using one at a Jack-in-the-Box fast-food restaurant across the street. Their calls contained little or no news, at first, because Friedman’s body hadn’t even shown up yet. Apparently, the coroner’s employees made the rounds of various hospitals, and they didn’t return to headquarters until they had a full load of cadavers. Ghoulish, yes, and distasteful; but in the real world (as opposed to the world that cryonicists would like to see) there could be no imaginable urgency or concern about dealing with bodies who were classified as “dead.”

Finally, Friedman was delivered to the morgue, but our two volunteers were denied permission to place ice around him. So we sat around feeling angry and frustrated while our patient’s condition deteriorated and his chances of receiving a good suspension diminished, minute by minute.

Then Carlos learned that because this was a murder case, even if we were able to get an injunction against an autopsy, it could probably be overturned and the body could be reclaimed. Michael Friedman was beyond our reach, that night; so we went home. (Carlos stayed up working with our attorneys, to plan the next day.)

The next day, Alcor’s attorney succeeded in persuading the coroner to schedule the autopsy ahead of twenty-five other cases that were pending, thus cutting a day or two off our patient’s waiting time. We were told that we could pick him up after 4 P.M.

I was given a quick briefing on how to drive the ambulance, which was not much different from a big old pickup truck. Carlos gave us a map showing the location of the coroner’s office, and we set out, driving in convoy with him driving the Cryovita van. Tanya Jones was sitting beside me in the passenger seat, attempting to study accountancy from books she had brought along (she’s working toward an MBA during the moments when she isn’t working at Alcor). Mike Darwin was in the back of the ambulance, presiding over a large stock of bagged ice and a picnic chest containing 20% glycerol solution. We rolled along the freeway in a grim frame of mind, fully expecting to find that the person we were trying to save was beyond our help.

The coroner’s office was a boxy, modern, windowless concrete building— like a cross between a hospital and a police precinct. “Two of the worst places you might ever hope to visit,” Mike said with the satisfaction of someone who expects the worst and isn’t disappointed.

Around the back, we found a parking area close to a loading dock. Four plain white vans were standing there, and I realized, with a little jolt of understanding, that their function was to transport bodies. In the same area, dozens of stainless-steel gurneys had been arrayed in lines, as if they were waiting for casualties from some future massacre.

Carlos went into the building to deal with the paperwork. Mike and Tanya started opening up bags of ice. There wasn’t room for me to join them in the back of the ambulance, so I stepped outside. It was a hot, lazy afternoon. Two tough-looking men in blue surgical scrubs were standing around waiting for something, or someone. One of them turned away from me, and I saw that his scrubs were untied at the back, revealing a bullet-proof vest with “Los Angeles Department of Corrections” stenciled on it.

An employee stepped down from the loading dock carrying two huge transparent plastic trash bags, both of them stuffed full of disposable scrubs, paper towels, and white gauze. Everything was heavily stained with blood. He threw the bags into a dumpster and walked back into the building, whistling to himself. Meanwhile, another man wearing a surgical mask started using a broom to wash down the loading dock with disinfectant.

It was very quiet. The only noise was traffic on the freeway a few blocks away, and the occasional zzzt! of a fly being zapped by the industrial-strength insect attractors mounted at each end of the dock. This, then, was the reality existing just an instant away from daily life as most people live it: unceremonious oblivion in a place of concrete and white tile. Anyone who complains that cryonics seems grim, or morbid, or distasteful, should take a look at the alternative. A guided tour of the local coroner’s office could win converts to cryonics in the same way that a tour of a slaughterhouse might make meat-eaters into vegetarians.

When Michael Friedman was wheeled out, he was a pale shape in a translucent plastic body bag. We transferred him to the Alcor MALSS (Mobile Advanced Life Support System), then used the hydraulic lift to move him into our ambulance. Mike and Tanya donned latex gloves and peeled back the plastic, at which point we found that Michael’s brain had been bagged separately and placed over his groin. Carefully, Mike transferred it into our chest full of glycerol solution. He was surprised to find that the brain seemed more or less intact; not shredded by the gunfire, as we had feared. However, saw-cuts had been made during the autopsy, the two hemispheres had been almost entirely separated, and there were holes left by probes. Mike inserted a thermocouple into one of the probe holes and found that the brain was at 19° Celsius — about 66° Fahrenheit. Evidently, despite our requests, Michael Friedman had not been kept properly cool during the twenty-four hours since he had been shot.

Mike found that the body was going into secondary flaccidity — the state that follows rigor mortis, caused by enzymes breaking down proteins in the muscles. Similar reactions must have already begun in the brain. Thus, we feared Friedman would have little chance of being brought back to life with his personality and memories intact — largely because of the delays which we had been powerless to prevent. Still, he had paid for a whole-body suspension, and stated that we should freeze anything and everything remaining, so we were committed to doing whatever we could. Mike started placing ice over him, and Tanya started making notes that would go into his records.

Through all of this, I was taking photographs. With an odd sense of detachment I realized that I wasn’t feeling at all squeamish, even when getting close-ups of the brain floating in glycerol, tinged with blood, surrounded by fragments of pale gray tissue that had become detached and were floating free. Nor did it disturb me unduly to look upon the body. The skin was pale, but not so pale that it looked abnormal. There was no blood (it had all been cleaned away), and as far as I was concerned, he looked as if he was alive. I almost expected him to raise a hand, move his shattered jaw, or cry out. This was my denial, I suppose. But in wanting Michael to be alive, I don’t think I was different from most cryonicists. We all want to deny the inevitability of death; that’s why we do what we do.

When we got back to Alcor, we wheeled our patient into the operating room and conducted a more thorough examination than had been possible in the ambulance. His brain was x-rayed, and a drawing was made showing the damage that had been inflicted by the autopsy. Temperature sensors were placed in strategic areas of his body. We had to face the fact that it was too late for the kind of washout and perfusion that would normally have been done; the perfusate simply couldn’t penetrate to the places where it might have been effective. So after minimal preparation, Michael Friedman was wrapped and transferred directly to a big cooling tank, like a box-shaped Jacuzzi with thick walls of thermal insulation.

He was immersed in silicone oil, which blocks of dry ice were lowered into while the solution was stirred by a centrifugal pump. The temperature probes that had been attached to his body were plugged into a digital/analog converter, which fed their numbers into a daisywheel printer. Every few minutes the printer came to life in a staccato burst, tabulating the gradual descent to -78.5 Celsius.

Much later, Michael Friedman would be moved into one of the dewars full of liquid nitrogen. There, he will wait among his fellow passengers through time, journeying in stasis toward a future that we can only guess at.

Hugh Hixon, Ralph Whelan, and Tanya Jones remove Michael Friedman from the Alcor ambulance 27 hours after the shooting. Photo by Charles Platt.

Mike Darwin (background) examines the bullet path in the brain, while the brain remains submerged in a cooled 20% glycerol solution. Mike Perry (foreground) makes notes for the historical record, while Hugh Hixon looks on. Photo by Charles Platt.

Left to right: Carlos Mondragon, Ralph, Mike, and Tanya prepare for the move into the silicone oil cooling stage. Photo by Charles Platt.

Clockwise from top: Ralph, Mike, Mark Connaughton, Hugh, and Carlos lower Mr. Friedman into the silicone oil bath.Photo by Charles Platt.

I feel deeply privileged to have participated in a suspension, even though I wasn’t qualified to do very much and the suspension itself was severely constrained by factors outside our control. Decades in the future, I like to believe that people may look back at cryonics in the twentieth century with the same respect that we feel today when think of Goddard’s primitive pioneering work in rocketry or Pasteur’s early attempts to understand disease. Our resources are limited, and we still don’t know how to provide proper protection against freezing damage. But in attempting to overcome death as we do, we have taken a step that has never before been taken in the history of our species. To be a part of this effort, even on a very limited scale, is more than I ever expected to achieve in my own lifetime. I offer this written account to future generations as a humble little snapshot of cryonics as it actually was practiced, warts and all, on June 2nd, 1992.