Pink, Grey, The Queen of Hearts, and Ted Williams

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Surgeons“Off with her head!” cried the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Off with his head is what Ted Williams’ son did to him. The ultimate baseball player’s head and his body live in separate cryogenic tanks in Arizona, ever since he died in 2002.

There was some question as to whether the slugger wanted to be frozen for the future. He called for his lawyer several times before his death, according to a recently-published biography[1].

His children made sure the meeting never happened. His son was particularly enamored with all the publicity of cryogenics. And the company which did the freezing-draining-antifreezing (you had to ask, right?) just loved the idea of having such a celebrity in their tanks.

Shades of Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper, in which the fictional hero is cryogenically frozen for 200 years. The movie’s hero was fictional; Ted Williams was very real.

Now there’s no moral lesson to be drawn from this. There are, however, two practical ones.

First, who knows what another person wants to happen to their remains upon death? The old form Living Wills and Healthcare Powers of Attorney didn’t ask.

And the current Advance Directive for Healthcare asks you to choose between burial and cremation, but that’s about it. Besides, nobody ever looks in it if there’s been no conflict over healthcare decisions.

So lesson one: let somebody (or lots of somebodies) know your wishes.  And weave what you want to happen into effective legal documents (which doesn’t necessarily mean your will, since it usually doesn’t get read until after you’re buried or cremated).

It also makes sense to make arrangements, or at least specify your wishes, for the funeral or the memorial. You like certain hymns? You want to be planted in a particular place? You can even specify speakers, pallbearers, etc. (You can’t when you’re in a coma, right?)  But the key is the same: let someone know.

Lesson two concerns organ donation. The Queen of Hearts would say “Off with their heads” for a different reason.

We all know the drama of a family’s agonizing over when to end life support, followed by the separate decision of whether or not to allow the deceased’s organs to be taken for transplanting. (The euphemism is “harvesting”; an awful word which used to be associated only with Thanksgiving.)

And we’re all for organ donations; they give life. They make lives happen.

But imagine yourself as the determiner, at the side of the fading patient. How do you decide when to give the green light? As a recent book points out, the harvesting team wants that body while it’s pink, not gray. So when does that happen?

A favorite physician who’s a veteran of hospital ethics boards says that the only reliable test is squirting ice water into the ear; it either gets a response or it doesn’t. (No, we’re not making this up.)

Others rely on a patient having a flat EEG, although a medical study released a few months ago challenges the common wisdom that a flat line is always the sign of a dying brain. Evidently it’s not. Or may not be. (Clear as mud, right?)

Obviously there’s no black-and-white, if-this, then-that solution.

And the author of that book (The Undead, by Dick Teresi) raises a unique consideration: everyone assumes that once the harvesting starts, the patient doesn’t feel anything.  And maybe that’s true.

But in light of that recent study, maybe it’s not true. Nobody really knows for sure.

So that’s another thing to share with family members and in your documents: if you’re an organ donor, have them pump you full of anesthesia first, before the harvesting begins . . . just in case.

Meanwhile, back to Ted Williams’ family.  His son, John-Henry, the acolyte of cryonics and advocate of freezing his father, died in 2004. His body now resides in a tank filled with liquid nitrogen near Ted. It should be an interesting first conversation between them down the road, if the cryonics people are right.

[1] Ben Bradlee, Jr., The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)