A Q&A with the First Human Set to Get a Head Transplant
"It’s something like being the first man in space, the first man on the moon."
The email Val sent to Dr. Canavero, subject: "i am ready for your experiments!"
On June 22, 2013, Valery Spiridonov sent the following email to Italian doctor Sergio Canavero:
"Dear Doctor Sergio!
I am a 29 years old disabled man with a muscle atrophy. I was so excited to read from newspapers about your research on head transplantation. Please tell me - what resources do you need for a successful operation? Can I be usable to you? I am ready to take part in any experiments, if you need.
With that 60-word email, Spiridonov, a Russian computer programmer and graphic artist, put himself on a path to become patient zero for the world's first head transplant experiment, scheduled to take place in 2017 (though many in the medical profession are very skeptical that it will ever happen). Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disorder, an incurable muscle atrophy disease. Most people with his condition don't make it past their 20th birthday; he knows he's living on borrowed time. A full head transplant is, he believes, his only chance for long-term survival.
Much of my weekend was spent hanging out with friends discussing the news: Some were too squeamish to discuss it, others utterly fascinated. In every case, the reaction was visceral, immediate, and unrelenting. Will he die? Why would he do that? It felt weird casually discussing this man's fate, especially when he's been happy to talk to the press. He speaks nearly perfect English.
"Someone needs to go further where no one has been before. The first spaceman was afraid, I'm sure"
Spiridonov got so many calls this weekend that he had to turn off his cell phone during a television appearance because his phone wouldn't stop ringing.
For a man who's planning to get his head chopped off and glued to a donor body, Spiridonov was in incredibly good spirits when I managed to track him down for a Skype call.
Hey Val, thanks so much for doing this. I know things must be crazy for you. Are you tired?
Just a little tired because of all the the press interest with me. I just got back from Moscow and slept a couple of hours, trying to answer all the email, all the messages, it's been a lot.
How many journalists have called you?
Oh, I think hundreds of people. I had to turn off my cell phone to get recorded in front of video cameras. It's pretty fantastic what's going on around me.
"I show them how I feel in my very weak body"
Were you expecting this kind of reaction?
I was kind of prepared that it could be like this. I'm not afraid of this attention because I do lots of social work before this experiment. I've done some politics, I meet with people during my regular work. I'm not afraid of cameras, I'm not afraid of people.
Why did you decide to come out now? You could have kept it a secret if you wanted.
This is an experiment of very huge scale. We must understand it's something like being the first man in space, the first man on the moon and things like this. It's a breakthrough in science, technology, and biology. We just couldn't keep it secret because people must know what's going on and what opportunities are going to happen. I need to tell people these kinds of operations are needed and demanded by hundreds of thousands of people in much worse condition than I am.
The operation is scheduled for two years from now. Do you have to do anything to prepare?
Today, I'm not doing something special. I talk to people, I describe what's going to happen. I show them that there are limited opportunities for people like me. I show them how I feel being in my very weak body. People like me need lots of attention from other people. We need care, we need support. We depend very much on relatives. We rely so much on others to help us and it's very depressing. Everyone needs to know this. We face these difficulties every day.
Me and Canavero, we do preparation for a conference of the most famous neurosurgeons in Annapolis (Maryland) this summer. He will make a presentation there, uncover some secrets there. He wants me to be there. I seek for support, I seek for people who can help me go to the States. I have a job, I earn money. I am a programmer. It's a regular job, but going to the States is hard work for me because I need to pay for my tickets, I need to pay for my friends' tickets who help me move.
"I haven't walked since I was 1-year old, since I was a little kid. I don't remember myself walking"
Let's talk about that for a minute. So much of the coverage has focused on what could happen to you, on whether this is going to work or not, but not many people have asked you about your past. What is your life like?
I work for companies that make educational software, programs for schools, programs for kids. I do primarily 3D graphics stuff there. I work through the internet. I wake up at 9 o'clock every day. My neighbor helps me to get up from the bed every day because I can't do it myself. I work all the day because I don't like spending time for things that don't matter. I don't watch lots of TV, I don't watch lots of films, I like to work. I like to produce something good, so I do that stuff and then, all day long, my mother helps me. She cooks, she helps me every day.
Has it always been like this? Your condition is degenerative, was it ever better?
I haven't walked since I was 1-year old, since I was a little kid. I don't remember myself walking. I don't have very depressing thoughts, I am OK to live like this, I adapted to live like this. I don't often visit doctors. Doctors can't help me anyway, because it's an uncurable disease.
Do you understand the science behind the surgery? Do you understand what's going to happen to you?
I am not a doctor, I don't have a medical education. I'm an engineer. I understand engineer stuff, but I totally trust Canavero.
You're not worried?
I'm not worried about anything. Someone needs to be first. Someone needs to go further where no one has been before. The first spaceman was afraid, I'm sure. I'm afraid, sure, but i understand that it must be done, because if you don't try it, it'll never happen.
The operation is supposed to cost $13 million. Are you worried no one will fund it or that it won't happen?
Projects of such scale are important to countries, to governments. Governments should fight to support and help him do this job. I don't think he worries about money either because it's a matter of humanity. It's important for human future.
What are you excited for? What do you want to do in your new body?
After this operation, whether I live or not, whether I can walk or not, any way it happens, there will be a huge science basis after that. People will learn how to do such kinds of complex things and it will help future generations I hope, and people after me. So, it's totally worth it.
Why wait til 2017, why not do it now?
This date is set up by Canavero himself, I don't know why.
How often do you talk to Canavero?
We talk once or twice a week. We share information and plans for the conference, and such things. We usually talk on Skype and email so I haven't seen him face to face, but he totally understand my disease.
Do you know why he chose you instead of the other people who emailed him? He said he's gotten hundreds of volunteers.
I don't know, maybe I was first or maybe I was more open.
You must have seen some of the things people are saying about this in the media, and other doctors who say it's not going to work.
I am happy to read them. I read comments, they are mostly good, people wish me luck. People understand why I need this. I am happy most people support this.
I know all the risks of this operation. Sure, no one has done this before and no one has the technology to connect the neural cord except Canavero. They're right to be skeptical, but I hope the doctor will share some of his secrets this summer.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.