Head Transplants: Not Just For Fiction

My newest book, Heads Will Roll, is a medical thriller about a doctor who is desperate to get his long overdue fame, fortune, and recognition by performing successful head transplant surgeries.  Notice that the word successful is in italics.  That’s because Dr. Farkis and his team have tried this surgery at least twenty-five times – all without success.

But that doesn’t stop him.

In his own words: “Success?  Every one of them contributed to the success of knowing more, learning, working towards that goal of someday . . .”

Most of the first half of the story is spent getting to know the rest of the casted characters, but all paths lead to Dr. Farkis. I began thinking about this subject after I had listened to a story on BBC about head transplants.  I was intrigued.  What if, in the near future, we could choose the body we wanted?  We could visit a store front, much like a neighborhood mom-and-pop shop, and we’d see all the available bodies lined up in a glass-enclosed case. We’d be able to choose the body we wanted, purchase it, have an operation, and wham bam! wake up with our new body.

Of course, this is all fiction . . . or is it?

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While researching for Heads Will Roll, I came across articles about a real-life doctor who is planning a head transplant surgery.  Seriously.  In 2017.  Yes, you read that right.

The doctor’s name is Dr. Sergio Canavero, and he plans on performing the procedure alongside a team of Chinese surgeons lead by Dr. Xiaoping Ren, who has reportedly performed “around 1,000 head transplants on mice.”  “It will be a success,” he insists.  [Link]

Get your wallets out.  If you need, or want, such an operation, it will cost you a whopping $11 million. It will take approximately 150 surgeons and at least 36 hours to complete.

Will this procedure end up being another avenue for a quick fix of imagined or made-up flaws for the rich and famous?

Even if Dr. Canavero and his team were successful, a single-word inquiry comes up – Why?  The honorable answer is that we’d hope that an operation like this would help those who have untreatable neurological or muscle-wasting diseases; in other words, paralyzed bodies. Most of us couldn’t, in our wildest dreams, even image the helplessness of having such a disease.  Some may ask what kind of life it is when one is required to spend all their waking hours in a wheelchair, not even able to scratch the itch on their nose? (Although we all know that many paralyzed people lead productive lives.)

However, as we know too well, human nature is fickle, and narcissism and our instant gratification society wouldn’t allow this to be coveted by only wheelchair-bound, paralyzed people now, would we?  This would be a new opportunity for rich people and women who hated their bodies enough to suffer pain (not to mention a huge ugly scar around their neck) and a three-week coma.

A quick fix, if you will.

One such man has volunteered to be the first recipient of the 2017 (real life) human head transplant.  He is 30-year-old Valery Spiridonov, who lives in Vladimir, Russia. Spiridonov has Werdnig-Hoffman disease, which affects the spinal cord and causes paralysis. He says that he wants a chance at a new body before he dies, and really, who can blame him? [Link] [In April, 2017, Dr. Canavero announced that the volunteer will now be a Chinese national because he moved the surgery to China.  I felt a little sad for Valery that his two-year dream of getting a new body were dashed.  But maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.]  [Link]

In my fictional story, you’ll meet Barry, who has a similar disease.  He spends most of his time in a wheelchair, but he is able to walk, albeit stilted and slow, with two canes that attach to his arms.  Barry wants a new body, but he’s not quite willing to show his desperation to his co-workers.

After he discovers that Dr. Farkis plans to perform an experimental head transplant surgery, he stalks him until he gets the chance to talk to the doctor privately, pleading with him and assuring him that he’d be the right candidate.  Barry is horrified when the doctor discloses that he had already performed many other unsuccessful operations, but in the end, that doesn’t deter Barry from begging to be his first success story.

How many of us would be that determined to get a new body?  Imagine what kind of ruckus it would cause. I could image a long waiting list, the participants buying and selling to jockey up to the top positions, and who knows, perhaps even murdering fellow candidates to be moved up even faster.  After all, there would only be so many doctors educated enough and willing to perform such an operation, therefore, the operations performed would probably be few and far between.

It’s also a very expensive endeavor, so only the rich could afford it, but maybe it’d become so routine that it would become a grandiose form of plastic surgery.

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And, here’s a thought: where would we get these bodies?  Not too many people die while they are healthy, unless they are old and die in their sleep.  Would people resort to … murder?  In Heads Will Roll, we hear about an omnipresent entity called Headbanger, who is rumored to be nabbing some of the young homeless men and women from the warehouse district in Oakland, California.

After all, wouldn’t the doctor need bodies to practice on?

Getting back to the real life scenario, there are many people who say that Dr. Canavero is nuts [Link] and that what he’s proposing to do is absolutely absurd. They report that it’d never work, pointing out its many flaws, but most importantly, pointing out that this type of surgery wouldn’t get ethical approval, let alone backing for the cost of the operation.

Now, I propose another question: How many unsuccessful operations would it take to finally have one successful one?  How eager would people in our world, like Valery Spiridonov, be to learn that they may not end up with a new, improved body, but end up only a statistical notation for history?

What’s interesting though all of this research is that I discovered something I didn’t know before. I hadn’t realized that a lot of experimenting had been done in this field already.

In 1908, Charles Guthrie wrote a book entitled Blood Vessel Surgery and Its Applications (which shows up on the dusty shelf in the fictional Dr. Farkis’ study) which apparently shows a photograph of a successful grafting of one dog’s head onto the side of another dog’s neck, creating the world’s first artificial two-headed dog. (Maybe this is where the fictional Dr. Farkis got his inspiration, since it is rumored that he experimented as a kid in his parents’ basement with mice and who knows what else.) Guthrie even noted that there were basic reflexive movements from the dog after the surgery was done.

Not to be outdone, Vladimir Demikhov, in the Soviet Union, transplanted a puppy’s head to a German Shepherd in 1954, and noted that the donor’s head lapped up water and milk from a bowl, bit the finger of a staff member, and bit the other dog’s ear.  [Link]

Heads Will Roll is fiction, but it has factual elements to it. After reading such articles while researching this fascinating topic, I wondered just how long my book would stay fiction.  Might I’ll have to change the categories for my book on Amazon in a few years, from fiction to nonfiction. Only time will tell.

Heads Will Roll, available at Amazon.

Read more at www.joaniechevalier.com

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