Viv spent nearly an hour choosing her body.
She considered going as her eight year-old self. She would stand eye-to-eye with her father in his hospital bed, shedding tears and crying: please don't go, daddy. But that was too obvious. It would offend him.
He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay.
She considered her eighteen year-old self. She would lean over him, scrawny and tall, her lips trembling with anger: you're being selfish, dad. But that would lead to shouting.
She considered every form, even reviving people from the past: her mother, her grandfather, her little sister Mary. How would her father react to Mary walking in? He would think himself dead. She could whisper a message to him: Stay alive, dad. God commands it.
In the end, Viv chose the look of her last days as a biological person. Thirty-one years old, her auburn hair cut short, her black eyes full of longing. She watched the body print in silicon over robotic armature.
When it blinked to life, Viv stood in front of a mirror. Her face was appropriately somber, her mind in sync with her new muscles. Without thinking, she stretched her arms, arched her body, twirled on her tiptoes. She had forgotten the pleasure of sensation.
"I should do this…" The voice resonated through her. She could not help but smile. "I should do this more often… often… often." Every repetition thrilled her with sound. She began to sing an old favorite: "Times have changed… and we've often…"
But she stopped herself. This was not a day for singing.
Viv clothed her body in a blue dress, packed her tablet in a briefcase, stood in front of the mirror one last time. "I'll be there in five," she said aloud, though she did not need to.
A man's voice answered in her mind: I'm not coming.
There's no point, said the voice. We know what he'll say.
"We have to try."
I won't see him dying, Viv.
The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days. Her brother made a habit of last-minute decisions, without concern for how they affected other people, most often her.
She remembered the day he became an everperson. It was soon after their mother's death. They were supposed to visit their father in mourning, but Gabe disappeared without explanation. Viv took the full burden of solace on herself. She sat with her father in a small room, with an old Persian rug and stale furniture. His mustache was beginning to gray, his eyes beginning to wrinkle. "She's with your sister now," he said. "Your mom and Mary, I can…" He leaned in to whisper, "I can almost hear them, at night, laughing on the other side. They tell me to wait… they tell me to wait." Viv nodded for him, pretending to believe, wishing she could.
Gabe did not return her calls that evening. The next day, she began to worry. The day after, she began to look. He made no effort to hide, he simply neglected to tell her the new plan.
Gabe had taken the money from his inheritance, and booked himself an everence. It was something new back then. Viv did not understand the science, but she knew it was a destructive process. His physical brain was destroyed by lasers that scanned it neuron by neuron, creating a digital replica. He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay. He became an everperson.
It took three days to complete. Viv went to the facility, a converted warehouse by the Bay Bridge. She watched the new Gabe being printed over robotic armature, taking the form of his last biological self, to help with the transition. When he blinked to life, she did not know if he would be the same person, or an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy. But Gabe was totally oblivious to the pain he caused her by disappearing in that way. No robot, she thought, could be so callous.
When Viv made her own decision to everize, she deliberated for weeks, thinking through the consequences and conversations to come. Afterwards, she sat with her father in that same small room, with the Persian rug older, the furniture staler, a new cat purring at his feet.
"But it's suicide," he said.
"It's the opposite, dad. It's eternal life."
"You'd be a robot. You wouldn't be you."
"Gabe's the same as he ever was," she noted the resentment in her voice. "He's just not… physical, until he wants to be."
Her father exhaled an Arabic phrase he was using more often in his old age. La hawla wa la quwata illa billah. She had never learned his native tongue, but she looked up the phrase to understand him better. It meant something like: there is no power except in God. It was a sigh of resignation.
"Vivian," he said eventually, "Your soul is not your brain. Your soul lives on. If you kill yourself, you... it's unforgivable. Don't you want to see mom in heaven? Mary? Me?"
She wanted to believe. She wanted painfully. But when she spoke, it was barely a whisper. "I don't think that will happen, dad."
Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon.
It was the first she had ever confessed to him about God or Heaven. In as steady a voice as he could manage, her father said: "You're an adult, Viv. You do what you think is best."
She came to visit sometimes, as an everperson. He could not tell at first. But as the years went by, as his eyes wrinkled, and his hair grayed, he noticed that Viv never aged. One day he stopped talking to her. Another she stopped coming.
Now he was waiting out the last days of his life alone in a hospital bed. Viv did not want to say goodbye. It seemed such a waste.
You don't have to, Gabe spoke into her mind. Get him to sign, say anything, say it's for selling the house. Once we have full power of attorney, we can decide for him.
"It's not right." She noticed herself speaking aloud on the hoverbus. Nine nervous faces turned to her.
It's not right, she continued in her mind. Dad never forced us to pray, never forced us to —
That was mom.
But he loved her. He never changed her mind, he raised us to question, and he quietly believed. He has every right to live his way, just like we did.
To live. Not to die... When he's an everperson, he'll thank us.
That gave her pause. It might be true. She remembered her first moments as an everperson, suddenly linked to countless other minds, waking to the full expanse of human knowledge like sunlight through an open window, breathless and unexpected.
Still, she said, it's not right.
So you want him to die?
I want to convince him.
And what if you don't? There was panic in his voice. Gabe steadied himself. You brought your tablet, Viv. You know what it's for. Get him to sign.
And what if I don't?
I'll figure something out, with or without you. I won't let him die, Viv. Not this day and age.
Viv kept quiet the rest of her way there. She played memories in her mind, of every conversation she ever had with her father, every time he read her a verse or taught her a parable. She looked for a way to convince him, some doubt, some chink in his armor of belief. But she got distracted by the world outside.
It was strange to pass for a time through physical space. It took longer than she expected. Now watching the sunlight refract through the hoverbus window, she was mesmerized. Every sensation felt more real, more vivid than her memory. "I should do this more often," she said aloud.
The hospital smelled like death. It had fallen into disrepair since her mother's illness. Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon, she thought. Her footsteps echoed through the halls, along with the sounds of old televisions playing old films to keep the patients company.
The room she entered had no sound, except the whirring machines. No light, except an eerie glow filtering through the curtains. The figure on the bed was her father, his breathing strained, his skin cracked like the desert. She closed the door behind her.
When her father turned, she saw a flicker of joy in his eyes. It disappeared.
"La hawla wa la… I thought it was her."
"I am her."
He winced. "She died some twenty years ago."
Viv sat next to him. The machines whirred around them, keeping his body alive another day, or hour, or minute. "It doesn't look good, dad."
"You broke a promise."
He held her gaze. "I did?"
"You said we'd see the bats in Australia."
"You were scared of bats."
"And you said they were cute in Oz, the giant bats, like upside down puppies chewing bananas."
He smiled, but that was a long time ago. "Your mom was alive then… Gabe… You were alive…"
"I'm alive now, dad. Look at me. I'm Viv. Vivian Fatema. Your daughter. Half mom, half you. I'm the same person I was."
His eyes shifted. She sensed he wanted to believe. She held his hand and squeezed it. She felt him squeezing back. "I want you to stay, dad."
"There's nothing for me here."
"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."
His hand let go. "You're there… I don't know where. I have a lot to answer for, Viv. I pray. I pray every day, five times a day, sometimes more. I pray that God forgive you for what you did, forgive me for my part, forgive Gabriel... I wish I could stay, love, but… Everyone I love is on the other side."
It hurt her to say the next words: "It's not real, dad."
"Of course you'd say that." He turned his body away from her.
She listened to his breathing.
"I love you," she said.
"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."
She lowered her head against the bed. She kneeled for countless breaths. It took all her strength to stand up again.
Viv took her briefcase, pulled out her tablet. She stood tapping at the screen for some time. The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days.
"Before I go, I need you to sign something. It's a power of attorney for the house. We can't sell it without you."
"You're selling the house?"
She shrugged. "It's no use to a robot."
His bony finger signed the screen without reading it. She kissed his forehead goodbye.
"Viv?" She stopped. "Before you go, could you open the curtains?"
She did. Her last image of him was a frail old body gazing at the moving clouds.
On the hoverbus home, Viv turned against the window outside. She pressed the briefcase to her like a hug, her mechanical heart thumping against it. Every heartbeat brought a memory back of her biological life. "I should do this more…" She whispered to herself, not caring who might hear. The sunset turned violet.
You made him sign. Gabe sounded like triumph.
You did the right thing.
Let me see.
She pulled out her tablet and, with a touch, uploaded the file.
Where's my name? Gabe asked. I only see your name.
"I changed it."
What do you mean you "changed it"?
"I changed my mind last minute, Gabe. I didn't think to tell you."
That's funny, sis. Very funny.
"It's not funny at all, Gabe. It's dead serious. I have power of attorney. I'm going to bury him next to mom and Mary."
No… There's no way.
"It's my choice now."
I can't watch him go, Viv. I can't. Don't be selfish.
"I'll miss him." She felt a pain in her chest. "I'll miss him too." Her voice was different now. "But it's what he wanted."
Gabe left her. She heard nothing but her thoughts. Unbearable thoughts.
Viv turned to the darkening world outside. She found her reflection instead, her reflection in tears. She saw her father's eyes.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby