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Betting on science to revive their toddler daughter

TO THE world, she is known as Matheryn Naovaratpong. To her family, she is simply known as Einz.

That is a tribute to ai, or “love” in Mandarin, and Albert Einstein, the late physicist.

Einz, who was just under three years old when she succumbed to brain cancer in January, is now immortalised in a photograph her family distributes to journalists who turn up at their doorstep in Bangkok. They all want to find out how she apparently became the youngest person in the world to be frozen, as part of her parents' dream that she might one day be revived.

That same portrait adorns her old room: Her doleful eyes gaze into the distance, keeping watch over the cot in which she once slept and finally died.

I have just ended an hour-long interview with Matheryn’s father Sahatorn Naovaratpong. The 42-year-old businessman hesitates on his way out.

“Did you know that the night before she went into a coma was Einstein’s death anniversary?” he asks, pausing as if pondering the uncanny workings of this universe.

That night, on April 18 last year, was the last night that Einz would ever taste normal childhood. Shortly afterwards, she was diagnosed with ependymoblastoma, a highly malignant form of childhood brain tumour. She then went through a gauntlet of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, before being brought home to die.

Einz’s brain and central nervous system are now housed in a special cryonic facility in Arizona run by Alcor Life Extension Foundation, in the hope that future technology would be able to cure her.

It takes a lot of faith to house your daughter’s remains halfway across the world for decades, and bet on technology that does not yet exist to cure her cancer, enable her body to grow, and thaw her brain enough for it to function properly.

It is even more unusual to have a young cryonic candidate from Thailand, where ubiquitous “sprit houses” receive abundant daily offerings, and the predominantly Buddhist population talk about accumulating good karma for their next lives.

The Naovaratpong family appear to have reconciled belief with science somewhat. In the clinically white old room where Einz was nursed, her old plastic-wooden cot is flanked by a table of Buddha statues on one side, and a liquid nitrogen tank filled with her stem cells on the other. Dr Sahatorn says Einz’s cells would be useful for the cancer research that he is helping to fund.

Dr Sahatorn and his wife Nareerat, 39, both have doctorates in engineering. They met during post-graduate studies at the King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi.

Their first son, named Matrix, is fascinated with science - like his father. The 14-year-old boy has a microscope for a “toy”.

Their other sons, twins aged two and half, have Buddhism inspired names: Mach for “the way to eliminate suffering” and Marh for “the middle way”, says Dr Nareerat.

Dr Sahatorn first read about cryonics at the age of 10. When hope for Einz's survival started to fade, he turned to the Internet in search of a way to preserve her. He found Alcor without great difficulty.

He is realistic enough to know that he might never see his daughter again in his lifetime. But someone else might.

“I believe that somebody will return from there in the future one day,” says Dr Sahatorn.

For now, the family is occupied with talking about Einz with the world’s media. She was a very observant girl, they say, and tried to fix a piano chair once after watching her brother doing it. Her favourite spot in the family garden was near the compound’s spirit house, where she could observe the birds.

“On her birthday, her brother gave her a white flower here,” says Dr Nareerat as we linger in the shade of that garden. “Maybe that was her last flower,” says her husband.

Dr Nareerat turns to me. “Please help spread Matheryn’s story, to help the world’s children.”

tanhy@sph.com.sg