Alan Wick was 46, with a family celebrating the high school graduation of his oldest daughter, when he first became concerned that he was at high risk of suddenly bursting into flames after watching an episode of That Might Be Real? on Travel Channel earlier this year.
“My first thought was a bit selfish,” Wick recalled, now nearly four months later. “How long did I have left? Had I accomplished everything I wanted to do in my life? I don’t want to blow up. But then it hit me. What if I was petting my dog or giving my wife a hug? Or pumping gas? The last thing I ever wanted to do was take a crowd of innocent people down with me when it’s my time to go.”
Wick’s anxiety wasn’t far-fetched. According to the National Fire Protection Association, spontaneous combustion is the occurrence of fire without the application of an external heat source due to chemical, biological, or physical processes. This causes an estimated 14,070 fires each year in the United States alone. Experts in Spontaneous Human Combustion, known as SHC, aren’t sure how many of these fires involve a human being, but hundreds of people are likely to be worried about just up and exploding one day.
Patients like Wick, who live every day in a vermiculite fire entry suit on loan from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, are looking for answers. Finally, there does appear to be a light at the end of this dark and mysterious tunnel. Researchers at the prestigious Swedish Institute of Modern Hyperdilutional Therapeutics (SIMHT) have announced a breakthrough in the diagnosis and management of SHC, a condition long considered to be undetectable and incurable.
“SHC patients typically are only identified after a pile of greasy ash and singed hands or feet are discovered by a landlord or family member,” lead researcher Scotch Magnusson explained. “But with our recent advances in screening for SHC, and prophylactic hyperdilutional therapies, people no longer need live in fear of unexpectedly erupting into flames anymore.”
Though the exact mechanism through which SHC patients ignite remains unclear, many experts believe that the condition originated in Africa when spontaneous simian combustion was transferred from non-human primates to humans training chimpanzees to participate in early NASA suborbital flight missions. Regardless, the possibility of an instantaneous and catastrophic transition from one’s baseline state of health into a smoldering mound of bones, teeth, and clothing remnants has deserved its terrifying reputation. To many, the lack of any known warning signs is particularly unsettling. Preliminary studies have found that unlucky sufferers are often simply minding their own business and unwinding on an old couch with a bottle of liquor and a cigarette after a long day.
Adding to the mystery and suspense of SHC is the fact that there has never been a witnessed case. This has fueled a variety of implausible and unproven etiological hypotheses, such as ball lighting, a new subatomic particle, or thinking that your 1st cousin is kind of sexy, even if just for a second before you catch yourself. Progress, however, is finally being made.
After more than a year of intensive research and testing, Magnusson and his colleagues at SIMHT have developed and validated a screening test for SHC. According to Magnusson, the test consists of a panel of fifty questions that take family history, environmental exposures, diet, and a number of other key factors into account. But identifying who is at risk is only half the battle. “A screening test is only helpful if we can offer patients a solution so they no longer need to sleep in a tub of water.”
The team also formulated a cocktail of specially prepared plant and animal parts with the intent of preventing SHC events in high risk patients. Magnusson, who was unwilling to reveal any of the ingredients, wasn’t shy about touting their success and pointing out the obvious implications. “We are taking people who might have literally melted to death and we are giving them their lives back. And as long as they continue the preventive treatment, we expect them to live long enough to die of something much less exciting…like cancer.”
Today, Wick checks in virtually with the team at SIMHT every three weeks. He also continues to take his daily preventative elixir. And, at least so far, he hasn’t burst into flames. “My original goal was to see my youngest daughter finish the 8th grade, and I’ve done that, so now I want to be around for everything the future has in store for her, and for all of us.”
“Life is really good right now,” he revealed. “Still, a part of me worries that at any minute, maybe even right in the middle of this sentence, I could combust. But I live my life like it’s gone. I live my life like it’s never going to happen, like it’s not even a real thing that ever existed.”
Exploding the Myth
A unique sequence of events takes place for the human body to incinerate to ashes. The flame burn victim has to die for the body fat to start melting. A tear in the skin has to occur for the melted fat to impregnate the charred clothes, igniting a wick effect that produces localized heat for extended period.
So a victim dies, likely because of a heart attack, while holding a lit cigarette. This ignites their clothing, chars the skin, and fat leaches out turning the torso into a giant candle. It’s disgusting, tragic, and not really the point.
What inspired me to write up this little bit of satire, other than the fact that there are people who actually believe in SHC, was a recent a Washington Post article on the future of cancer treatment. The take home point of the article is essentially that many previously incurable cancers are being treated effectively, and more patients than ever are living for decades past their diagnosis:
Some 2 million people in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer this year, the National Cancer Institute estimates. But the death rate from all cancers has fallen 33 percent since 1991, according to an American Cancer Society report released in January.
For some types of cancers, the progress is even more impressive. The mortality rate for lung cancer — the leading cause of cancer deaths — has dropped 58 percent since 1990 in men and 36 percent since 2002 in women. Breast cancer is another striking success story, with a 43 percent drop from 1989 through 2020. So is melanoma, with death rates between 2011 and 2020 falling by about 5 percent a year for adults younger than 50 and 3 percent for those older than 50.
As more patients have what is essentially cancer the chronic disease, there are numerous potential pitfalls in their care. The needs of these survivors are often different and more complex. One issue discussed in the article is so-called “scanxiety”, where patients are required to get frequent imaging checks to look for recurrence of their cancer or the development of cancers perhaps associated with their treatment and have trouble dealing with the uncertainty and suspense.
It’s a good article. Check it out.