How many of your patients have returned from the dead?

February 7, 2000

More than a dozen of the author's patients have had near-death experiences, and dozens more have related similar stories.

How many of your patients have returned from the dead?

More than a dozen of the author's patients have had near-death experiences, and dozens more have related similar stories.

By James J. Booker III, MD
Family Physician / Wytheville, VA

"Get away from me! Leave me alone, you . . . you . . ." Mrs. Johnson's sputtering anger took me by surprise. I had, after all, just saved her life.

In her mid-80s, Mrs. Johnson was in the intensive care unit with an acute myocardial infarction. I had been near her room when the cardiac alarm went off, and I arrived with the code blue team. She had gone into ventricular fibrillation and wasn't breathing. The precordial thump had no effect, nor did the initial shock. The second shock, however, converted her to normal sinus rhythm, although she was stuporous and confused.

It was 30 minutes later, when I returned to her room, that Mrs. Johnson lashed out and then refused to speak to me or the nurses. She remained stable, but was still furious when I examined her several hours later. "Why are you so upset when I was successful in bringing you back from death?" I asked.

After a few seconds of silence, she replied, "That's just the point. I didn't want to come back. There I was in a beautiful place, in that wonderful light, and the next thing I know, I'm here in this bed looking up at your ugly face!"

Now I understood. Mrs. Johnson had had a near-death experience. NDE is a phenomenon I'm very familiar with, having studied it for more than 30 years. I first became intrigued by NDEs when, as a medical student in 1968, I read a newspaper article about dying people who reported that they had left their bodies and floated. Since then, I've followed the research and joined the International Association for Near-Death Studies. And for 25 years, I've lectured on the topic to college students, church congregations, nursing staffs, retirement communities, teachers, and civic clubs.

But in all that time, I've talked about NDEs with only two doctor groups—during grand rounds at a teaching institution and to a PPO. For most doctors immersed in objective science, NDEs are too mystical for comfort. And many long-practicing physicians have told me that none of their patients has ever reported an NDE. I'd argue that a handful of their patients probably did have NDEs, but they didn't tell their stories out of fear of being labeled crazy by unsympathetic doctors.

About 15 of my own patients have had NDEs, and many more have described a "nearing death awareness." One of my patients, a man dying of leukemia, was very agitated and frightened. But during rounds one morning, I noticed he was remarkably peaceful. He said a tremendous, bright blue light had briefly appeared in his hospital room the night before and told him not to be afraid. He'd had a nearing death awareness. Other patients described momentary but reassuring visits from a dead child or spouse.

And at nearly every lecture I give, at least one person in the audience says he's had an NDE; often, several people do. A woman who'd had an NDE came to my lecture with her husband, who'd had two! During a talk to a group of people with cardiac defibrillators, nearly half admitted to an NDE. But people generally don't share this profound experience unless they're sure they'll get an empathetic response.

NDE researchers estimate that between 43 and 60 percent of people who come close to death will have a near-death experience. A US News and World Report poll found that of the 18 percent of Americans who claimed that they had been on the verge of dying, about one-third, or some 15 million, reported an NDE.

So what is an NDE? A woman in extremis hears a loud, unpleasant sound, then finds herself out of her body, floating near the ceiling. She is initially confused at this state of duality, but soon realizes that she has died. She knows where she is and can hear and see, but she can't talk to or touch those she is observing.

She either wills herself toward or is quickly drawn into an open passage. There, she encounters others who telepathically welcome her to this new world, reassuring her that all is well. In the distance is a "being of light," which is brighter than the sun but doesn't hurt her eyes.

As she reaches the light, it conveys an aura of immense knowledge and power, and it bathes her in love, warmth, and compassion. It asks, "Well, how did you do down there?" and she is shown a panorama of her earthly life. The light is nonjudgmental as she and it survey every thought, word, and deed, but she wishes she had done some things differently. They then move into a beautiful landscape, toward a line of trees. As she attempts to pass through, the light says, "You cannot go through to the other side if you want to go back." She replies that this is such a wonderful place she doesn't want to go back. The light says that her life on earth isn't over and she must return.

Suddenly she finds herself back in her earthly body. Like Mrs. Johnson, she's angry about being back, but eventually she accepts her return as something that was meant to be. She realizes she has further work to do here before going to that other realm.

The length of an NDE varies; it can be as "complete" as the one described above, or it might entail just an overwhelming sense of peace and love, the bright light, or the out-of-body experience. Not all NDEs are pleasant, however. People who are self-destructing through alcohol or drugs may report seeing their life as a void, and highly controlled individuals may be terrified by the out-of-body experience, especially zipping into the open passage.

Regardless of its quality and content, an NDE transforms people forever. They gain a greater purpose in life, they feel they should love others unconditionally, and they quest after knowledge of how the world works. Some acquire psychic ability, which can be very unsettling. One patient told me she'd had an NDE as a teenager, and since then has been able to predict events. After she foretold three of her relatives' deaths, her family treated her as a pariah, thinking that she had somehow influenced their dying.

Those who have an NDE may have difficulty readjusting to earthly time and three-dimensional space. Conflicts with spouses or family are common, occasionally leading to estrangement and divorce. The wife of a man who had "returned" told me she wanted her curmudgeonly husband back; she couldn't cope with his post-NDE sweetness and gentleness. Another problem is that the body's electromagnetic field can be changed after an NDE, so the person's quartz watch no longer keeps time.

Skeptics offer all sorts of explanations for the NDE phenomenon—anoxia, high carbon dioxide levels, endorphin release, even wish fulfillment and a desire to relive the birth process. Sure, physical events like anoxia can trigger an NDE, but they can't account for the psychological transformation that results or the similarity of so many people's experiences. My explanation to patients is that they have glimpsed whatever is on the other side of this physical realm.

The near-death experience seems to be as old as mankind, rather than a recent manifestation of our ability to more easily resuscitate those in extremis. Archaeologists have found Neanderthal man buried with clothing and implements, as if outfitted for travel to another world. This concept of an afterlife most likely came from NDEs. Writings in The Tibetan Book of the Dead clearly indicate that the ancient Tibetan monks were familiar with NDEs, and Plato's warrior, Er, describes his experience on the funeral pyre in terms that could have come straight out of today's NDE literature.

Because of the powerful aftermath of an NDE, physicians need to become familiar with the phenomenon. It's important to listen to NDE descriptions with acceptance and compassion, and to reassure patients who have "come back" that they're not crazy. I tell patients that NDEs are known occurrences, and their feelings are normal and will eventually become less intense.

Doubters will say, "But NDEs are not real. Why give credence to something that is illusory?" I like to paraphrase the philosopher William James, who said that spiritually moving experiences, which are solely personal, have intrinsic value if they have meaning for the individual. Therefore, it's counterproductive for physicians to attempt to "set the record straight." Physicians who are not comfortable discussing NDEs should refer patients to those who are. The International Association for Near-Death Studies is a good source for finding support groups.

Learning about NDEs not only has helped me counsel those who have gone through them, but it's allowed me to give patients close to death or frightened of death a more substantial concept of an afterlife than is accorded by faith alone.

The NDE is an integral part of human existence, and it should be scientifically studied to support the ancient physician's oath: "I will follow the method of treatment that, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients. . .

Resources for further study of near-death experiences

The Near-Death Experience (1984), by Bruce Greyson and Charles P. Flynn, Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, $37.95. Greyson is professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia and editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. His work is scholarly and extensively documented. He is one of the founders of the International Association for Near-Death Studies.

What They Saw . . . At the Hour of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life After Death (1997), by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson, Norwalk, CT: Hastings House, $11.96. This book is based on a four-year study of nearly 50,000 terminally ill patients in the US and India.

Closer to the Light: Learning From the Near-Death Experiences of Children (1991, $4.79), and Transformed by the Light: The Powerful Effect of Near-Death Experiences on People's Lives (1992, $10.75), by Melvin Morse, MD, New York: Random House. A clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Morse examines near-death experiences in children in his 1991 book. In the 1992 work, he studies how NDEs forever change those who go through them.

Heading Toward Omega: In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience (1985, $11.00), by Kenneth Ring, New York: William Morrow & Co., and Lessons From the Light: What We Can Learn From the Near-Death Experience (1998, $29.95), by Kenneth Ring et al, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books. Ring, another founder of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, explains his views on how information from NDE studies can enhance our personal lives.

Light and Death: One Doctor's Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences (1998), by Michael Sabom, MD, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, $10.39. Sabom is a cardiologist in Atlanta and the founder of the Atlanta Study of Near-Death Experiences.

International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS)
PO Box 502
East Windsor Hill, CT 06028-0502
860-644-5216
Web: www.iands.org
E-mail: office@iands.org

This 1,000-member association is a clearinghouse for information about near-death experiences. It sponsors an annual conference, a newsletter, and a journal, and organizes networking groups around the country.

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James Booker III. How many of your patients have returned from the dead?.

Medical Economics

2000;3:93.