By Nancy Baumgarten
Pam Trull says she died on the operating table at Memorial Mission Hospital three times back in 1996 while being treated for potentially fatal blood clots in her feet.
During those episodes, Trull, then 38 years old, says she went down a long, dark tunnel. “I saw heads with no face and long arms but no body. The foggy figures were trying to pull me through the tunnel to the white, very bright light. I fought them all the way, not to go through.”
Asked if she’s ever shared her experiences with anyone, the lifelong WNC resident says,“Oh, yes! Dr. Ted Humble saved my life. He’s a very unique doctor: He came to my bed and sat down and talked with me as a person. I asked him if I’d died on the table. He said: ‘Yes, I lost you three times. Why do you ask?’ I told him about my three experiences, and he said other patients have shared their stories, including the fog figures.”
Trull says she asked Humble, her surgeon, to validate her experience because “I didn’t want anyone to think later that maybe it was all some medication making me delusional.”
In 2003, Canton resident Michael Love, a self-described “country boy” from East Tennessee, was traveling in the Raleigh area; he was 41. “As a passenger in a car on a four-lane highway, I was at a low point in my life. I had just been praying to myself, ‘Help me, God!’ when a pickup truck from the opposite side of highway veered over and drove straight into us. The auto exploded. I was thrown through the air.” Love was later told that he’d been declared dead for seven minutes at the hospital.
“The first thing I was aware of was that I was alive,” he recalls. “I was 50 feet in the air looking down on my body lying there, and they were shocking me and then covering my head and saying, ‘It’s too late: We can’t save him.’
“I went through a tunnel of light. I saw all this and went through the vortex or portal; it seemed like a galactic, opaque water whirl.” And after some pretty dramatic experiences, continues Love, “I told them I didn’t want to go back, but they kept telling me, ‘Please go back: It’s critical.’”
These experiences are hardly flukes: Although estimates vary widely, many place the number of people reporting similar incidents in the millions. And while the details of those accounts may diverge, there are many common threads.
Since the 1970s, when NDEs first gained widespread public attention, the mainstream medical community has been sharply divided about both the cause and the meaning of these often life-altering experiences. In the ensuing decades, however, a growing body of research — driven in part by an increased recognition of how widespread the phenomenon appears to be, and how it correlates with developments in quantum mechanics and other fields — has been gradually shifting NDEs from the fringes of scientific inquiry more toward the center.
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who spearheaded the hospice movement in the U.S., described her pioneering research in books such as On Life After Death. Dr. Raymond Moody coined the term “near-death experience” in his 1975 book Life After Life.
Mainstream response to their findings was largely skeptical, but other researchers also began looking into the subject. In 1978, psychiatrists Ken Ring, Bruce Greyson and Michael Sabom helped form the Association for the Scientific Study of Near Death Phenomena, which later became the International Association for Near-Death Studies.
Greyson, who teaches at the University of Virginia, went on to develop the Greyson NDE Scale, a research instrument that attempts to quantify an inherently subjective experience. To gauge a particular NDE’s intensity and legitimacy, his 16-item questionnaire assigns numerical values in four key areas: cognitive (concerning thought processes), affective (concerning feelings or emotions), paranormal (relating to psychic abilities, such as seeing the future) and transcendental (involving spirituality or enlightenment).
Meanwhile, the expanded view of human consciousness suggested by near-death experiences also had profound implications for the practice of medicine. In 1992, a committee of the National Institutes of Health’s newly formed Office of Alternative Medicine coined the term “biofield,” seeking a way to describe widely varying therapies that might be more acceptable to the mainstream scientific and health care communities.
“The genie was out of the bottle now,” British researcher Thornton Streeter of The Centre for Biofield Sciences commented in a 2014 lecture. The mainstream, he asserted, could no longer “be in denial about it, so let’s put some science on there.” That same year, the Office of Alternative Medicine was renamed the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Building on those early efforts, more recent researchers have delved ever more deeply into the near-death phenomenon.
A 2001 article by Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel in the British medical journal The Lancet flatly declared, “The NDE is an authentic experience which cannot be attributed to imagination, psychosis or oxygen deprivation.”
In 2012, two experienced neurosurgeons separately published books offering in-depth insights based on their own experiences. Proof of Heaven details Dr. Eben Alexander’s NDE while in a meningitis-induced coma; To Heaven and Back relates Dr. Mary C. Neal’s NDE when she almost drowned while kayaking.
And in 2014, Dr. Sam Parnia of Stony Brook University in New York completed a four-year study of over 2,000 cardiac arrest cases worldwide. The study, the largest of its kind ever undertaken, raised fascinating questions about life after death, DNA and the collective unconscious.
In his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, van Lommel explains that after such a profound experience, patients’ personalities undergo a permanent change.
Back in 1977, P.M.H. Atwater had three NDEs in the space of three months, which launched her on a lifelong path as an independent researcher and author. She’s interviewed more than 3,000 adults and 277 children reporting such experiences and has conducted studies to determine the frequency of NDEs in these populations. Repeatedly noticing striking similarities between NDEs and related phenomena such as out-of-body and past-life experiences, Atwater developed an extensive list of physiological and psychological aftereffects of NDEs. Her 1994 book, Beyond the Light, outlines the most common impacts.
They include increased sensitivity to sound and light, as well as more dramatic shifts such as energy surges, reversal of brain hemisphere dominance and a fundamental change in the way the person thinks. Adults, she found, tended to look and act younger; children looked and seemed more mature. Most subjects reported a loss of fear of death, increased spiritual or religious feeling, and generally greater openness.
In her blog The Spirit Way, former atheist Nancy Rynes, the author of Awakenings From the Light, says Greyson’s basic classification system has given her a sense of validation, knowing that her NDE is considered “real” in research circles.
Three of the six local people whose stories are included here answered the Greyson Scale questions over the phone. Two scored way above the mean; the third came in just below it but still within the parameters of a legitimate NDE. All three people’s experiences included at least a little bit of all four categories.
On the darker side, however, many of Atwater’s subjects also said they’d had trouble initiating and maintaining satisfying relationships and had struggled with bouts of depression. But in Love’s case, the NDE seems to have given him a kind of antidote to those darker feelings.
“Angels or extraterrestrials took me on a tour, up through all the dimensions,” he says. “Each one showed me how the whole thing worked: Each is a different vibratory level. The 12th dimension or level is the 12-D Earth: a new heaven beyond heaven.”
Love says one of the beings finally asked him, “Do you want to meet the God of this universe?”
“I looked into the blinding star at the center of the Milky Way ‘sun’ and saw the eye of God behind the light,” he continues. “I also met Jesus. He told me, ‘I will never judge you, ever. There is no such thing.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘You are your own judge.’”
Where do you go when you go ‘out of body’?
But if the mind doesn’t reside in the brain, where is it?
In the 1970s, Valerie Hunt, then a physiology professor at UCLA, began exploring human energy fields. Her 1996 book, Infinite Mind: Science of the Human Vibrations of Consciousness, summarized a lifetime of cutting-edge research. Hunt concluded that memory is to be found not in the body but in Plato’s “invisible but intelligible” field, which interpenetrates and surrounds all living things. The brain, she maintained, may be the transducer for the field but can’t be the total source of awareness.
And in his 1984 book, Body and Mind, Australian philosopher Keith Campbell wrote that parapsychological phenomena “by definition, demonstrate capacities of mind which exceed any capacities of brain. The brain is receptive only to information which arrives by neural pathways, and so is confined to perception by way of the senses. If some people can learn more about distant or hidden or future facts than memory and inference from present sense perception can teach them, then minds are not just brains.”
More recently, quantum-edge biofield scientists such as Streeter have postulated that the mind is the field that interpenetrates all things — the matrix that makes a living being. Traditionally, these scientists say, this field was known as “the life force.”
Van Lommel, too, believes the current mainstream view of the relationship between the brain and consciousness is too narrow to allow a proper understanding of the NDE phenomenon. Our consciousness, he points out, doesn’t always coincide with brain functions and can even be experienced separately from the body.
Similarly, neuroscientists Alexander and Neal, both of whom previously viewed mind as entirely a function of the brain, now embrace the vastly more expansive view that consciousness is omnipresent.
But if the tide is indeed turning, mainstream opinion in the medical community still tends to view NDEs as some sort of delusion, and many skilled, hardworking physicians aren’t ready to take such experiences seriously. That attitude, however, can have serious implications for people who actually have an NDE.
Only a handful of American cardiology centers, for example, have anything like a support group for survivors of near-death experiences. And when Sandra Bear Davis had her NDE (see box, “The Angel Wrapped Around Me”), her doctors prescribed an antipsychotic to which she was allergic.
Meanwhile, near-death survivors themselves don’t always place their experiences in the same context. “People of different religious traditions and backgrounds … seem to have experiences that are often consistent with their ideas about these things,” says California psychiatrist Rebecca Valla, who serves on the board of the International Association for Near-Death Studies.
But beneath those specific cultural references, says researcher Janice Holden of the University of North Texas, “lies a deep structure … that seems to transcend culture.” Features such as “viewing the material world from a perspective outside the physical body, and encountering entities and environments beyond the material world, have been reported across many cultures — Western and Eastern, indigenous to postindustrial,” notes Holden, who’s also the editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies.
Some NDE survivors don’t view their experience through the lens of religion at all. In her 1992 book, Transformed by the Light: Life After Near-Death Experiences, Australian sociologist Cherie Sutherland noted that while 70 percent of the 50 survivors she interviewed described their experience as spiritual, none called it religious.
Not all near-death experiences are positive, either. Atwater, for example, found that 3 percent of children and 15 percent of adults who’d had NDEs experienced things like an “encounter with a threatening void … or hellish purgatory, or scenes of a startling and unexpected indifference (like being shunned).” In some cases, positive and negative elements are part of the same experience.
And even in Asheville, with its abundance of alternative health practitioners and smorgasbord of spiritual groups, NDEs are still largely flying under the radar. Barbara Warren, a social worker at the Mountain Area Health Education Center, said her organization isn’t aware of any local support programs for NDE survivors, or any training for medical professionals concerning such experiences (see sidebar, “Making Sense of NDEs”).
Still, in his 2009 book, Life After Death: The Evidence, Dinesh D’Souza cited a 2005 survey of American doctors in which 59 percent of respondents said they believed in some form of afterlife — “a much higher percentage than is found in other scientific professions,” the author pointed out.
Whatever one makes of these experiences, one thing seems undeniable: For the people who have them, NDEs clearly rank among the most profoundly important moments of their lives, with an impact that never fades.
All six people whose stories are related in these pages say their near-death experiences gave their lives more urgency and meaning, changing them forever. And whether they were interviewed four months or 40 years later, the depth of feeling in their voices was the same.
Pam Trull says she’s seen her attitude toward everyday life change. “I used to be a very fanatical housekeeper, but now I don’t care about dust. I wanted to have a quality of life and enjoy my children and now grandchildren,” she explains. Trull also found a way to translate her experience into something that transcends the purely personal. “My mother-in-law cared for me for two years to help me relearn how to walk, so I became a nurse’s aide caregiver — a rewarding job to help others.”
Yet people who’ve had an NDE sometimes struggle for decades with how to integrate this profound shift into their daily lives.
It was years before either Robert Manasse or Natalie Porter (see accompanying stories) felt comfortable sharing their experiences with anyone. And Michael Love, fearing ridicule, couldn’t bring himself to discuss what he’d gone through with anyone except his wife and family.
“After 10 years of not changing my life,” he says, “one day I walked up the hill to a rock and sat in meditation,” wondering how he was supposed to help heal this planet and its people. Love says a golden angel appeared and told him, ‘You will now be called Micah.’
“Oh my God, oh my God, God has a sense of humor! I opened up inside, just like the Bible said. I totally opened to the universe — 100 percent change from the depression, etc. … I was still me, my personality, with no pain anywhere. I have a deep awareness that there is no such thing as ‘death.’ The real you, inside the body, has no end and no pain. I thought to myself, ‘If I’m not that body that was lying on the ground, what am I?’ The ultimate answer to that question is: I am aware. I am a consciousness.”
Hendersonville resident Nancy Baumgarten (email@example.com) has a degree in landscape architecture and is co-founder of the Profound Awareness Institute. Her first book, The Aware Human: Your Biofield Senses & Cosmic Mind Powers, is due out this summer.
MAKING SENSE OF NDEs
The aftereffects of these profoundly transformative experiences can seriously disrupt one’s life and family, and it can take as much as 10 to 20 years to fully process them. Yet there are few local resources in Western North Carolina either for people who’ve experienced a near-death experience or for medical professionals. For those wanting to learn more, however, here are some starting points.
The International Association for Near-Death Studies has about 800 members; its annual conferences draw more than 250 people. The organization has nearly 60 support groups worldwide for people who’ve had an NDE, including 41 in the U.S., four in Canada and several informal ones online. Fourteen association members live in WNC, though it seems likely that many more area residents have had a near-death experience.
The nonprofit’s 23rd annual conference, aimed at both professionals and laypeople, is slated for July 28-31 in Orlando, Fla. For the first time, a children’s program will be held concurrently. Those interested should contact the association (see below).
Researcher, writer and educator Madelaine Lawrence, a semiretired registered nurse, has taught courses on death and dying to both undergraduate and graduate students for over 20 years. Before retiring to Davidson, she was the director of nursing education and research for a large urban hospital in Connecticut. Lawrence has an online course on working with patients who’ve had an NDE or other such transformative experience. Nurses can get three continuing education units; those not needing the credits can take the course for free.
Closer to home, NDE survivors and anyone seeking a safe, nurturing environment for exploring the subject can contact the Profound Awareness Explorers Meetup group (see below).
FOR MORE INFORMATION…
Greyson NDE Scale and International Association for Near-Death Studies
ABC News “Turning Point” NDE segments
Is Death Final? IQ2 debate
Nursing CEUs course
Local support group