Near Death Experiences

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, then you know I’m fascinated by near death experiences. I’ve reviewed some of the most popular non-fiction titles that deal with the phenomenon.
A recent article posted at takes on the phenomenon of near death experiences combined with a relatively new treatment protocol– hypothermic cardiac arrest. The use of hypothermia is gaining acceptance to save brain tissue from anoxic injury– which means injury as a result of a lack of oxygen. Common ways it is used today is after delivery and after cardiac arrest.
In this case, it was used to intentionally “arrest” a patient for brain surgery.
The story centers around a patient, Pam Reynolds, who had a brain aneurysm that was about to rupture. Leaving it alone was not an option but the surgery to decompress it was equally as risky. To save brain function, her surgeon wanted to cool her body to the point where her brain would no longer be active but would hopefully preserve its function. What’s also interesting is that the cooler brain temperature would “soften the vessels” and make them less likely to rupture. This is something I’d not heard of before. After the procedure they would slowly return her body to normal temperature.
At first, while under anesthesia– she has an out of body experience and is able to describe precise details about the surgery even though her eyes were taped shut and she wore noise producing ear phones– which evidently were used to re-engage her brainstorm upon reperfusion. When blood flow to the brain stops, measurable EEG waves (which measure brain activity) stops after 10-20 seconds. Despite this, 15% of NDE survivors have memories from the time they were clinically dead.
The crux of the story is what happened when her brain and heart no longer had electrical activity. Tunnel of light. Meeting deceased relatives. A warm and loving light she believed to be God. These aspects are fairly consistent among most NDEs. Another consistent phenomenon of NDEs is the positive life change that happens after the experience.
According to the Salon piece, interest in NDEs resulted from a published book Life after Life by Raymond Moody and I don’t think interest has waned considering how often these non-fiction books hit the bestseller lists. There is also an International Association for near-death studies.
The issue from a medical standpoint is independent corroboration of these events. To be of value, statements need to be verified by more than just the individual. This happened with an individual named Maria who was able to describe, very precisely, a shoe that was stuck on a ledge outside her hospital room. Hospital staff retrieved the shoe and the doctor involved in her case was convinced of the NDE.

Still not satisfied, a different group of researchers interviewed people who were blind, some since birth, who reported the same type of experience. This is leading researchers to think something is occurring outside the brain/body.

However, controversy exists and not all scientist are on board with the brain/spirit being serparate from the physical body. A few case studies report out of body experiences (OBEs) during brain surgery for seizures and some view them as momentary brain dysfuction. NDE supporters insist that just because you can induce an OBE like experience using electrodes doesn’t mean OBEs are illusions.

Also, in denial of the illusion theory, Parnia reasons . . .

“When oxygen levels decrease markedly, patients whose lungs or hearts do not work properly experience an “acute confusional state,” during which they are highly confused and agitated and have little or no memory recall. In stark contrast, during NDEs people experience lucid consciousness, well-structured thought processes, and clear reasoning. They also have an excellent memory of the NDE, which usually stays with them for several decades. In other respects, Parnia argues that if this hypothesis is correct, then the illusion of seeing a light and tunnel would progressively develop as the patient’s blood oxygen level drops. Medical observations, however, indicate that patients with low oxygen levels do not report seeing a light, a tunnel, or any of the common features of an NDE we discussed earlier.”

What is known is that the controversy surrounding NDEs is not going away because, in the end, what would it mean to science if it was proven that the mind/spirit can exist separately from the body? What would it mean regarding our understanding of religion– particularly when people from different religions have similar NDE experiences?
Only time or death will tell.
Click here to read this in-depth piece regarding NDEs (from which the information for this piece was gathered) for yourself and check out the book Brains Wars for further discussion on the topic.

To Heaven And Back: Mary C. Neal, MD

As research for my next trilogy I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books surrounding near death experiences or NDE’s. 

You can read the series I did on Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, MD by following these links:

To Heaven and Back is the personal account of orthopedic surgeon Mary Neal and the events of her life after she drowned and was later resuscitated kayaking on a river in Chile.

What‘s interesting, is just like Eben (who suffered from an extremely rare form of meningities), it seemed like God used Mary’s injuries to get her attention.

As she was kayaking, she was trapped in the boat underneath a deluge of water. As people tried to rescue her, both her legs broke as she was sucked by the water out of the kayak. On top of that, she obviously inhaled a lot of water and after her resusitation, developed a lung injury (likely pulmonary edema) related to drowning.

What amazes me is that she and her doctor husband chose to take public flights back to the US without medical attention (they were initially treated at a clinic) which probably should have resulted in her death considering how sick she was.

A couple of things facinated me about her account.

One: Her views of God and our life. She gives an account of a conversation with an angel in a field where we know our life plan before we come to earth. God essentially lays out the blueprint for our approval and there are several branches of where we can make good and bad choices. This fascinates me on many levels– such as– did I really choose or “give the okay” for this kind of trauma in my life. Because if so– man!– I was really crazy to think that was a good idea. Unless we remember that suffering and crisis for many people brings them closer to God.

Two: The events surrounding her son Willie’s short life are nothing short of astonishing. During this conversation with an angel she learned that she needed to go back to help her family cope with the forthcoming death of her son before his 17th birthday. I believe the night before his 17th birthday, a man had pulled a gun on her son after a minor car accident. This incident he survived. But a short time later, as he was on a hike with a friend, he literally looked out over the landscape and said something close to– “Wouldn’t this view be the best thing to see before you die?” And within minutes he was run over by a car and killed. The whole account of Willie’s life is seriously skin chilling and inspiring.

Three: How God uses nature as a witness to His presence. Really, you just have to read her story to believe some of the things that happened here. Barren trees blooming after loved ones had died.

What was amazing in reading these books about NDE’s is the other things that occurred to these people after their experiences– nothing less than what I would call miracles.

An interesting read.

Proof of Heaven: Dr. Eben Alexander 3/3

Today, I’m concluding a three-part series on the non-fiction book, Proof of Heaven, written by Dr. Eben Alexander as he discusses his Near Death Experience (NDE) after he contracted a rare, often deadly form of E-coli meningitis. Here are Part I and Part II.

Toward the end of the book, Dr. Alexander lists the current medical theories offered as explanations for NDE’s and why he now completely discounts them and now has a firm belief that there is a loving God and Heaven.

1. Primitive brainstem program to ease terminal pain. Discounted due to the vibrant nature of his experience.

2. A distorted recall of memories from the limbic system. Again discounted for the same reason as above.

3. Endogenous glutamate blockade with excitotoxicity– mimicking the hallucinatory anesthetic, ketamine. I mean, really, this is how smart and scientific he viewed this process. As he explains in his book, he’d seen people under the effects of ketamine and the hallucinations are nonsensical whereas his were not. I would agree with that regarding ketamine as we use it for conscious sedation in the ED.

4. DMT dump which is a naturally occurring serotonin that causes vivid hallucinations. Dr. Alexander confesses to experiencing some hallucinations with drug use in his teens and argues against this theory because you’d have to have a relatively intact, functioning brain for which he did not while in his coma.

5. Functioning areas of cortical regions but he discounts this considering the severity of his meningitis.

There are four more that he lists in the book. What Dr. Alexander did do that I found interesting was write down his experience with as much detail as he could before he read about other NDE experiences so as not to taint his own perception or tarnish his data. Then he thoroughly researched what others had scientifically proposed and steps through why they are not relevant.

Overall, I found this to be a very fascinating book. It does at some points read like a textbook but I think we in the medical community need to pay attention to the spiritual aspects of our patients as part of their illness/injury process and I think learning from people who have had these experiences can help us to that.

Proof of Heaven: Dr. Eben Alexander 2/3

In today’s post, I’m continuing my discussion on Near Death Experiences or NDE’s by highlighting Dr. Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven. Here is Part I

Each medical specialty has a definite stereotype. I’ve found that most labor and delivery nurses have had cheerleading background. I. Kid. You. Not. For a while, I asked every L&D nurse I knew if they did cheerleading in highschool and ALL said yes.

I found that a very important job requirement for labor nurses because heaven knows if you didn’t have that affinity, you would get TIRED of coaching women through labor shift after shift. I mean, I was rolling my own eyeballs at myself at what a pain I was when I delivered my own children.

Neurosurgeons are the same way. They are very cerebral. Smart. But not always personable. I’ve only met one or two that could interact socially in a pleasant way– like the ham it up, crack-a-few jokes kind.

That is not to say they are not friendly . . . just so above (not in a snooty way) the average person intellectually. I mean, think about how intelligent you have to be to operate on the smartest, fastest biological computer ever created.

That’s the sense that I got about Dr. Alexander. Driven. Uber-smart. I’m sure he has a Mensa card for sure. He bought into all the normally offered medical explanations for NDE.

I think God has a funny sense of humor. I imagine Him thinking– how can I get Eben’s attention? This man who loves the brain and its chemistry and lives and dies to fix it. What would be the one disease I could give him to convince him of My presence?

How about . . . meningitis. And not just your average, run-of-the-mill easily curable kind. But one that is so rare that most people die of it. So rare that you have a risk of 1:10 million chance of contracting the disease. Whereas you have a 30% chance of being in a serious car accident in the next year.

And that’s what happened. Dr. Alexander contracted a rare form of E-coli meningitis. Generally only seen in adults if you’ve had neurosurgery or traumatic brain injury (I’m guessing skull fracture that would disrupt the normal protective nature of the bones.)

Dr. Alexander’s meningitis did not respond to antibiotics. He was comatose for seven days. The family was at the point where they were considering withdrawing life support.

And while he was in that coma– he had a NDE that changed his whole outlook on life and caused him to discount every previous medical theory he’d bought into from a very analytical, scientific point of view. That’s what we’ll talk about next post.


Proof Of Heaven: Dr. Eben Alexander 1/3

I first heard about Eben’s story when it was highlighted on Biography Channels I Survived . . . Beyond and Back.When his non-fiction book, Proof of Heaven, released– I knew it was going to be a must read for me considering his background as a medical doctor and (before his NDE) an a-religious person. He did attend church but had no personal connection with his faith.

Most of you know that I am a pediatric ER nurse– still showing up for work twice a week until I start to earn James Patterson type money on my books. I’m confident that will happen in 2013 for sure, right?

The tough thing about working in pediatrics is when a child dies. There’s something inherently wrong with the world order when that happens. I’ve been with patients before they die.

Near Death Experiences, or NDE’s, do fascinate me. I am a religious person. I believe in heaven and hell. That’s why I Survived . . . Beyond and Back intrigued me so because it told stories of people who had died and come back. Most went to heaven. Some went to hell. And a few just had strange experiences– like aliens rolling dice on a poker table kind of weird.

As a medical person, I can attest that we don’t handle the spiritual stuff very well. I think part of that is that religious persons like myself don’t feel like they can openly discuss these issues with patients without possibly coming under fire from upper management for proselytizing . . . so generally this is left in the hands of chaplains to deal with.

Except, there aren’t always chaplains available.

Patients who are dying have very valid questions. Is there heaven? Is there hell? What did my life on earth mean?

If you think back to the advent of resuscitative medicine, it’s only been around for a good 40-50 years. Instructing the masses in CPR. Advanced life support measures like ventilators. Algorithms to manage emergency scenarios.

In the past, there likely weren’t hordes of people surviving death. But now, with medical technology, we are more and more pulling people from “the drain” as we sometimes term it. In light of that, there are many more people surviving medical calamities that would have killed them but now they are opening up and talking about their NDE’s.

One such person is a neurosurgeon by the name of Eben Alexander. A very smart, astute physician who was firmly in the camp of believing that NDE’s had a medical explanation . . . until he died himself.

And had an NDE.

We’ll pick up his story next post.