Ever since Dr. Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life in 1975, the public has been at least somewhat aware of what he called the near-death experience or NDE. These experiences happen to some people when their normal, spontaneous circulatory and respiratory functions stop, a state known as clinical death. These individuals seldom survived in the past, but thanks to effective modern resuscitation methods, many such patients have been brought back from the brink of death, and some had fascinating stories to tell about encounters with what they considered another reality.
Today there’s an international organization called The International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), dedicated to “the encouragement of research, education and public information in the field,” as well as to “the emotional and psychological support of individuals” who have had NDEs. The latter are referred to as “experiencers.” IANDS has 44 chapters in the U.S. plus 11 more in other countries. For this article we spoke with several experiencers and to Debbie James, the local authority on the subject, who served as co-editor of the 2009 scholarly volume, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences.
Be Quiet and Listen to Them
Debbie James’ first encounter with an NDE patient happened early in her nursing career. After the medical crew resuscitated a dying man, the guy got angry.
“I can’t believe you made me come back here,” he said to the doctors and nurses who saved his life.
He then explained that he had experienced a great sense of peace while “dead.”
“I was confused by that,” admits James, now a 30-year veteran of critical and intensive care, a member of the Nursing School faculty at UTHSCSA and a bereavement facilitator. “I started asking questions, but no one had answers. Back then, few people studied NDE, and I wasn’t aware of Moody’s book yet.”
But she was open-minded enough to pay attention and listen when other patients over the years offered similar reports. By now she has seen at least 100 cases, and there are common threads in their stories. Most talk about moving through a tunnel toward an extraordinary light, which, though intense, doesn’t hurt the eyes, and mention that same feeling of peacefulness her first patient referred to. Sometimes they see people in that light, but not always people they knew. A young boy, for instance, talked about seeing “Papa,” though this grandfather had died before he was born.
A woman reported meeting three all-white individuals, not quite looking like real people. Another patient said that “whoever was and whoever will be, was there,” and he felt embraced by them. Some use the word “heaven” to refer to that place of light and peace, but not all. Children tend to call it simply “there.”
Out-of-body experiences are also pretty common, with experiencers sometimes complaining that re-entry into their physical bodies was painful. One woman said she had become too big for her body.
Yet another thing these patients talk about is a moment of decision to either go forward into the light or return to ordinary life. Sometimes it’s an order they receive while having the NDE. A 4-year-old boy who was hit by a car in a parking lot and was resuscitated by firemen told James that, “he told me I couldn’t stay there.” “Who told you?” she asked. “That voice told me.”
A slightly different example is that of a CBS reporter, an agnostic, who had a heart attack that led to cardiac arrest. He reported being told that he could go either way, forward or back to his worldly life.
He wanted to stay in the new reality he had just discovered but suddenly “saw” his wife and daughters saying, “Please, Daddy, come back,” so he decided to return. Though these elements are common, NDEs vary a great deal.
Post-NDE, survivors usually emerge with a new understanding of life and death, accompanied by a strong desire to live in peace with others and a sense of interconnectedness. Sometimes they even discover a new ability or talent, such as a propensity to play the piano or a facility with a foreign language they did not have before. Many change the course of their lives.
“The worst thing we can do is to invalidate what they are saying,” says James. “Many experiencers are afraid that they will be ridiculed, so they don’t tell anyone about their NDE. I tell nurses, be quiet and listen to them.”
Though the scientific-medical establishment has tried to explain NDEs strictly in neurochemical terms, that approach doesn’t address the actual content of these experiences nor the positive psychological changes that subsequently occur. James draws her conclusion from the real-life situations she encountered.
“They (the experiencers) see something beyond what we can see and gain insight into what love is all about,” she says. “They feel embraced by the love of a higher power — or the source, as some say — and they know that they are a part of it.”
Colombian-born Gloria Gieseke has always been a spiritually sensitive person, but it wasn’t until she nearly died from a severe asthma attack in Saudi Arabia that she experienced the unusual transcendental episode that changed her attitude toward life and death. She woke up one night struggling to breathe and finding no help from her drugs or inhaler.
As she lost consciousness, her husband and a neighbor rushed her to the Saudi Military Hospital in Riyadh, where the emergency personnel sprang into action to revive her. During that time, Gieseke realized that she was dying.
“I said to myself, now this is between God and me,” she recalls.
“I found myself surrounded by soft amber light in a most peaceful place. Everything felt good. Love and peace came to me from the light. This went on for some time until I asked God, ‘If I am dying, where is the music?’ Then in a flash, I was back in my body struggling for breath.” That was her first NDE.
Gieseke was in Saudi Arabia because her husband, Cliff, was teaching English to Saudi military personnel through the U.S. Military Training Mission in Riyadh. This was hardly Cliff’s only foreign assignment. The couple and their two sons spent a couple of decades traveling around the globe and living for extended periods of time in countries such as Indonesia, the Congo and Iran, in addition to visiting India, Spain, Costa Rica and her native Colombia.
In between assignments, they lived mostly in San Antonio. Gieseke believes that the multiple vaccinations she received before going to the Congo, coupled with the climate in that country, contributed to her life-long asthma. To this day, she can function only with a hefty dose of medications, and there is always a fear of another life-threatening episode.
Sure enough, four years after her first NDE in Riyadh, she was taken by ambulance to Wilford Hall at Lackland AFB in extreme agony for lack of oxygen, feeling her heart slowing down. During that ride she experienced mostly darkness. Later on, as the doctors connected her to life support equipment, she felt herself being whisked away through a tunnel of whirling black light at “tremendous speed, going up and landing in brilliant white light.” And that was before her heart had completely stopped, she notes.
“At the same time, I was also able to observe myself with a neutral feeling. In fact, there were three of me — one in the body, the observing me and the one traveling through the tunnel.”
This time she also received an answer to her previous question about the music. A man in white met her briefly in that light and communicated to her that when her time came, there would be music for her, but not yet. Then the white figure embraced her and called her “friend.” Resuscitated and breathing again, she found herself in “a wonderful state of optimism.” The following year, Gieseke had yet another near-death episode.
Now 74, she is no longer afraid of death, she says. Though raised Catholic, she is not a churchgoer: “I have a church within me. It’s not arrogance. I simply experience guidance and knowledge coming to me in prayer, but not the kind of knowledge you brag about. It’s more knowledge of life, that life is eternal.”
Her NDEs have also changed her personality, making her more compassionate toward others, more concerned and less impatient. And her dreams have become considerably more vivid. Gieseke has written a self-published book, Where Is the Music?, about her life, her NDEs and her spiritual journey. During our interview, she kindly signs a copy for me.
As we part as friends, I find myself inclined to believe her that when and if I should need knowledge, it will be there for me, too.
I Know What I Saw
The day after Thanksgiving in 2003, Ron and Sheryl Murrah decided to show their visiting relatives the holiday lights on the River Walk. They all piled into the car but did not travel very far. As they got to an intersection less than a mile from their home, a car coming from a side street smashed into their Ford Expedition. Somebody had placed a makeshift plywood sign by the intersection to direct delivery trucks to a certain property. Unfortunately, the sign obstructed Ron’s view of oncoming traffic. The blast ejected Sheryl’s upper body through the back window, cracking her skull. Blood was everywhere. She was flown by helicopter to BAMC, where Ron was told by an obviously sensitivity-challenged employee that “we take people who are probably not going to make it.”
Put on life support, Sheryl spent a good part of the next two months in a medically induced coma, emerging from it briefly from time to time. On one of those occasions, Ron thought he would comfort her by reading aloud the many cards sent by well-wishers. Instead of being comforted, however, his wife started to weep. She was not really listening to him; she was receiving a far more powerful message. “I told him my mom was taking care of me,” she recalls.
“I saw Mom standing by the golden gates telling me to go back, that the Lord was not ready for me. I was crying because I felt like she (her mother) had just died because I had just seen her (on the other side).” Despite the tears, the moment had been “peaceful, beautiful, relaxed,” she says.
Hospitalization was followed by a lengthy rehabilitation process to restore both her physical abilities, such as walking, and her verbal skills. Her memory was also erratic. Formerly an award-winning reading teacher and certified reading specialist who was involved with teaching programs at both Blinn College and Texas State at the time of the accident, Sheryl found it particularly upsetting that her reading ability had been affected by the head trauma she suffered.
To help herself “learn again” she started teaching ESL to Spanish-speaking kids at Tye Preston Library in Canyon Lake, where the Murrahs live. Luckily, the long-term memory was intact.
Two years after the accident, her first grandchild was born, followed by another three years later. Both kids were November babies, something that pleases their grandmother considerably.
“They are my reward,” she says. “Now November is associated with their birthdays, not with the accident.” Though some physical problems persist, Sheryl is now reading again as she once did, and she has relearned to drive. Her typing speed and accuracy are back to normal, as well. What has changed is her gratitude for every new day and her awareness that she still has things to accomplish in this life. The vision of her mother at the gate is still vivid in her mind.
As with Gieseke, death doesn’t frighten her. Told that many scientists discount NDEs as simple reactions of the oxygen-deprived brain, she is not concerned. “I know what I saw. It’s in my heart,” she says simply.
From Soldier to Jewelry Maker
One person whose life was dramatically changed by her NDE is former soldier Tara Hutchinson. At 23, the Alaska native enlisted in the Army to become a military police officer, a job the recruiter had described as riding around the base in an air-conditioned car to keep an eye on things. She soon found out otherwise. Still, she enjoyed being a soldier, in particular her two-year stint in Korea. Things took a different turn in 2006 when she was deployed to Iraq.
On Valentine’s Day, Hutchinson and her MP squad were on their way to an Iraqi police station in Baghdad when the Humvee she was riding in was hit by an improvised explosive device under an overpass. The bomb blasted a hole in the heavy door and severed her leg. “I went into shock,” she recalls. “I looked over at the driver and his face was covered with white powder (from the exploded door materials). I looked down and saw blood gushing out of my big leg vein. I remember thinking I need to get out, but I couldn’t think clearly.” Fortunately the assistant squad leader was not hurt and was able to pull everyone out of the Humvee as well as tourniquet her leg.
En route to the base, the young woman fought sleepiness because she knew that if she closed her eyes, she would die. Thoughts of her husband and mother floated through her mind as well as of babies she would never have, she says. Once there, someone put an oxygen mask on her face, and she felt like she could give up her effort to stay awake because she was finally in good hands.
That’s when she suffered cardiac arrest and was transferred to a larger clinic in the city. It was only after the doctors cut away her clothing that they realized that the wounded person was a woman — that’s how badly mangled and covered with debris she was. The medical team had to try 11 times before her heart resumed beating. Following several transfers, she was eventually brought to BAMC in San Antonio. She spent a week in a coma.
Hutchinson didn’t even know that what she had gone through was a near-death experience until she talked to James years later. It so happened that James read a poem about the sergeant’s medical ordeal written by the doctor who saved her life. Because she was in an induced coma for nearly a week, she only remembers being disoriented when she woke up at BAMC.
Facing a life without one of her legs and suffering from a brain injury that caused tremors, the young woman sank into depression for several months until her occupational therapist suggested she try to do something with her hands that might improve her fine motor skills. The former soldier, who hardly ever wore jewelry, took up jewelry making. To her surprise, she not only enjoyed it but found that she was good at it. It was a life-transforming experience that “came from God.” (Discovering a new talent is one of the recorded life changes that sometimes follow an NDE.)
“It took me a while to realize why all of this happened,” notes Hutchinson, who now has a growing business called Tara Hutch Fine Jewelry.
“I know I am here to help people, women, with my gift of jewelry making. I help women feel beautiful and feel good about themselves. This is my mission, and I love it.” A feeling of connection with other women often leads her to sense their emotional needs. At this point, she looks me in the eye and states: “I can tell that you have some insecurities.” Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I try to wiggle out of the awkward moment by muttering something about all of us feeling insecure at times. She lets it pass.
But there is another reason why she feels she can help others:
“My piece of jewelry will remind the person of my story, and that’s bound to make her feel better. If I can still make my life badass after what I’ve been through, she can improve her life, too.”
The near-death experience changed her in other ways as well. While her old self was judgmental, shallow and materialistic, the new Tara is more humble and more giving. And she is indeed an inspiration. In addition to her new calling, this indomitable woman has gone back to the sports she loved before — skiing and surfing.
“I am grateful to Debbie (James) for helping me realize what happened to me. I can’t imagine being in a better situation than I am now,” she says.
By JASMINA WELLINGHOFF