At first, it was the Light, a brilliant, white light, without reflection and without glare. Then, the feeling... of quiet jubilation, of peace and incredible serenity enveloping me. It was not ecstasy or any feeling I could identify, except perhaps glory in the warmest most positive sense of the word. It was not at all similar to what I had experienced as an Air Force Medical Officer taking the USAF Physiological Training Program on 5 May 1960 at Lackland Air Force Base for flight officers and deliberately hyperventilating to see how that felt, and then, later deliberately taking off my Oxygen mask at a simulated (flight chamber) low oxygen, high altitude (? 20,000 feet) and experiencing the exhilaration of mild hypoxia as well as the other symptoms which occur physiologically during hypoxia and learning how to differentiate hyperventilation from hypoxia which is obviously important if you are flying at high altitudes or landing a plane.
During this time of jubilation and peace and serenity, I heard nothing, felt nothing, smelled nothing and had had no sense of pain and no sense of having a physical being. I did have the “feeling” that I was conversing with God and that I was being given important insights and facts about the nature of our being and the reasons for our existence that I must not forget and which I must communicate to others because of their incredible importance. I was given the impression that there is a God, a loving God and that it was the same God for all people.
There was more, I know that was communicated but I have little memory of anything specific. I do remember that somehow it was conveyed to me that it was not my time yet, and I had to return, that there was more for me "to be" and this was differentiated from anything I had to do.
I then started hearing very loud and unpleasant sounds- of paper ripping (in retrospect, possibly sterile envelopes of gauze pads) and then voices, men and women speaking in low murmurs- and then a voice saying “it’s almost time for lunch” and then another saying “he’s had a respiratory arrest”. I was still not feeling any pain and not seeing anything at all (the white light had vanished).
I awakened some time later, in a hospital bed in the B/W Hospital on the Neurosurgery Critical Care Unit with tracheostomy in place, my arms and legs tied to a bed, IV tubes in place as well as urinary catheter and hearing the sounds of a busy critical care unit. I knew I had a respiratory arrest but didn’t know why or when. The last I remembered was going into the hospital for a c2-c7 laminectomy and fusion to repair damages of a skiing accident in March 1968 at Killington Mountain in Vermont - which had intermittently caused me pain but had recently been causing problems using my right arm-so I thought it was probably prudent to finally have the surgery which had long ago been recommended.
I remembered the pre-op procedures prior to intubation. I was told – much later- that I had been walking down the hall with a nurse the day after successful laminectomy and fusion and uneventful extubation, and that I suddenly slumped to the floor, unable to breath. Fortunately – a Neurosurgeon was in the next room, performed an emergency cricothyroidotomy on me because I could not be intubated while unconscious.
My throat had swollen greatly after being extubated the day before. I have since obtained the hospital records, which showed indeed that at 10:30 am on that date that I had a respiratory arrest, that my pO2 had fallen to 60% but rose quickly to normal once I was tracheotomized. I do not know the precise length of time between my respiratory arrest and the successful placing of the tracheostomy, but do know that normal intubation was attempted and was unsuccessful.
I told no one initially what I had experienced- I could not have spoken anyway with the tracheostomy tube in place. I had trouble conveying any of my thoughts meaningfully at first, until a thoughtful student nurse provided me with a pad of paper and a pencil... for which I was extremely grateful. I still vividly remember her breaking into tears when I told her how much I appreciated her thoughtfulness.
My recuperation was slow and I spent about 4 weeks in the hospital (and then 4 weeks in a rehab hospital.) While in the hospital ICU I attempted to “check” myself out to see if indeed my “experience” which I recalled immediately, was because I was brain damaged secondary to hypoxia. (I am a physician with formal training in neurology and psychiatry).
I remember that my thinking initially was confused, that I could not remember the last six presidents, or subtract 7 from 100 or spell world backwards. Finally, however, I had the wits to ask what pills they were giving me and realized I had the right to refuse the haloperidol and other sedating pills they were giving me.
Soon, I was able to remember the past 6 presidents, to subtract 7’s from 100, spell world backwards and I did not feel I was hearing or seeing things that were not actually there, but I remained reluctant to share my “experience” until I was safely home. Even then I was reluctant to share my experience except with those I trusted and whom I trusted would tell me if what I was saying seemed psychotic or brain damaged or if I was behaving in a peculiar manner.
Since my 'white light experience' (or Near-Death-Experience), I have read accounts of many hundreds of reported Near Death Experiences and subscribed to the monthly 'Journal of Near Death Studies' which tries very hard to be even-handed in its editorial approach.
I have read many of the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross M.D., PMH Atwater, Kenneth Ring, Michael Sabom, Gary Zukov, Kimberly Clarke Sharp, and many others and the more recent research by Bruce Greyson, M.D, Melvin Morse, M.D., Sam Parnia, M.D. and Peter Fenwick, M.D but the evidence based medical literature is sparse although currently increasing in scope.
What I have gleaned from what I have read is that many others have had experiences quite similar to mine and that experiences seem to cross religious, social and cultural barriers, but their expression does seem to be affected by previous religious and cultural backgrounds. Many people seem to come out of the 'experience' with more belief in God but perhaps less in formal religion, although I found no studies quantifying this.
Children seem to have a 'pure experience' with fewer cultural overtones. Some adults do have 'experiences' that link them to a significant religious figure or 'deity' that corresponds precisely to their prior religious upbringing. Some people who try unsuccessfully to commit suicide are reported to have had Nightmarish Near Death Experiences.
Since my surgical recovery, I have resumed practice as a Psychiatrist and now include, as part of my history, taking a few non-directive questions regarding any unusual experiences people might have had during an accident or a surgical procedure. I’ve also have had two patients spontaneously report to me what they had previously told no one, and wrote out reports for me that are variants of my own experience, but they had said nothing previously for fear of being called 'crazy' (Neither patient was being treated by me for a psychotic illness).
Was my experience secondary to a flooding of my temporal lobe, or God Spot activated
by ketamines, a potentially hallucinogenic chemical, as some suggest? The cross-cultural nature of the experiences confuses rather than clarify… some cultures see caves, other tunnels of light. Could it indeed have been secondary to hypoxia? My own experience with hypoxia in a tightly controlled environment in the Air Force was not in any way comparable to the feelings I experienced while seeing the 'light'.
Was it some sort of consciousness alteration mediated by subatomic particles in the brain that respond to laws of quantum mechanics rather than cellular and molecular biology? I have been reading the most recent works by Kristof Koch and other eminent neuroscientists who are trying to localize the sites in the brain for 'consciousness' with the pre-frontal cortex currently the most likely suspect, but will this lead to a single neuron or set of neurons or to specific molecular neurotransmitters? Or will the particle size continue to shrink and be elusive until technology improves by orders of magnitude?
Just as there are currently String Theories involving the cosmos about which reputable scientists theorize, could there be micro-tubules or fields of energy that envelope each of us and in which our 'spirit' resides when we physically die, even if the 'death' is brief as in the Near Death Experiences?
Or, leaving the most imponderable for last, was it a true 'religious' experience proving the existence of God? There are currently teams of reputable scientists working on improving experimental design and increasing the scope and validity of reporting. There are groups, such as IANDS attempting to educate and inform and to sponsor true scientific research in an area where much that is written seems to be the stuff of folklore and wish-fulfillment. (Some experiencers report the acquisition of various super-powers and write books which sell very well in today's religious pop psychology market.
I, somewhat sadly. must report that I have not acquired any new powers or capabilities and recent research studies seem to validate that such claims cannot be validated despite the many anecdotal reports and books on the lecture circuits. I look forward to reviewing the results of the current teams of scientists and to the increasingly sophisticated questions which they will raise.
I have just become aware of a study by scientists at the University of Chicago-- soon to be published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, finding that most US doctors believe in God and in an afterlife. 76% of 1,004 physicians surveyed said they believe in God and 59% believed in some form of after-life. My own belief, prior to my respiratory arrest/NDE, included believing in God, but with a strong conviction that the way to demonstrate this was to be helpful to my fellow man while alive and with no feeling that I would be rewarded in an after-life for my deeds for I did not believe in an after-life.
Somehow, after my respiratory arrest/NDE, I awakened with the firm conviction that there is a God, a gentle forgiving God, and the same God for all of Mankind. Was I so terrified by my close encounter with Death that I mentally had to configure this strong conviction? I certainly have no memories of anything frightening during my 'experience'. My awakening and subsequent slow recovery were distinctly unpleasant but I am perplexed by my subsequent total conviction of God’s existence.
As a scientist am I therefore to disqualify myself from evaluating current research for fear of falling into the scientific trap of the 'immaculate perception' and accepting as truth only that which goes along with my personal belief? I hope I have been well enough trained in the scientific method and the currently taught Evidence Based Medicine to separate 'Belief,' no matter how strong, from 'Truth' however it is demonstrated. Many years passed and with the passage of time I occasionally wondered when or if I was going to acquire the 'super-powers' written about by some experiencers.
One of my other sons recently, in a conversation with me - brought up the past, saying 'Dad, remember that white light experience, telling you there was something you had to be?'
'You had to be a GRANDFATHER.' And so it was.....
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