Could there be More? An Overview of the Near Death Experience Phenomenon in the Medical Field.
Throughout human history, every culture the planet has ever seen has talked about the idea of life after death, or the “world beyond.” Whether you are a Christian speaking of “heaven,” a Tibetan Buddhist speaking of the “bardos”, or a western scientist trying to make sense of the thousands upon thousands of reports dealing with near-death and out-of-body experience, it appears that everyone is taking a glance at the same common thing. Whether one believes this common thing to be fact or fiction is another paper topic in and of itself, but this common thing has been here with humanity from the beginning and doesn't seem to be disappearing anytime soon. The topics discussed in this paper are not new ones, but are age old ideas that are now starting to be examined by western science. Although most of us may not get the answers we are looking for until we actually have a Near Death Experience or experience death, maybe we can consider the possibility that certain people in our race have already glanced into the reality behind the veil of our material world and can provide some answers for us. Should this reality be proven false, at least we can say that we have eliminated a huge misunderstanding across the population. Should this reality be proven true, I believe it will elevate mankind’s understanding of the “superunknown” to a new level, and change the way we see the cosmos forever. Either way, NDE is definitely worthy of attention.
No one seems to agree on an exact definition for NDE, so it is usually described as a set of common events experienced by certain people who have close calls with death. Simpson (2001) describes NDE pioneer Dr. Raymond Moody’s nine stages which outline the basic experience. The concepts were first introduced in his 1975 book Life After Life and include a) a sense of being dead, b) a sense of happiness and peace, c) out-of-body experience, d) going through a tunnel, e) meeting with beings of light, f) meeting with a supreme being of light, g) having a life review, h) rising rapidly to the heavens, and i) a feeling of reluctance to return to the previously known life. Although not everyone experiences each stage, these are the basic events that nearly all people who experience NDE report.
After the event, people often return with their lives changed a great deal. The events experienced during NDE do not fit into many people’s framework of how reality functions, and are usually so dramatic that life changes, sometimes quite profound, are a common result. In their study of 32 spontaneous verbal accounts of NDE, Sahlman and Norton (1998) found that the interpretation of the NDE events were subjective to each person and determined by the intensity of the experience, the personal interpretation of the experience, and the need for change in the person’s life. For example, someone with a past history of selfishness may have a strong NDE where the beings of light are interpreted as angelic beings judging the person’s worth. The experiencer’s realization of his or her’s own faults in the context of the newly discovered reality turns the person’s life around and sets him or her on the path to righteousness. Such is a typical description of the way a NDE changes a person.
With studies over the last 20 years indicating that between 8 and 15 million Americans have experienced the phenomenon (Wimbush, Haride, & Hayes, 2001), does this provide adequate evidence of life after death? Potts (2002) examines the evidential value of NDE for the belief in life after death and states that the positions vary significantly. He goes on to point out that many are convinced that the large numbers of accounts and consistent reports do in fact provide evidence, where strict physicalists still feel that the phenomenon is explainable by physical processes happening in the brain. He concludes that for the person who has experienced NDE, the event does provide evidence of the consciousness surviving physical death.
When dealing with a subject such as NDE, extreme skepticism of its existence is a frequently encountered situation. Western science does not yet have a method to measure and quantify the phenomenon, so it is not accepted or even considered by much of the scientific community. The subject matter of the NDE is closer to that of religion than science, so subjective answers are usually given to make sense of what is happening to the many people who have close calls with death.
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Although the common person may have heard of, or even known someone who has experienced NDE, the incidence of dealing with the phenomenon is much higher among people in the medical field. These persons are around death and the traumatic events known to trigger NDE quite often, and are usually the first to hear patient testimony of the experience after the fact. Nurses, emergency room staff, paramedics, and even sometimes police officers and firefighters often have testimony about people/patients they have been around at the time of death who experience a NDE. In a sample of 12 hospital patients who experienced NDE and the 19 nurses who cared for them (Morris & Khafl, 2003), patients and nurses reported that the NDE had changed their lives and helped them to develop more positive qualities. Nurses reported higher levels of spiritual awakening, greater compassion, more comfort in communication with patients, a closer relationship with the higher power/reality, and more comfort in times of crisis. Patients reported a closer relationship with the higher power/reality, no fear of death, intuition/extrasensory perception, change in life purpose/priorities, and improved relationships. Another interesting note pointed out by Morris and Khafl is the paranormal activity reported by many nurses to be happening in the rooms of critically ill patients. This is significant because it shows the presence of non-physical events other than the actual NDE associated with the patients who may be interacting the world beyond, further dismissing the explanation of hallucination to explain the NDE. Such reports include seeing figures around the bed, strange blue/green auras around the patients, cold spots in the room, voices, and a feeling of an atmosphere change in the room. One such account states: “There’s someone in there. But we went in there, and she did, she had a blue glow all over her and it was—the room was filled with it. And she had, like her grandmother sitting next to her, holding her hand… I don’t know if it was her grandma, her mother, who, who it was. But she was just sitting there, holding her hand and—providing her comfort… And I went up to her, and I said, you know, you have someone sitting here taking care of you. And she looked at me, and she just shook her head yes.”
In a study of 30 patients who survived cardiac arrest (Schwaninger, Eisenberg, Chectman, & Weiss, 2002) seven patients claimed to have had a NDE. The results showed that patients reported having a heightened sense of spiritual awareness, better understanding of the meaning of life, and better attitudes toward other people after the experience. They also stressed how they wished to receive psychosocial support after being discharged from the hospital. Another study involving cardiac arrest patients (Van Lommell et al, 2001) involved determining the frequency of NDE’s in patients resuscitated from a cardiac arrest. The results showed that 18% of those resuscitated reported the experience, but in different degrees of intensity. Clearly, a significant number of those revived from near death situations have a NDE.
Other professionals who often work in close conjunction with the medical field such as police officers and firefighters often report strange events associated with the people they tended to at the time of death. In a study involving 90 emergency service workers consisting of 68 police officers and 22 firefighters (Kelly, 2002), 33% of those interviewed said that they had experienced events indicating the presence of the deceased person may have still been around. Some reported only feeling the presence (often a “clinging” presence), while others reported that they felt a type of communication with the deceased.
The prevalence of the NDE phenomenon in the medical field shows that patients and staff alike have to deal with the existence of a profound situation that requires compassion and understanding on both the patient and medical professional’s part. Wimbush et al. (2001) state that medical staff involved in resuscitation efforts from common NDE producing condition such as cardiac arrest, hemorrhage, and anaphylactic shock should be extra aware of the possible occurrence of NDE in the patient being tended to. It is also advised that unconscious patients be treated as if they are conscious, since many NDE experiences involve patients perfectly recalling the events transpiring at the time of the their resuscitation. Supporting the patient and comforting him or her should a NDE occur is critical, and should be part of the routine care provided by medical professionals. James (2004) recommends actively listening to the patient, fostering a caring environment, truly “being there” for the patient, personally researching NDE, allowing the patient to decide how to proceed, answering questions, informing colleagues, and sharing stories of other NDE cases with current patients dealing with NDE. Due to the nature of NDE not being in the mainstream, medical professionals may have to take a more personal approach to informing themselves and learning how to best provide care should they be faced with the event.
In general it appears that there is definitely a common occurrence taking place in a significant number of people who have close calls with death. Whether we are actually seeing a glimpse of the other side or dealing with the unlikely result of a hallucination, the evidence is there to back up the existence of the phenomenon of NDE. The hardest aspect of dealing with a topic such as this is the idea that other realities and dimensions may exist, which we cannot yet measure or directly perceive. This presents a problem because there is nothing to measure in a lab using western science, so we cannot absolutely without a doubt conclude that the consciousness is capable of operating in another dimension. As time goes by; however, modern physics is reveling a multidimensional nature to our reality (Brumblay, 2003) which may eventually show us the deepest truths concerning ourselves and what is happening in a NDE. All we can do is keep an open mind, and personally research the topic as much as possible to become more informed. In the mean time, medical professionals (and even common people) need to be aware of how to deal with someone who has been through this incredible experience, and to educate themselves about the subject as much as possible. Through caring for one another in these times, keeping an open mind, and sharing our thoughts and feelings on the taboo, maybe one day we will all be privileged to know the mystery of the cosmos we inhabit.
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