NDEs in the Medical Profession

by Pam Kircher, M.D.

[This is from the IANDS' magazine Vital Signs Vol. XX, Number 3, 2001.]

Dr. Bob Brumblay, an emergency room physician from Hawaii, told an IANDS conference audience how his attempts to understand his wife's near-death experience eventually led him to a new theory of human perception. And Seattle pediatrician Dr. Melvin Morse confessed to having been skeptical initially when children resuscitated by him described their NDEs_but by now Morse has heard so many such stories from his young patients that researching the NDE has become a major focus of his career, and has fundamentally altered his worldview.

In such ways, several doctors and nurses shared with an IANDS conference how NDEs have affected their lives, professionally as well as personally.

To give another example, Colorado family physician Dr. Pam Kircher related how realizing in adulthood that her own childhood NDE had profoundly shaped her life's values led her to finally talk about NDEs with her medical colleagues.  That in turn moved her to work in hospices, where she found NDEs and ADCs (after-death communications) to be extremely common among patients and their families.

So at this year's conference, Dr. Kircher facilitated a discussion among forty health-care professionals about reactions they encountered when acknowledging NDEs on the job.  Some reported increasing openness to NDEs, while others still encounter resistance.  The discussants agreed that it is very helpful to find colleagues in their area to trust with such difficult problems.  Many were encouraged by current research on NDEs.  One suggested that physicians would become more receptive to NDEs if their patients insisted on telling them of their NDEs_so that the profession would become "flooded with NDEs."  The attendees were reminded that the IANDS office has wallet-sized cards which NDErs can carry to show their medical providers what an NDE is and to alert them to its common after-effects, including increased sensitivity to medications.  The discussants agreed that nurses often are much more receptive to patients' NDE stories than are doctors.  The recent work on awareness of end-of-life issues in America (through Bill Moyers' TV series Dying in America, and through advance directives) has helped people become somewhat more open to talking about death.  As that openness develops, awareness of NDEs and ADCs might naturally increase.  And in turn, increased awareness of NDEs and ADCs could greatly decrease people's fears of death and could enlarge their perceptions of life.

At a separate session, Chicago nurse Linda Morris reported on her Ph.D. thesis research, which examined the response of nurses in eight Chicago-area hospitals to patients who'd had NDEs.  Morris discovered that not only do patients tell nurses about NDEs, but nurses often perceive a "glow" around patients as they die.  [The nurse treating well-known Swiss psychologist Carl Jung testified to this same glow-observation - reported on page 3 of Vital Signs Issue #1 of 2001].

Morris' thesis work has led her to want to help other health-care professionals become aware of the experiences patients and nurses are sharing.  She identified several ways that health-care providers can be of assistance to NDErs.  These include (1) understanding that patients may be confused about the experience, (2) understanding that patients often are aware of what's going on around them even when considered unconscious, (3) not dismissing the NDEs as merely side-effects of medications or as hallucinations, (4) validating their experience, and (5) listening to their experiences in a nonjudgmental way.

Later in the conference, Debbie James, a critical care nurse from San Antonio, Texas, spoke of how her understanding of NDEs had helped her become comfortable with people deciding about donating their organs and patients who receive organs.  Transplant recipients sometimes deeply sense the personality characteristics of their anonymous donors.  Understanding the reality of NDEs has helped Ms.  James be more receptive to such experiences.  By sensitive listening, she has found that transplant recipients often are made more comfortable by being given details about their donor, especially if they are already sensing things about them.

James' master's thesis focused on how patients' first telling of their NDE had been responded to, and how that response later influenced their integration of the experience.  She found that nurses tended to be the most helpful people to tell, but their reactions were not invariably sensitive.  People often want to talk about their NDE as soon as it occurs, but if their first telling is met with skepticism or negativity, they often won't risk telling others.  As a nurse working in a cardiac care unit, James feels that her current mission is to help other health-care providers learn about NDEs so they can be helpful to the many patients who undergo NDEs during cardiac arrests.  To that end, she speaks about NDEs at many health care conferences throughout the country.

Dr. Jeff Long, another presenter at the conference, is a physician in Tacoma, Washington who became curious about NDEs a few years ago and created a research web site (www.nderf.org) on which experiencers are invited to record their NDEs in detail.  His work with the site has grown to the extent that he now describes himself as a man with two full-time jobs!  What he has learned from the NDE narratives received there has greatly influenced how he approaches patients in his practice of radiation oncology.  It also has influenced how he views the world.  He has learned that relationships are the reason most NDErs choose to return to earth, and that our immersion in the interconnectedness of life is a prime concern.

During his morning keynote address, Dr. Melvin Morse, the Seattle pediatrician, explained that he had become so engrossed by the testimony of his child patients - some as young as three years old - that he was moved to compile them into a book (published in 1990 as Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children).  Now Dr. Morse speaks of a paradigm shift emerging.  This shift includes the view that humans are meant to have mystical experiences because we have a part of our brain specifically devoted to that task, the deep right temporal lobe which takes up 11-15% of our brain.  This is the same area that shows increased activity in experienced meditators, and produces feelings of expanded consciousness, shown decades ago by Wilder Penfield's neurological experiments.  It may also be the part of the brain that allows us to interact with one another at a distance, and is possibly the area that is stimulated during the out-of-body portion of an NDE, before all brain activity ceases.  Dr. Morse suggested that this lobe constantly interacts with patterns in nature that lead to the seemingly miraculous instantaneous healings sometimes accompanied by out-of-body experiences.  For that reason, it should become an important area of study for mind-body medicine.  Dr. Morse's conclusion is that deep mystical experiences occur in the right temporal lobe and that we may be biologically "wired for a God connection."  Morse has published his latest theories in the book, Where God Lives: The Science of the Paranormal and How Our Brains Are Linked to the Universe.

At his afternoon presentation, Dr. Bob Brumblay, the Hawaiia emergency room physician, compared the conventional worldview that rejects NDEs and other mystical experiences to the time before humans understood that the earth was round.  Of course our perception at the time that the earth was flat didn't prevent the true reality that the earth was, indeed, round.  Similarly, mainstream science's reluctance to accept NDEs as real doesn't negate their continued occurrence.  Dr. Brumblay used the book Flatlands to build his analogies about perception.  In a two-dimensional world, we would not be able to see the front and back of things that we can see in our a three-dimensional world.  Likewise, during an NDE people can perceive more than our customary three dimensions, so their perceptions seem to us to penetrate solids and to transcend time.  Our everyday life is three-dimensional, but that doesn't mean there cannot be more dimensions, a principle in fact supported by present-day physicists.

From these vignettes of six sessions at the Seattle conference, it is clear that NDEs are not only of clinical interest to the medical profession, but they are changing the lives of nurses and doctors who have been opened to their significance.  Furthermore, clinicians are now looking at how theories about NDEs might inform our understanding of brain functioning, and how the NDE phenomenon accords with new developments in physics and philosophy.  There was a general feeling of optimism among the health care providers that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift in medicine that can lead to a broader acceptance of NDEs in the clinical setting.

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