Beyond the Telling of Stories: Studies of Survivors of Near Death
Eight-year-old Jesse Lotte nearly died of liver failure from fulminant mononucleosis. She was in the Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital for three days in a profound coma, and suffered clinical death from a total body shutdown.
Yet she survived and made a full recovery.
We interviewed Jesse as part of our research study of all survivors of near death at Seattle Children’s Hospital from 1985-2000. We did not accept volunteers to our study. We had no idea whether or not the children we interviewed had any sort of experiences associated with surviving near death.
In fact, our bias was that they did not have any experiences. Our research team, comprised of the departmental heads of the Intensive Care Unit and Neurology as well as a host of medical students, had the traditional scientific viewpoint that when you are dead, you are dead. We thought that when patients go into coma and die, consciousness ceases and they experience only darkness and then nothing at all.
We were then shocked to interview Jesse Lotte about nearly dying and hear her say that she remembered her own death. She said that she heard and saw the nurses coming into her room and bringing “that crash cart thing." She then said “...and then I saw my grandmother (who had previously died). She was just sitting there. I was here (in her bed) and she was there (beside the bed). I was just so shocked to see her.”
As can be seen in the above picture, Jesse’s grandmother was surrounded by a halo of white light.
Jesse then said to us, “And then I was back.”
“What do you mean, that you were back?” I asked.
Jesse scrunched up her face and made her hands into fists and said, “That’s what I have been trying to figure out."
Our study of children who survived cardiac arrest and profound comas was the first prospective studies of near-death experiences published in the medical literature. Prospective studies are the gold standard for clinical research studies. We identified two groups of patients by reviewing their medical charts. One group survived near death, meaning that they had an 85% chance of dying from their medical condition.
The other group were critically ill patients, hospitalized in the Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital and treated with medications including narcotics and anesthetic agents. Our control group was also mechanically ventilated and typically suffered from a lack of oxygen to the brain. The difference was that this second group of patients was not near death; they were expected to survive in spite of being critically ill.
We had no idea what these patients were going to tell us about nearly dying. We suspected that the control group would describe near-death-experience-like events, as they had a lack of oxygen to their brains and/or were treated with narcotics and other mind altering medications. But we didn’t know; that's why it is called research!
Like Jesse Lotte, we were shocked to learn that virtually all survivors of near death described near-death-like experiences, and none of our control patients described any experiences at all associated with nearly dying. In other words, near-death experiences were not caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, medications, or a psychological response to nearly dying. We documented that critically ill patients, as predicted, have no memories of being in coma. Yet when they come to the brink of death, consciousness returns in an expanded form with often the perception that they leave their physical bodies.
In blunt unequivocal terms, the scientific evidence is that consciousness survives the impending death of the brain in an expanded form that is characterized as a sense of universal knowledge and oneness with the universe, as well as meeting dead relatives and interacting with an entity most children simply describe as “God”. The science of the near-death experience teaches us that consciousness survives the death of the brain.
How did these children describe surviving cardiac arrest?
“That was weird, you guys just sucked me back into my body” said one child.
“Forget my body, forget being alive, I just wanted to get to that light, to be with that light” said another child.
“I have a wonderful secret to tell you, I was climbing a staircase that went to heaven,” one child confided to us.
“Where’s my Jesus?” another child demanded to know. (When you resuscitated me) “you took my Jesus away.
In fact 24 out of 26 children who survived near death described some sort of near-death experience. In contrast, none of over 150 control patients who were also critically ill but not near death described any sort of experience at all. They followed the known understanding of neuroscience in that they were not conscious at all while in a deep coma.
Even more fascinating was one child who did not recall any sort of near-death experience. She and her father were fishing in Lake Washington when she fell overboard and sank deep into the water. Her panicked father and another adult desperately free dove into the water to try to find her.
They could not see anything in the murky darkness. Suddenly they saw a bright light shining from the bottom of the Lake. Within the light was the child. They grabbed her and successfully resuscitated her. After a week in the Intensive Care Unit, she made a full recovery.
The two men wondered about the light they saw. They thought it might have simply been a ray of light from the sun somehow penetrating the depths of the lake. So the next day, they rented diving gear and sat for an hour at the bottom of the lake. It was pitch dark, no light at all penetrated the murky depths. They had no explanation for the mysterious glow which allowed them to rescue the child. Yet she herself had no memory of nearly dying, so we had to report her in our final report as not having a near death experience.
We published our results in the American Medical Association’s Pediatric Journal, prestigious Hematology Oncology journals and in the Lancet (the latter as a letter to the editor). The medical journal Current Problems in Pediatrics devoted an entire issue to our research.
More importantly, our small study done at the University of Washington was validated by a major large scale prospective study done at the University of Ultrech in the Netherlands by Cardiologist Pim van Lommel. He published his study in the Lancet and reported identical results as reported in ours, that when patients come to the point of death, they report death experiences, whereas critically ill control patients do not remember anything of their illnesses. Dr. Van Lommel and I met in the Netherlands and coordinated our research protocols to make sure that both our studies had similar criteria with which to understand and explain the near-death experience.
In summary, two excellent prospective studies of near-death experiences, both with proper control groups, both published in the world’s most prestigious medical journals, document that consciousness persists at the point of death. The brain at that point is no longer functioning, so clearly consciousness must exist independent of brain function.
Our research clarifies and validates previous retrospective studies of near-death experiences. In retrospective research, individuals are identified who describe near death experiences, and then sociological research tools are applied to them to better understand the nature of the experiences.
These researchers include Dr. Kenneth Ring at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Michael Sabom at the University of Georgia, Dr. Raymond Moody (my brother-in-law) and Dr. Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia. These studies are very important, yet are flawed in that people first have to believe that they have had a near-death experience, and then researchers investigate their situations.
In the prospective research of both Dr. van Lommel and our group at Seattle Children’s Hospital, we identified survivors of near-death and appropriate control groups, and THEN interviewed them about their experiences, if indeed they had any experiences at all. Most of the children we studied had never told anyone, not even their parents, about their experiences, as they thought they were just crazy dreams or weird or didn’t want to be criticized.
Next week we will discuss the neuroscience of the near-death experience and learn exactly which areas of the brain allow us to have spiritual experiences when we are awake and fully conscious. This research is important as it illustrates that near-death experiences are simply spiritual experiences that happen to us when we die. We are spiritual beings in a human body and have specific areas in our brain which permit us to access the same universal consciousness that we will all encounter when we die.
Links to my research papers on children’s near death experiences:
Morse ML, Castillo P, Venecia D et al: Near Death Experiences in a Pediatric Population: Final Report. AJDC Nov 1986 Vol 140 No 11 Pages 1110-1115.
Link to Dr. van Lommel’s Research: