Read an Excerpt
It shouldn't shock the Christian when people undergoing clinical death and being revived come back with certain recollections. I've tried to keep an open mind, and I hope that this interesting phenomenon will get the benefit of further research, analysis, and evaluation. Too many of these experiences have been reported for us to simply dismiss them as imaginary or hoaxes.
-- Dr. R. C. Sproul
Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary
The Atlanta Study:
A Second Look at the Near-Death Experience
Pete Morton, a 53-year-old Air Force veteran, climbed into the military-issue hospital chair the way a cowboy mounts a horse. Pete was a handsome, rugged-looking man with black hair, sun-browned skin, and a deep, raspy voice tinged with a Louisiana bayou drawl. He didn't look like a man in frail health. But he was. Sitting backward in the gray steel chair, he leaned his chest against the vinyl-padded backrest and lit up a cigarette. I still chuckle when I listen to the tape of my interview with him; you can hear him strike the match. I was his cardiologist. The year was 1977.
Pete had suffered two cardiac arrests several years earlier, and was resuscitated each time. Now he was complaining of chest pain. His physician had referred him to the Veteran's Administration hospital in Gainesville, Florida, for a heart catheterization -- a procedure during which I would insert a nearly four-foot-long tube into one of his arteries and gently thread this tube through the artery into his heart. By using a dye injected through this tube, I would be able to clearly see in an X-ray video any heart damage or blockages that might be causing his pain.
Before I did the procedure, I needed to talk with Pete about his medical history. At the time, I was already a year into my research on near-death experiences (NDEs) in which I was asking resuscitated patients if they could remember anything unusual about their crisis.
When I asked Pete, the room fell silent. The only movement was a spiraling pillar of cigarette smoke rising and dispersing near the ceiling. Pete looked at the doorway behind me, I'm guessing to make sure no one else was around. As he finally began to speak, it was with embarrassing stammers. Clearly, I had caught him off guard. I was asking to hear about something he had told only to his wife, and, even to her, only in part. Once she had heard what little he was willing to say, she refused to let him speak of it again in her presence.
I assured Pete that he could talk freely with me and that I wouldn't think him crazy. I explained that I was researching the topic. He told me he had left his body during his first cardiac arrest and had watched the resuscitation. When I asked him to tell me what exactly he saw, he described the resuscitation with such detail and accuracy that I could have later used the tape to teach physicians.
Pete remembered seeing a doctor's first attempt to restore his heartbeat. "He struck me. And I mean he really whacked me. He came back with his fist from way behind his head and he hit me right in the center of my chest." Pete remembered them inserting a needle into his chest in a procedure that he said looked like "one of those Aztec Indian rituals where they take the virgin's heart out." He even remembered thinking that when they shocked him they gave him too much voltage. "Man, my body jumped about two feet off the table."
Before talking with Pete, and scores like him, I didn't believe there was such a thing as a near-death experience. I first heard of the near-death experience as I sat with 20 other people in the Seekers Sunday school class at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Florida. Sarah Kreutziger, a psychiatric social worker, was giving a report on Raymond Moody's book Life After Life, a collection of stories about people who said they nearly died and who claimed to have seen the spiritual world. Some of these people said they had left their bodies and watched as doctors tried to save them.
In our classroom there was just one physician -- me. Somebody asked what I thought.
"I don't believe it," I said.
That was my first public comment on near-death experiences.
As a doctor, I had witnessed and performed countless resuscitations. But never, ever, had a patient told me a story as bizarre as the stories Moody reported. And never had any of my colleagues spun such a yarn. I truly believed Raymond Moody was pulling a fast one.
Still, the Seekers class was so intrigued by his book, which seemed to reinforce belief in life after death, that they arranged for Sarah to present a report to all the adults in the church. Sarah asked me to serve as medical consultant for the session and to field any medical questions. I agreed reluctantly; I was convinced the topic was better suited to a barker outside a carnival sideshow.
To get ready for the presentation, Sarah and I each agreed to ask some of our patients if they had ever experienced anything like Moody described. I fully expected to collect several negative responses and return to church with my skepticism intact. My mentor, a gray-haired physician who was directing my final months of training in cardiology, assured me I would not be surprised. I believed him. He had an earned reputation as the consummate bedside physician; he knew his patients.
He was right. I was not surprised. Until patient number three.
I walked into Jane Stewart's room at about 8 p.m. on April 27, 1976. She was a 37-year-old housewife who lived in the suburbs of Orlando. Though she had come to the hospital for elective surgery, I saw on her medical history chart that she had almost died several times during her life -- once with encephalitis as a child, once with toxemia during pregnancy, and once during gall bladder surgery.
When I asked Jane if she had had any unusual experiences during these brushes with death, the tone of her voice fell reverent. Beneath her words rose powerful emotions. I became quickly aware that she was entrusting to me a story deeply personal. That story unfolded like the pages of Moody's book.
I was flabbergasted, but tried to maintain a sense of professionalism as I listened.