What happens when a patient reports a near-death experience?

Although near-death experiences have been studied, little concrete evidence is available for the clinician.

A patient describes a near-death experience.
A patient describes a near-death experience.

 I am personally interested when patients share their near-death experience, because I had my own near death experience when I was a child. What patients tell me is so similar to the feelings and sensations that I experienced those many years ago that I'm convinced we shared a similar divine experience.

This patient was injured in Vietnam and was rushed to a military hospital with multiple internal injuries. The patient was given little hope that he was going to survive. While providers worked on saving his life, the patient told me he found himself floating upward toward the ceiling watching what was going on below.

He heard nurses and doctors talking back and forth and at some point saw himself lying there. He said his experience didn't include tunnels or bright lights. On either side of him, two figures that looked like monks appeared to be watching the scene below. The figures never spoke or looked at him.

The patient described an overwhelming feeling of love and peace. He said he felt weightless and happy, and has since never felt that level of contentment. I completely understood this comment, as this was what I felt during my own near-death experience.

For 20 years, the patient never spoke of the experience. He said he wanted to talk about it but was afraid someone might think he was crazy. I understood, because it was 15 years before I shared my own story.

At some point, while this patient was floating above his body, he realized he had died. In his mind he remembered thinking, "I don't want to go yet. I want to go back and see my family."

At that moment, the robed figures backed away and the patient found himself going back to his body. It was two weeks before the patient woke from a coma, and the doctor confirmed what he already knew. "We lost you," said the doctor. "You are lucky! We got you back!"

I was shocked when I did a Pub Med search on near-death experience. I found more than 732,006 possibilities. This is a phenomenon that happens frequently.

I glanced at several studies and most researchers agreed that near-death experiences are difficult to study. Most studies, of course, are retrospective.  Patients are sometimes reluctant to discuss their experiences because of the possibility someone might think they are crazy, and providers don't know how to deal with patients who report these events.

Most patients who have reported a near-death experience have said they felt they "have been on the other side." Is this a religious experience, a hallucination due to anoxia, or an increase of endorphins due to a trauma? No one knows for sure.

During my research, I found that in 1978, three physicians, a psychologist and a medical sociologist thought this subject was important enough to start an organization called The International Association for Near-Death Studies so that patients could describe their near-death experiences.

I have no great findings to present to you in this article, but I do ask you to consider your patient who reports having an out-of-body experience after a traumatic medical event. If nothing else, listen to their story and give them a safe space to talk about what they have experienced. The stories are fascinating.

From my personal experience, when someone shares their experience with me, I am brought back to the day that I hovered over my own body and watched as my mother prayed for me. I knew that I had to go back to my body because somehow, I knew it wasn't quite time for me to leave this world, but I did feel like I could have chosen otherwise. I will never forget that feeling, and as people who have had the experience will tell you, there are no words to describe what you experience.

I am a clinician, and I have been taught to practice medicine according to what is the best scientific and studied practice available. However, what my near-death experience taught me is that there is so much that we don't understand and can't explain, and that some things can't be measured, but it doesn't mean that it is any less real for the patient.

Sharon M. O'Brien, MPAS, PA-C, is a practicing clinician with an interest in helping patients understand the importance of sleep hygiene and the impact of sleep on health.

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