I spent hours each morning alone with my friend Sheelagh Livingston during our trip to Northern Ireland last month. We talked about our partners, the Mournes (her favorite mountains to climb), her nephews, our plans for the afternoon. Sheelagh didn’t avoid talking about her health, but she didn’t want to dwell on it, either, so she asked after my own health instead.
Specifically, Sheelagh wondered what I remembered from everything that happened to me last April. When I got to the part where the miracle workers at Northwestern Memorial Hospital used a defibrillator to get my heart working again, I decided to go ahead and tell her about the near-death experience I had during those ten seconds my heart was out of whack.
It was when I was in pre-op that I coded — that’s a slang term for a cardiopulmonary arrest happening to a patient in a hospital. Up to that point I’d been in a lot of discomfort and pain, but then all of a sudden everything was quiet. Dead quiet.
The First thing I saw was my face. I was the age I am now, and I was starting to smile. “No bright light in the distance, nothing like that,” I conceded to Sheelagh, and the two of us chuckled to think that maybe blind people just can’t see that white light.
I couldn’t describe what I was feeling during that time as peaceful, really. More like serene. I still remember shrugging and wondering why human beings spend so much time on earth being afraid of dying, and I recall feeling disappointed, too: no lightening, no thunder, no vestal virgins. It definitely was calm, though. Quiet. Perfectly fine.
A story in The Washington Post that happened to run a few weeks later said that “About 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report visions or perceptions during clinical death, with features such as a bright light, life playback or an out-of-body feeling.” National Public Radio (NPR) aired a story about near-death experiences that week, too. The NPR story said that researchers at the University of Michigan monitored the brain activity of rats that had been given lethal injections to induce cardiac arrest, and they found a burst of brain activity after the rats hearts had stopped.
Hearing this news on the radio surprised me. Doesn’t blood flow to the brain stop when the heart quits working all of a sudden? I figured without a fresh supply of oxygen, any sort of brain activity would stop, too.
But those rats at University of Michigan proved me wrong.
“Measurable conscious activity was much, much higher after the heart stopped — within the first 30 seconds,” Jimo Borjigin, who led the research, said in the NPR report. “That really just, just really blew our mind…That really is consistent with what patients report.”
Dr. Borjigin thinks that those of us who claim to have had near-death experiences really just had super intense dreams. She said that when we dream, a lot of activity goes on in one part of the brain, and the other part rests. She thinks something similar is happening with near-death experiences: one part of the brain is trying to make sense of what’s happening, while another part is kicking into a super active state to try to survive. “The near-death experiences, perhaps, really is the byproduct of the brain’s attempt to save itself.”
Sheelagh was in her bed, propped up with pillows and enjoying the tea and toast Beni brought her that morning as I continued my near-death story. I told her I’d just been settling into nothingness when I saw my mom’s face. Flo looked confused. And sad. Next stop? The living room of our Chicago apartment. It was dusk, and Mike was despondent, walking from window to window, looking outside. My Seeing Eye dog Whitney was tracking his every step, and I was nowhere to be seen.
Anyone who knows me well – and Sheelagh was one of those people – knows I do not suffer from low self-esteem. My oversized ego followed me to death’s dark door, for God’s sake. “You’d think I’d be considering world peace or balance or harmony, but all I was thinking was that I couldn’t let this happen” I told Sheelagh, setting the cup of coffee Mike had made me down to place my palm dramatically on my heart. “You must go on, Beth. Their lives will be so awful without you!”
Sheelagh didn’t laugh. She grew quite serious instead. “You have that wrong, my dear,” she said, explaining that those visions simply prove how much I love Flo, and how much I love Mike. “When you love people that much, you don’t want to do anything to make them feel sad.”
So what to think about those images I saw. A message from a future world? A super-active brain? Aliens? Supernatural powers? Intense dreams? Invasion of the body snatchers? A sign from God? I’m going with Sheelagh’s interpretation. It was love. And surviving that near-death experience and being able to travel to visit Sheelagh one last time? That was heaven.