Rants & Essays

Children of the Light

By Melvin Morse, M.D. and Paul Berry

LightI stood over Katie's lifeless body in the intensive-care unit and wondered whether she could be saved. A pretty seven-year-old with long blond hair, she had been found a few hours earlier, floating face-down in a swimming pool.

An emergency CAT scan showed massive swelling of the brain. An artificial-lung machine was breathing for her. Despite all our efforts, I was sure she was going to die. But three days later, she made a total-and inexplicable-recovery.

When she was feeling well enough, I had her in for a follow-up examination. After I introduced myself, she turned to her mother and said, "That's the one with the beard. First there was this tall doctor who didn't have a beard, and then he came in." Her statement was correct. Even though she had been comatose in the emergency room, Katie still "saw" us and what we were doing. "I was in the big room," she said, "and then they moved me to a smaller one where they did X rays." Then she accurately noted such details as having a "tube down my nose," her description of nasal intubation.

Amazed at the events recollected, I asked her, "What do you remember about being in the pool?"

"Do you mean when I visited the Heavenly Father?" she replied.

Whoa, I thought. "That's a good place to start," I said. "Tell me about it."

"I met Jesus and the Heavenly Father," she said.

Maybe it was shyness or the shocked look on my face, but she became embarrassed and would speak no more that day.

At our next appointment, Katie told me she remembered nothing about the drowning itself. Her first memory was of darkness and the feeling that she was so heavy she couldn't move. Then a tunnel opened and out came "Elizabeth."

Elizabeth was "tall and nice." She accompanied Katie up the tunnel, where she saw her late grandfather and met two women named Melissa and Heather.

At one point, Katie was allowed to wander through her own home. She saw her baby sister and thought how much she loved her. Elizabeth took her to meet the Heavenly Father and Jesus. The Heavenly Father asked if she wanted to go home. Katie said she wanted to stay with him. Then Jesus asked her if she wanted to see her family again. "Yes," she replied. Then she awoke.

Katie told this story in a compelling way, but she was aware that something had happened that she didn't quite understand. I didn't understand it either, so I began to investigate.

I went to the nurses in the intensive-care unit, who told me that Katie kept whispering "Heather" and "Melissa." Then I probed her family's religious beliefs to see if she had been indoctrinated with a guardian angel named Elizabeth or a tunnel to heaven. The answer from her mother was an emphatic no. A Mormon, Katie believed in the afterlife, but such images never came up in the family's religious teachings. In fact, I could find little similarity between Katie's experience and any of her religious teachings.

A search of medical literature revealed a name for what had happened to Katie. It is called a near-death experience (NDE) and was coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 book LIFE AFTER LIFE. According to Moody, a full-blown NDE happens something like this: A person has a heart attack and passes out from the excruciating pain. He awakens to find himself floating above his body, where he watches paramedics administering CPR.

Suddenly he is zooming up a tunnel with the whooshing sound of speed in his ears. His trip ends in a garden glowing with light. Familiar people, happy to see him, approach. A being of light appears and gives him a three-dimensional review of his life. The person wants the experience to go on forever, but he feels himself sucked back into his own body.

Needless to say, NDEs are controversial. Some say they are just dramas created by the mind in a state of panic; others say they're glimpses into the next world.

A 1982 Gallup Poll found that an estimated eight million people have had an NDE. Katie's experience, which I published in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF DISEASES OF CHILDREN in 1983, was, to the best of my knowledge, the first documented case of an NDE in a child.

Several months after meeting Katie, I was doing cancer research at Children's Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle. Still curious about NDEs, I created a study to answer the question, Do people not near death have NDEs?

I assembled a team of eight researchers, including Dr. Jerrold Milstein, then directory of the Division of Child Neurology, Universty of Washington; Dr. Bruce Greyson, head of inpatient psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center; and Medical social worker Kimberly Clark Sharp, a nationally known near-death researcher.

\The control group consisted of 121 hospitalized children who were critically ill, but not near death. The study group was composed of 12 children who had looked death in the face: all had suffered cardiac arrests stemming from accidents, asthma, sever kidney problems or heart stoppages during surgery. In my interviews, I was careful to avoid mention of NDEs and asked only open-ended questions.

After hundreds of hours of research, I found that none of the children in the control group had experienced anything resembling an NDE. Eight of the twelve children in the study group, however, remember leaving their bodies and traveling to other realms. And all had at least one NDE trait as described by Dr. Moody.

Usually the patient would begin to recount his NDE with a statement similar to that of one who said, "Well, I kind of remember that I was looking down at myself and floating. It was dark and at the same time light. I was going somewhere, but I didn't exactly know where."

Joe, an 11-year-old who went without a heartbeat for 20 minutes, told me: "I heard a whooshing sound. The next thing I knew, I was crouched in a corner of the ceiling. I could see my body below lit up like there was a light bulb inside me." When electric shock revived his heart, he opened his eyes and said to his doctors, "You sucked me back into my body!"

As I searched for a purely scientific explanation for NDEs, a colleague pointed me to esoteric experiments conducted in the 1940s and '50s by Dr. Wilder Penfield, widely recognized as a leader in the field of neurosurgery. When Penfield electrically stimulated tissue surrounding an area of the brain called the Sylvian fissure, patients frequently had the experience of feeling as if they weren't there, hearing music and reviewing life events.

Penfield readily admitted, however, that the energy source that powers the mind is a total mystery. "It is clear that to survive after death, the mind must establish a connection with a source of energy other than the brain…It is not unreasonable to hope that after death the mind may waken to another source of energy."

Brain researchers haven't even come close to explaining one characteristic aspect of the NDE-the light. Nearly all the children have reported that at the final stages of the NDE, a light "wraps" them in a warmth and caring they have never before felt-transforming many of them for the rest of their lives.

This change was apparent when, after eight years of NDE research in children, I re-interviewed the Seattle study group. I found that they have become special teen-agers. Their maturity, wisdom and deep sense of purpose are truly humbling.

Joe, now 20, described himself as being "more serious than most kids my age, but a lot happier." Like so many others who have had NDEs, he said, "My experience has made me more aware of how precious life is. It also has kept me from being interested in drugs or getting high."

Abby, who experienced an NDE during a diabetic coma, sees life differently from most people. "Little things that bother others don't bother me," she says. "I feel calmer and more in control." And, like the others, Abby doesn't fear death, but wants to live life to the fullest.

LightBill has had two NDEs as a result of chronic kidney problems. Once the rebel of the family, Bill has now embraced his family's Christian faith. His transformation has helped his family deal with incredible strain. A younger brother died of kidney failure, and he and his sister spend 12 to 18 hours a week on a home dialysis machine. Bill says of his NDEs, "They have helped me gain comfort through God. Can't you feel the spirit in this house?" I did feel a rare spirit of joy with these people.

A decade of near-death research has affected the way I approach medicine. I cannot say for certain that NDEs are proof of life after death. However, events such as floating out of the physical body and giving accurate details of one's own cardiac arrest are virtually impossible to explain if we do not believe in a consciousness separate from our bodies.

Today I would agree with psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who once said, "We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect." The judgement of the intellect is only part of the truth.

Science-as great as it is-tells only part of the story about life and death. The children of the light tell another part.