A Keynote Presentation at the Conference “Near-Death
Experiences: 30 Years of Research”, Co-sponsored
by IANDS and MD Anderson Cancer Center, MD Anderson
Cancer Center, October 25-28, 2006
When we consider the changes in attitudes toward
NDEs over the past thirty years, it is helpful
to look at how medicine has changed in other
ways as well. Thirty years ago I was a second
year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine
in the Texas Medical Center. The year was 1976;
I was Baylor’s first single mother who
was admitted to the medical school. This came
about because of recent women’s rights
legislation that mandated that women not be
excluded from higher education because of their
personal circumstances but that they be considered
for admission only on the basis of the academic
record, test scores, and references. In short,
the law said that women had to be treated the
same as men when it came to admissions. That
may seem unbelievable to young women of today,
but it was legislation that made my medical
education a possibility. In 1976 coronary artery
bypasses (CABs) were done only at major medical
centers. Stents were not going to be available
for several more years. In those days almost
no one spoke of NDEs. In fact, the word had
just been coined by Raymond Moody and was not
widely known by anyone.
Thirty years ago people were still having NDEs
even if they didn’t have a name for them.
We now know that about 1/5 people who are resuscitated
have an NDE so they were definitely occurring
although patients rarely spoke of them. If they
did try to tell their doctor, the doctor would
initially change the subject to something more
symptom related. If they insisted on talking
about it, their health care providers dismissed
it as a hallucination. If the patient became
excited and said, “Oh, no this was real!”
that warranted tranquilizers. If they still
insisted on the reality of the experience, either
a chaplain (surely this is a spiritual problem)
or a psychiatrist (surely this is a psychological
problem) was consulted. A chaplain might tell
them that this was the work of the devil and
that they should pray to get rid of the thoughts.
A psychiatrist would definitely label them with
a label that might follow them the rest of their
lives. If they still wouldn’t stop talking
about the NDE, that warranted a psychiatric
admission with major antipsychotic medications
that would keep them from talking about the
NDE. Only rarely did a person with a NDE meet
a healthcare professional who might thoughtfully
reply, “I’ve heard stories like
this before from people who were resuscitated.”
What are some of the factors that have led
to increased awareness and sensitivity to NDEs?
- Increased absolute numbers of NDEs through
improved resuscitative techniques
- Increasing awareness of NDEs among the lay
- Increasing permission to speak about NDEs
and insistence on telling their stories
- Improved education about NDEs
- Increased research about NDEs
Factors that have led to increased incidence
of survivors of CPR include:
- Improved resuscitative techniques in the
hospital, including improved ICUs and the
development of the specialty of intensivists.
- More lay public being trained in CPR so
that people with witnessed arrests are more
likely to survive than they were several years
- The addition of AEDs (Automatic External
Defibrillators) in public places will increase
survival enormously since most cardiac arrests
occur as a result of a rhythm disturbance.
If the heart rhythm can be regulated immediately,
survival is much better than if it stays irregular
until the emergency personnel arrive. This
is an area of improved resuscitation that
I believe will burgeon in the next few years.
What is the estimation of the number of people
who have had NDEs in this country?
- In Dr. Pim van Lommel’s 2001 study
in the Netherlands, 18% of 344 cardiac arrest
survivors reported a NDE.
- In a Gallup poll in 1982, 8,000,000 U.S.
adults reported a NDE.
- With our increased population since 1982,
some 13 million U.S. adults today have had
NDEs. This is not taking into account the
improved survival after resuscitation, so
that figure is probably much higher.
- Dr. Jeff Long (www.nderf.org) has calculated
that 773 people in the U.S. have a NDE every
What factors have led to increased awareness
of NDEs among the lay public?
- Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, Life
after Life, was published in 1975. Since
then hundreds of books about NDEs have been
- IANDS (www.iands.org)
was formed in 1978 to increase awareness of
NDEs and to support people with NDEs.
- NDEs were discussed on talk shows and have
become a natural part of many movies and even
shows on television.
- Magazine exposure of NDEs has gone from
the “National Enquirer” in the
1970s to “Good Housekeeping” and
“AARP” magazine in this century.
- NDEs have become a household word.
- The rise of the hospice movement in the
past 30 years has exposed more people to the
NDEs of the terminally ill. The first U.S.
hospice was established in 1976.
What factors have led to increased awareness
of NDEs by healthcare professionals?
- Patients are insisting on telling their
stories and on being heard.
- Research on NDEs in conventional journals
such as Lancet, Psychiatry, Journal of OB-Gyn,
etc. has helped doctors to see NDEs as a natural
occurrence in their patients.
- Education of healthcare professionals in
training is improving. The Templeton Foundation
funded “Spirituality in Healthcare”
courses are now available in 2/3 of 142 medical
schools. IANDS’ “The Day I Died”
BBC documentary has been shown in over 20
medical schools including Baylor, Stanford,
Washington, Indiana, UCLA, and Duke. This
excellent documentary about NDEs is used as
a part of a course. Discussion about NDEs
typically takes place after the students view
What is the evidence that psychologists, social
workers, and chaplains are now more aware of
NDEs than they were in 1976?
- In 1975 many psychologists considered a
NDE an abnormality that required a psychological
diagnosis. Now the DSM IV has a category for
“Religious or Spiritual Problem”
(V62.89.) (Of note, most people with a NDE
don’t consider the NDE a spiritual problem.
They consider the adjustment to life after
the NDE to be the main problem of the NDE.
I think that there will be more adjustments
to this category before it really fits an
- Social works and psychologists are now having
workshops to learn how to counsel people with
What have we learned about how healthcare professionals
can be of assistance to people with NDEs?
- Be aware that it is likely that a person
had a NDE if they were resuscitated.
- Be alert for signs that a person had a NDE
such as increased sensitivity to noise, touch,
or violence on the TV. They also may appear
- Ask open-ended questions and let them tell
their story in their own time and in their
own way. Give them plenty of time to tell
you their story.
- Have information about NDEs.
- Remember that the first person that is told
about a NDE has a lasting influence on how
a person adjusts after the NDEs. It is a privilege
to be that person.
Has the knowledge of NDEs influenced other
aspects of research?
- It is one aspect of experience that has
led scientist to consider the possibility
that consciousness is non-local.
- People have reported awareness of physical
details during NDEs when they had a flat EEG.
- Reports of visitations from deceased loved
ones at the moment of death are another example
- Recent studies have shown that healers do
influence brain waves at a distance.
How will medicine view NDEs in the future?
- Recognizing that every healthcare professional
will meet patients with NDEs, NDE education
will be a part of the curriculum in all nursing
schools and medical schools. It will be part
of the ethics courses, death and dying education,
and complementary therapies curriculum.
- All healthcare personnel in hospitals will
be knowledgeable about NDEs. This will occur
through continuing education at the hospital.
While all hospital personnel will have basic
knowledge about NDEs, each hospital will also
have a local expert for consultation. Hospitals
will provide support groups for people with
NDEs that will include “Companion NDErs”
much like the current Buddy system in Cancer
- NDEs will be considered a natural part of
the human experience
- NDEs will be part of the research on consciousness.
- NDEs will be a commonly funded focus of
research. This research will include not only
veridical perception (confirming physical
details during the NDE), but also how to best
teach health care professionals about NDEs
and how to best support people with NDEs.
How is this knowledge about NDEs impacting
- It is one more reminder that our understanding
of medicine and human consciousness is always
- Hearing value changes from people who have
had NDEs reminds us to take time for quiet,
nature, and our loved ones.
- The attitudes of people with NDEs remind
us that not all of our patients fear death
and that death is a natural part of life.
How is increasing awareness of NDEs impacting
- As NDEs are seen as a natural part of human
experience, the values of those who have had
NDEs will be seen as a normal part of human
- People in the hospice setting have values
similar to people with NDEs.
- As more people are exposed to NDEs and hospice
our world will move toward understanding the
importance of love, forgiveness and right
relationship and away from an emphasis on
success and material possessions.
When I look back on the years between 1976
and 2006, I see it as time when NDEs and hospice
influenced vast numbers of people to live their
lives in a different way.
When I look ahead to the next thirty years,
I see it as a time when NDEs and other spiritually
transformative experiences will change how ALL
of us live our lives.
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