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End of Life Issues

A Thirty Year Perspective:
Medicine’s Changing Views Toward NDEs

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 public

  • 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 ago

  • 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 ( has calculated that 773 people in the U.S. have a NDE every day!

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 published.

  • IANDS ( 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 the video.

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 NDEr.)

  • Social works and psychologists are now having workshops to learn how to counsel people with NDEs.

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 withdrawn.

  • 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 of non-locality.

  • 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 Support Groups.

  • 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 healthcare professionals?

  • It is one more reminder that our understanding of medicine and human consciousness is always growing.

  • 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 our world?

  • 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 experience.

  • 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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