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What It’s Like to Die, According to an ICU Nurse



Aleteia - published on 05/25/15

After working with the terminally ill for over 20 years, Penny Sartori attempts to explain the inexplicable

Palliative and intensive care units at hospitals have a close relationship with death, giving rise to many experiences that defy any rational explanation. Patients who foresee the exact time when they will die; others who seem to decide for themselves the day and the hour, moving their death forward or delaying it; family members’ prophetic dreams or presentiments on the part of third parties who, without even knowing that someone has been brought to the hospital or has suffered an accident, are certain that he has died.

Only healthcare professionals who work closely with terminally ill patients know first-hand the extent and variety of these strange experiences. Science has not been able to offer any kind of answer, and so these experiences are usually described as paranormal or supernatural. This label is "too vague for the significance of these experiences," explains the British nurse Penny Sartori, who has worked for nearly 20 years in ICU.

Such a career is sufficiently solid for her to have seen everything, recognize patterns and come up with a hypothesis regarding these phenomena. So much so, that she has a doctorate on these questions, whose principle conclusions were published in the book The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences (Watkins Publishing).

"Visions" shared with family members

Throughout her career, Sartori has interviewed patients who have had near-death experiences (NDE), as well as family members who have had shared death experiences (SDE). The number of these experiences and the repetition of patterns make her discard the hypothesis of chance, or of it being impossible to find a logical reason for this widespread phenomenon.

Her main thesis is centered on the idea that "our brains are separate from our consciousness. In other words, the brain may be channeling what some people call the soul, rather than responsible for creating it." This idea would explain, she adds, why "the soul and enhanced consciousness can be experienced separately from the body," as in NDEs or in Buddhist meditation. The examples that Sartori uses in her book are numerous, but they all tend to coincide in that the patients who have these NDEs are always those who end up embracing death most peacefully and happily, as do family members who have a premonition of the death of their loved ones. Why? According to interviews with these family members, it is because they are convinced that death is only the end of their earthly life.

Independent of whether they are believers, agnostics, or atheists, all of them have a dream or a vision about how their family member leaves this world guided by someone — spouses who have already died, anonymous beings or angels — and with a clear sensation of "peace and love." At first, Sartori says, "it struck me as odd that some family members of the deceased didn’t feel sad after foretelling the death of their love one, but when I interviewed them I realized that they were peaceful because they had experienced this sensation of life’s transcendence."

Choosing the "most appropriate" moment to die

This is the case of the people who, knowing when they will die, ask to be alone for a few minutes, or die exactly when a family member, who stays at their side constantly, leaves them for just a moment to go to the bathroom. Other equally noteworthy cases are those of people who die just after seeing a family member who has been delayed in arriving to see them because he or she was out of the country, or when all of the paperwork for inheritances and life insurance is finished. "They appear to be waiting for a specific event to take place before they can permit themselves to die," the nurse says.

John Lerma, director of the Tucson Medical Center and specialist in palliative care, has gathered examples very similar to those cited by Sartori, in Into the Light: Real Life Stories about Angelic Visits, Visions of the Afterlife, and Other Pre-Death Experiences (New Page Books). According to his reports, "70 to 80 per cent of his patients waited for their loved ones to leave the room before dying."

Sartori refuses to believe that these experiences are based on hallucinations. "It’s not possible for several people to see the same thing and to be capable of describing it exactly the same way if it’s really just a distorted perception of reality," she points out. Some theses are based on the famous theories of Prof. Raymond Moody, who coined the concept of near-death experiences at the end of the 1970’s.

Her most novel studies center on experiences shared by people who accompany those who are dying. "They open an entirely new path of rational enlightenment regarding the question of life after death, because the people who talk about these experiences are healthy. They are usually seated next to the death bed of a loved one when they are overcome by one of these marvelous and mysterious experiences. And the very fact that these people are not near death rules out the usual explanations. Since their experiences cannot be attributed to brain chemistry disorders, we will have to go beyond this argument," she assures.

New Paths of Investigation

The way some people try to explain this phenomenon based on brain dysfunction, which Sartori calls "cynical," doesn’t hold up with the examples of people who enter the hospital with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease who suddenly become coherent.

"These are terminally ill patients who are incapable of articulating a single word, who surprisingly begin to talk completely coherently, interacting with people who are not in the room and who are often deceased family members," the author explains. Besides, she adds, "it often happens that after this experience they stop being agitated and end up dying with a smile on their face, usually one or two days later."

The argument that these visions are drug-induced isn’t accepted by the author either because, she says, hallucinations due to medication "cause anxiety, the exact opposite of what these patients feel. “In her book, the author defends the idea that these kinds of experiences can be key for demonstrating the existence of life after death and that they should at least open a new direction of research (like some that are based on quantum physics) for scientific studies. She is definitely convinced that "death is not as fearful as we imagine."

Article originally published by El Confidencial

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