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'God held me': Coming back from the brink of death is possible, says doctor

Feb. 26, 2013 at 12:56 PM ET

When people describe seeing tunnels, white lights and deceased family members after their hearts stop, they're dead — but they can come back, believes Dr. Sam Parnia.

Parnia, a critical care doctor and the director of resuscitation research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, writes in his new book, “Erasing Death: The Science That is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death,” that a person can now be resuscitated long after they previously would have been considered clinically dead.

“The advances in the last 10 years have shown us that it’s only after a person dies that they turn into a corpse, that their brain cells start to die,’’ Parnia told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday. “Although most people think this takes place in only four or five minutes, we now know that actually brain cells are viable for up to eight hours."

He continued, “We now understand that it’s only after a person has turned into a corpse that their cells are undergoing death, and if we therefore manipulate those processes, we can restart the heart and bring a person back to life."

Houston therapist Mary Jo Rapini had just such an experience in 2003 when she suffered a brain aneurysm at the gym. She was in the intensive care unit for three days and then took a turn for the worse when her heart stopped beating.

“I remember being in this room with lots of activity and physicians and people doing things on my body, and then I had the experience,’’ Rapini told TODAY. “It's a tunnel that's radiant. It's so warm and so accepting, and God held me, and I remember thinking at the time ‘I have never known love like this.’’’

Read excerpt: Erasing death: Retrieving life from the very brink

Many scientists and doctors believe those commonly described images of white lights and warm feelings are hallucinations brought on by lack of oxygen to the brain. But Parnia feels that they are proof that consciousness is not extinguished after the heart stops beating.

It’s proof, he said, that death is not an absolute but a process that can be reversed.

“My goal is to bring people back to life,’’ he said. “That’s my aim, but in order to do that we have to study what happens after death. An inadvertent consequence of this, the flip side of the coin, is that we’ve learned about what people experience after death. That’s why we know that when people die, their consciousness is not annihilated, and there are these experiences.’’

In 1989, Texas pastor Don Piper was broadsided by an 18-wheeler while driving on a bridge. He suffered a gaping wound in his left leg and his arm was separated from his shoulder. He said he was without a pulse for 90 minutes, during which time he saw a vision of his dead grandfather welcoming him in front of a magnificent gate. He later detailed his experience in the best-selling book, “90 Minutes in Heaven.’’

“It was utter happiness,’’ he told NBC News. “There's nothing to compare it to. I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to help people get there.”

Parnia said that "one of the most advanced things" in the fight for reversing death is the technique of cooling patients' bodies.

Take the more than 1,000 people who froze to death in the icy Atlantic Ocean during the sinking of the Titanic, for example.

“What we now know is that those people, most of them could be brought back to life again if that happened today,’’ Parnia said.

Link: Risky cooling therapy saves pregnant mom, baby

The cooling procedure risks damaging the brain, but Parnia believes that the risk would be mitigated if hospitals had standard regulations to follow.

“One of the problems we have right now is that there are all these advances in our systems that our not being implemented, so your chance of surviving from this depends on where you end up, which hospital you go to, who’s on call, which bed you end up at,’’ he said. “What we do know is that if we implement these things, people can come back without brain damage and that’s what we’re trying to strive to do because there are many people who die unnecessarily and then unfortunately if they do they come back they might be brain-damaged or in a vegetative state.’’

Each person is different, which complicates the implementation of regulations and standards when it comes to trying to resuscitate patients, the American Heart Association told NBC News. Age is a factor, as is a patient’s medical history.

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