People often talk about seeing their lives flash before their eyes, but a select few — some of those who have been resuscitated after nearly dying — have reported on the experience of death, or at least coming very close to it. It’s a rarer phenomenon, and one that has captured the interest of scientists who are trying to answer the question of just what constitutes death, and when death actually occurs. A new international study is endeavoring to apply hard science to one of life’s biggest mysteries — its end.
“When you think about it, most people out there think of death as a moment; you’re either dead or you’re not,” Dr. Sam Parnia of Weill Cornell Medical Center told Meredith Vieira live on TODAY Monday. “But what we’ve found is there is no moment of death; it begins when your heart stops, and it goes on for a period of time.”
Parnia is the author of the book “What Happens When We Die” and the driving force behind the AWARE (Awareness During Resuscitation) study, which tries to add some medical weight to stories of people who say they were conscious as doctors tried to restart their bodies after death. By learning from people who have been brought back from the dead, doctors might actually learn how to better save lives, he believes.
Looking from above
“At least 10 to 20 percent of people who have been brought back to life will tell us they had consciousness present, and a proportion of them will tell us they were able to see doctors and nurses working on them as if they’re looking from above,” Parnia told Vieira. “When people have died, their brain goes into a flatline state, so consciousness shouldn’t be present. But it could also be that [doctors] did something amazing to get blood into their brains.”
Science has traditionally said that when a person has no pulse, they are gone from the land of the living. But what’s trickier for researchers is figuring out what is going on with the brain after the heart stops and cells start dying off.
Dr. Parnia and his associates are looking into the tales of “out-of-body experiences” to gain new insight into the inner workings of the brain when a person is at death’s door. Currently, no one knows for sure whether OBEs (doctor shorthand) are real or if they are just a trick of the mind to ward off the painful process of the body shutting down.
The second test might be even more intriguing to doctors and laymen alike. A small picture shelf is installed above patients’ beds in cardiac ICU units that are part of the study. The shelf can’t be seen from floor level — one would have to be “floating” to catch a glimpse of the photo. Doctors are trying to see if any patient brought back to life through resuscitation — and who say they wafted above their corporeal self — will recall seeing the photo in their intermittent state.
One man’s story
The researchers are thus trying to put some objectivity into what has long been a subject more commonly discussed by philosophers and theologians. But to be sure, the subject of people being brought back to life, and what they experienced before they were, has a grip on the public’s imagination.
One of the more famous cases is that of Baptist minister Don Piper, who appeared to have met his unfortunate demise more than 20 years ago when a 16-wheeler smashed into his Ford Escort head-on while crossing a bridge in Texas. Amazingly, Piper is still around to recount the accident to NBC in a taped segment that ran on TODAY.
Paramedics could find no sign of life at all in Piper, and placed a tarp over him while waiting for the medical examiner to arrive. A fellow priest prayed over him, but as he was singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Piper began singing along — an hour and a half after he was assumed dead.
Where did Piper go? To hear him tell it, he died and went to heaven. Piper wrote a best-selling book, “90 Minutes in Heaven,” in which he details being at the Pearly Gates, seeing other believers, hearing songs never heard on earth and thinking only good thoughts. He has now established a ministry based around his death experience.
New branch of science?
For his part, Parnia is fascinated by such stories, but not for their entertainment value. He believes the current study examining these accounts may actually help doctors be more successful in bringing more people back to life after death.
“[The study] will allow us to discover the nature of the human mind and consciousness — it might open a new branch of science,” Parnia explained to Vieira. “We’ll know better methods of resuscitating cardiac patients.
“With ever-improving discoveries, we will be able to bring even more people back to life from clinical death,” Parnia continued. “It is paramount for physicians to be able to provide a scientific understanding of what happens to the brain and body and, more importantly, the human mind and consciousness, during death.”
Some 25 hospitals in the U.S. and Europe are participating in the AWARE study. But don’t expect results overnight: Parnia predicts a report on the study’s findings won’t be available for at least three years.
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