The near-death experience story is so common that it has become a bit of a cliché: A medical patient, hanging in a murky limbo between life and death, is drawn through a tunnel of bright light, meets their maker, and is told they must return to the land of living.
But that scenario played out letter-perfectly for Mary Jo Rapini. And her story is getting firm backing by a doctor who has studied some 1,300 near-death experiences. Medical doctor Jeffrey Long chronicles Rapini’s story, along with his own research, in a new book: “Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences.”
In the book, Long contends his study shows that accounts of near-death experiences play out remarkably similarly among the people who have had them, crossing age and cultural boundaries to such a degree that they can’t be chalked up simply to everyone having seen the same Hollywood movie.
Through a tunnel
Appearing with Dr. Long on TODAY Wednesday, Rapini related her near-death experience to Meredith Vieira. A clinical psychologist, Rapini had long worked with terminal cancer patients, and when they told her of their near-death experiences, she would often chalk their stories up as a reaction to their pain medication.
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But in April 2003, she faced her own mortality. Rapini told Vieira she suffered an aneurysm while working out a gym and was rushed to the hospital. She was in an intensive care unit for three days when she took a turn for the worse.
“All of a sudden [doctors] were rushing around me and inserting things into me, and they called my husband,” she told Vieira.
“I looked up and I saw this light; it wasn’t a normal light, it was different. It was luminescent. And it grew. I kept looking at it like, ‘What is that?’ Then it grew large and I went into it.
“I went into this tunnel, and I came into this room that was just beautiful. God held me, he called me by name, and he told me, ‘Mary Jo, you can’t stay.’ And I wanted to stay. I protested. I said, ‘I can’t stay? Why not?’ And I started talking about all the reasons; I was a good wife, I was a good mother, I did 24-hour care with cancer patients.
“And he said, ‘Let me ask you one thing — have you ever loved another the way you’ve been loved here?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s impossible. I’m a human.’ And then he just held me and said, ‘You can do better.’ ”
While Rapini’s account may seem far-fetched to naysayers, Long says her recollections mirror nearly all stories of near-death experiences. When Vieira asked Long whether Rapini might be prone to cultural conditioning — surely she heard similar stories before — he said her story is untouched by preconceived notions.
Crossing cultures and ages
“I think if near-death experiences were culturally determined, then people that had never heard of near-death experiences would have a different experience,” Long argued. “But we’re not finding that. Whether you know or don’t know about near-death experiences at the time it happens, it has no effect on whether the experience happens or not, or what the content is.”
In his book, Long details nine lines of evidence that he says send a “consistent message of an afterlife.” Among them are crystal-clear recollections, heightened senses, reunions with deceased family members and long-lasting effects after the person is brought back to life.
“My research involved experiences of young children age 5 and under, and I found the content of their near-death experiences is absolutely identical to older children and adults,” he told Vieira. “It suggests that whether you know about near-death experiences, what your cultural upbringing is, what your awareness of death is, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the content of the near-death experience.”
Long, a radiation oncologist, said that writing his book has actually made him a better doctor, as well as a believer in the afterlife.
“[It] profoundly changed me as a physician,” he said. “I could fight cancer more courageously. I found patients who died, it wasn’t the end. It made me more compassionate and more confident.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints