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The near-death experience may be as close as humans get to glimpsing something out of this world.
It seems to happen to some people when their heart stops and they're flat-lining. Once revived, they remember floating above their body. They believe they reconnected with deceased loved-one or they say they suddenly understand the meaning of life. The accounts are remarkable and widespread, transcending age, language, culture and geography.
But is the experience imaginary or a true glimpse into the afterlife? TODAY's Natalie Morales is taking a closer look as part of our two-day series "Do you believe?"
The International Association For Near Death Studies — a large organization dedicated to research, support, and education of the phenomenon — estimates more than 15 million Americans may have had a near-death experience.
Barbara Bartolome says she’s one of them.
At 31, she went to the hospital for a myelogram, a diagnostic imaging procedure that involves injecting iodine dye into the base of a patient’s neck.
Bartolome said the dye accidentally went into her brain and within moments, she was unconscious and flat-lining.
“I literally went from inside my body, and when I shut my eyes… the next second I was up on the ceiling looking down at the entire room,” she recalled.
“There was this feeling of a presence that was next to me. It felt like it was God. It felt so loving and so accepting, and so eternal. I literally looked down and said, ‘Huh, if I'm up here, and my body's down there, then I think I must have just died.’”
But she wasn't ready to die yet. Bartolome said she began calmly talking to the presence and telling it how much she wanted to go back to her baby daughter and 8-year-old son. She kept expressing how much she wanted to be there to help raise them and contribute to their lives.
Pledging to make changes in her life, Bartolome said she was suddenly back.
“I shut my eyes up on the ceiling, and reopened them, and I was looking right into the orthopedic surgeon's face,” she recalled, noting that from that moment on, she was filled with love, peace and purpose. “The loss of fear of death is so amazing.”
Dr. Laurin Bellg, a critical care physician and author of "Near Death In the I.C.U.", estimates seeing at least 50 patients first-hand who recounted a near-death experience. She says it doesn't matter if doctors can prove the phenomenon exists or not; what’s central is what the patient is experiencing.
“We know that they're clinically dead and then whenever they are revived, they will actually explain to us what they saw in sometimes exquisite detail about the process of resuscitation,” Bellg said.
“They may have encounters with loved ones that have gone before them or spiritual beings that actually fit their belief system and an extreme reluctance to come back to their physical facility after experiencing a sense of intense love and peace.”
Bartolome calls her near death-experience a "life-changing" gift, but she didn't openly discuss it for many years. She began opening up after seeking out others and becoming involved with the International Association For Near Death Studies. Bartolome now runs her local chapter.
“I realized that talking about my near-death experience is what I'm supposed to be doing. It's the peace that I'm supposed to give, it's the gift,” she said.
Bartolome wants people who are facing death to know they don’t need to fear it. She notes her purpose now is to spread love, hope and understanding.
“Doing your best to be a good person, I think, through your life here is all that you're really being asked to do,” she said.
There are many skeptics who believe these accounts are imaginary — a hallucination or simply made up. Bartolome and others with similar experiences dismiss them, insisting it's their truth and they know it's real.
What does science say? Doctors and other experts are conducting new research in the field. Read about that aspect in part two of our series.