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What It’s Like to Escape From the Brink of Death

What you see and feel in a near-death experience can profoundly change the rest of your life.

While no one can know for sure what happens when we die, some people say they have a clue.

In certain circumstances, particularly when individuals have been resuscitated after having stopped breathing and lost a pulse, they can return with vivid recollections of their experience. These dispatches from the other side are eerily similar. Common themes are seeing a bright light, feeling a separation of the self from the body or a deep sense of peacefulness, and meeting again with lost loved ones.  

Some scientists argue that such visions are merely the reflection of activity in a brain that was suddenly deprived of oxygen but still very much alive. Others believe that “near death experiences” accurately convey what we might all encounter when we die, and indeed are better regarded as “actual death experiences.” One thing we know to be true: those who have dipped a toe into death often return with a renewed sense of purpose to their life. Here are some of their stories.

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At a family picnic at upstate New York’s Sleepy Hollow Lake, Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon, had just tried to call his mother on the phone. An approaching storm sent a lightning bolt through the phone into his head, stopping his heart. Cicoria says he felt himself leave his body, moving through walls toward a blue-white light, eager to be one with God. He emerged from his near-death experience with a sudden passion for classical piano, creating melodies that seemed to download, unbidden, into his brain. He came to believe he’d been spared so that he could channel “the music from heaven.”
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A head-on collision landed Tricia Barker, then a college student, in an Austin, Texas, hospital, bleeding profusely, her spine broken. She says she felt herself separate from her body during surgery, hovering near the ceiling as she watched her monitor flatline. Moving through the hospital corridor, she says, she saw her stepfather, struggling with grief, buy a candy bar from a vending machine; it was this detail, a stress-induced indulgence he’d told no one about, that made Barker believe her movements really happened. Now a creative writing professor, she says she’s still guided by the spirits that accompanied her on the other side.
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Carol Burke was seriously injured in a car crash in the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport employee parking lot, requiring surgery to remove her spleen and repair numerous broken bones. She lost half her blood. Feeling herself floating near the ceiling of the hospital room, she could see her mother and a friend at the foot of the bed, afraid that she would not return. She remembers feeling nothing but peacefulness and love. 

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Ashlee Barnett was a college student when she had a serious car crash on a remote Texas highway. Her pelvis was shattered, her spleen had ruptured, and she was bleeding profusely. At the scene, she says, she moved between two worlds: chaos and pain on one side, as paramedics wielded the jaws of life; and one with white light, no pain, and no fear. Several years later she developed cancer, but her near-death experience made her confident that she would live. She has three children and counsels trauma survivors.
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Pam Kircher contracted meningitis at the age of six. She remembers being in her room in a small house outside St. Joseph, Missouri, looking down at a girl on the bed. Immediately after she recognized herself, she returned to her body. Fearing ridicule and ostracism, she kept this near-death experience secret for almost four decades, yet it motivated every life decision she made. She became a family-practice physician. Now retired, she works in hospice care and talks openly about her experience, hoping it will bring comfort to people at the end of their lives. 

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One night off the California coast in 1983 David Bennett, chief engineer on a research vessel, and his crew tried to outrun a storm in an inflatable boat. About a mile from shore the boat was capsized by a 30-foot wave, and they were tossed into the chilly Pacific. His life vest was faulty, so his lungs filled with water. He remembers feeling total bliss. Something or someone told him it wasn’t his time, though, and after 18 minutes underwater he popped up to the surface. His crewmates, who were all floating on the water, were shocked to see him.
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