Near-Death Experience or Awareness Under Anesthesia?
Updated: Apr 11, 2021
Numerous patients who are resuscitated after dying on the operating table later report having had a near-death experience. Instead of listening to patient reports with compassion and understanding, most medical staff deny such patient experiences, labeling them “delusional,” “pathological,” “hallucinations,” or “having had received insufficient anesthesia”.
Insufficiently administered general anesthesia is also referred to as, “awareness during anesthesia, or awareness during surgery.” This refers to patients that are either partially conscious during surgery, or actually awaken during surgery. I can only imagine how absolutely terrifying and painful this must be!
Yet, awareness under general anesthesia is extraordinarily rare-occurring in approximately one to three patients in a thousand. Actual awareness tends to only occur in procedures in which the patient is lightly sedated and/or given muscle relaxants.
General anesthesia is used to block sensory, motor, and sympathetic nerve transmission during surgical procedures. Patients experience pain relief, loss of memory of the procedure, motionlessness, a total lack of consciousness, reduced nerve response, slowed heart and breathing rates, and lowered blood pressure. General anesthesia is effective because, in essence, it makes a patient “dead to the world.”
Pim van Lommel is a Dutch cardiologist, author, and near-death researcher. He believes (as do I) that when a resuscitated patient reports memories during an operation, medical staff should not dismiss this as delusion or inadequate anesthesia. Rather, they should seriously consider the possibility that the patient had a near-death experience.
The most well-known case of a NDE documented under general anesthesia is that of Pam Reynolds. Pam was diagnosed with a giant aneurysm (a bulge or ballooning in a blood vessel) in a cerebral artery near her brain stem. Her chance of survival was negligible.
In order to give her better odds of survival, her body temperature was lowered to fifty degrees. She was attached to a heart-lung machine, and all blood was drained from her brain-temporarily rendering her clinically dead. Loud clicking devices were inserted into both ears to monitor her brain. Her eyes were taped shut and she was deeply anesthetized.
Prior to her surgery, Pam’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler explained:
What we want to do is we want to bring her brain to a halt. We don’t just want her brain to be ‘asleep.’ We want the metabolic activity of her brain to stop. Every measurable output that her body puts out disappears completely, so that you have no measurable neuronal activity whatsoever.
Yet, although her brain was essentially “dead,” upon waking, Pam was able to describe, with complete accuracy, the entire procedure, the surgical instruments used, detailed conversations of the medical team, and a song playing on the radio during surgery.
Pam claimed that although she was clinically dead during her surgery, she experienced greatly heightened awareness, focus, and clearer vision than in everyday life.
Rising above her body, she saw a surgical bone cutter, describing that it looked like an “electric toothbrush” (which, although her eyes were taped shut, was factual and confirmed). Meanwhile, she overheard the one of the surgical team members discuss the difficulty posed by her small arteries. However, the loud clicking devices in her ears would have made hearing anything nearly impossible.
Pam later stated, “I think death is an illusion. I think death is a really nasty, bad lie.”
I am a huge proponent of patient-centered care for those who self-report near-death experiences (NDEs) during surgery. Patient-centered care means listening to the patient tell their story, with an open mind, compassion, and respect.
After all, with an essentially “dead” brain, any recall of this or any major surgery seems scientifically inexplicable, let alone verifiable. It is critical that surgical teams not assume that a nde occurring under general anesthesia is merely “awareness during surgery.” After all, how such experiences be denied when they are third-party verified?
Although medical staff may remain unconvinced that NDEs are valid phenomena, it is essential that they understand this event is very real to the patient. Therefore, to discredit a patient experience is to invalidate the patient himself.
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