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Two books arrived in recent weeks that are written from the scientific standpoint and have to do with near-death experiences. We'll be drawing articles from them, starting with one by a researcher named Roy Abraham Varghese.

As Varghese points out, in There Is Life After Death, near-death experiences cannot be explained by anesthesia, chemicals in the brain, lack of oxygen, sedatives, hallucination, or other factors skeptics have sought to use in explaining the death episodes. Even those blind from birth have been able to describe their environment once they "leave" their body!

When -- in trying to duplicate near-death experiences -- scientists use electrical impulses on parts of the brain, they may produce a few fleeting disjointed images similar to certain near-death visions but the images are just that: fleeting and fragmentary where near-death experiences are extended and cogent with remarkable consistencies.

And perhaps most importantly, unlike electrical prods, they cause profound changes in the lives of those who experience them.

For this, there is no neurological explanation.

From that viewpoint, astonishing was the case of a 35-year-old Atlanta woman named Pam Reynolds -- who, as reported by Varghese, as well as in a previous book, Light and Death, by Dr. Michael Sabom, underwent the most radical surgery known to man.

It was a remarkable case because Pam's near-death episode occurred after she had been placed in what they call a "standstill" state -- clinically dead.

In order to operate on a large aneurism in a brain artery, neurosurgeons put her under anesthesia, stopped her heart and breathing, lowered her body temperature to a frigid sixty degrees, and as her brain waves flattened, allowed blood to completely drain from her head.

For all practical purposes, she was deceased -- under what is also known as hypothermic cardiac arrest, which was pioneered at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

She was "dead" -- according to extensive monitoring (they planned to revive her after removing the aneurism) -- and yet Pam did not lose consciousness, instead describing at great length how she felt her spirit pulled out of the top of the head during the procedure and then "watched" from above as surgeons and a slew of technicians worked on her body! She not only described instruments and procedure in tremendous detail -- instruments she could not have seen during or after (besides everything else, her eyes had been taped shut) -- but also the movements of doctors and technicians.

During the procedure, the top of her skull was removed with a Midas Rex whirlwind bone saw and Pamela was medically induced into cardiac arrest once they verified that the aneurism was too large to otherwise remove and they would have to cause "complete electrocerebral silence," in the words of  Dr. Sabom years before the two new books (the other of which is also written by a doctor).

"The blood was drained from Pam's body like oil from a car," Dr. Sabom had written. "During 'standstill,' Pam's brain was found 'dead' by all three clinical tests -- her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain."

Yet, her consciousness was never extinguished.

If anything, she was more aware than when she had been in a normal state.

It was at that point Pam felt like she was being taken up by a "tornado" and began to hear a deceased grandmother calling her. She also saw an uncle and a great-great cousin.

Pam saw the Light so many report -- she was most drawn by this (which experiencers describe as the Light of the Lord), and encountered a barrier she could not pass (or she would not be able to return). As in so many near-death cases, those encountered on the other side looked like they had at their prime.

An hour later, after the aneurism was removed, her blood was warmed and pumped back into Pam's body and her heart was restarted -- in this incredibly risky procedure that is used only as a last resort by surgeons.

When the monitors blipped back to life, Pam came back from the place of Light.

It wasn't just that she had all the classic detail of such an experience, but -- as Varghese puts it -- that "she gave remarkable accurate descriptions of the unusual instruments used in the surgery, as well as the activities taking place in the operating room."

This is significant, even decisive, because a dead brain cannot misfire (or hallucinate).

So dramatic is Pam's case that one prominent skeptic, Susan Blackmore (who has since retired from her role as chief skeptic), remarked: "If the case you describe is true [in all the medical details with which it was presented], the whole of science would need rewriting."

[resources: San Francisco retreat on mysticism: Michael Brown, February 27: we ask for your prayers, and St. Augustine, Fl. retreat, March 6: the mystical Catholic]

[see also: books on afterlife]

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