Dr. Laurin Bellg Discusses Her NDE Research
Posted on 10 April 2017, 8:15
“It is impossible to be so close to the cutting edge of life and death and not be transformed by it in some way. Our beliefs and opinions about life and death are shaped by what we encounter.” So writes Laurin Bellg, M.D., in her recent book, Near Death in the ICU.
Dr. Bellg, (below) a board-certified critical care physician and Chair of Medicine and ICU director for two intensive care units in the Appleton, Wisconsin area, draws upon some 20 years experience in attending to critically ill and dying patients. “Although it was within the hallowed halls of my conventional medical training that I first encountered patient accounts of the unusual and mysterious during near-death moments, extreme illness and trauma, it has only been within the past few years that I have begun to pay serious attention not only to the medical care of my patients but also to their personal experiences as they approach death,” she offers in the book’s Introduction, adding that her own thoughts about life and death have morphed over the years, due in part to the accounts of transcendent experiences.
She begins by telling of her experience with another physician, an 87-year-old dying patient she refers to as “Dr. John.” He told her that he was not afraid to die and related a near-death experience (NDE) he had during WWII, when the jeep he occupied was hit by mortar fire. Dr. John recalled floating above his body in the operating room and found it strange to be watching his friends and colleagues in such a detached manner as they fought to save him. “He felt completely weightless and peaceful, void of any fear. The feeling of love was immense, almost unbearable, and recalling it now, Dr. John’s voice became fragile as he paused to fight back tears.”
As Dr. Janice Holden, who has been researching NDEs since the mid-1980s, states in the Afterword of the book, this is not just another “ho-hum” book about near-death experiences. “To my knowledge,” she writes, “no one has addressed so well the need to offer a helpful response to those reporting an NDE, and the process of reconsidering one’s belief system in light of the evidence from NDEs.”
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Bellg for The Searchlight, a publication of The Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Inc. (See http://www.ascsi.org and check out details of their June 7-11 conference at http://www.ASCSIconference.org) A slightly abridged version of that interview is presented here.
Dr. Bellg, what were your beliefs relative to life after death prior to having the various deathbed and near-death experiences you report in your book? How have they “morphed”?
“It is impossible to be exposed to death-bed and near-death experiences and not be affected by them, but what I can say with certainty is after being privileged to have heard so many accounts of near-death experiences, I’m not afraid to die. What comes next, though, I really don’t know, but I believe something does. And I’m beginning to think that what it looks like to us from this vantage point is heavily influenced by our culture and belief systems.
My Christian patients see a Christian construct. My Hmong and Native American patients see an ancestor-based construct. My Asian Indian patients see a heavily-Hindu-informed construct. I’ve come to the comfortable conclusion that something of us, like our consciousness, survives, but what that is or what it looks like I really don’t know. Even experiencers have a hard time putting it into words. Because we are so very influenced by the lenses through which we are peering to behold an experience, a pure and unadulterated interpretation may elude us. I’ve forgotten who said, ‘What we see is what we believed before we looked,’ but I believe there is a lot of truth in that statement.”
Is there any one patient or NDE that especially moved you? If so, would you mind summarizing it?
“I will always remember Samuel, whom I spoke of in my book. He was the first patient I’d taken care of who seemed to have had an anomalous experience. This was literally within weeks of me graduating from medical school, so I was still a very new doctor and heavily indoctrinated into a left-brain, science-based way of looking at things. I believe he died because I failed to recognize an out-of-body experience he had during surgery and as a result he refused further operations that he needed to survive. He reported seeing his whole surgery, including his open abdomen, from a vantage point above his body and was able to describe it in detail while feeling no pain. He was so freaked out by it that he refused any further life-saving interventions. I had no context with which to frame what he had experienced and help him deal with it. I had not been taught that in medical school. As I explain in my book, I still hold Samuel’s memory very close as motivation to help patients sort out anomalous experiences that don’t fit neatly into the scaffolding of our current understanding of the physical universe. Samuel’s experience (and mine with Samuel) propelled me on a journey to support patients in their unusual experiences – whatever they may be – and to understand as much as I could about them.”
What about deathbed visions or other deathbed phenomena, such as “soul mist”?
“Even physicians who downplay the near-death experience acknowledge that patients who are dying often appear to talk to relatives who have already passed away that we cannot see but they apparently can. It has become an unofficial metric to inform family members that their loved one is close to passing because they are beginning to communicate with predeceased loved ones. I’ll be honest, I’ve not heard of ‘soul mist’ but imagining what you might be referring to, I recently had a whole team of caregivers, including a doctor and several nurses, speak of a very strange wind that went through the room at the time the patient officially died.”
You state that discussion of these transcendent experiences by patients is not a “safe” topic with your peers. Have you seen any changes in this regard over your 20 years of practicing medicine?
“Sadly, not really. Chaplains in my healthcare system continue to report accounts that patients have spontaneously shared with them. Spiritual leaders seem to be safe space around such phenomenon. How can we facilitate a culture of presumed safe space as care givers? That is my question to my medical community. And, that is the primary reason I felt compelled to write my book. I thought that I had something important to contribute to the discussion about near-death experiences and how to be able to converse with someone about their anomalous experience of consciousness is a fundamental part of good patient care.”
Have you had much feedback from your skeptical peers about your book? If so, how do they react to it?
“I have had some feedback, yes, and it has mostly been positive. Those who disagree have politely avoided engaging me in conversation about it, but fortunately it has not interfered with our professional relationship. A couple of doctors I work with have come forward telling me they actually had a near-death experience and that they confirmed it was not safe to talk about in today’s medical environment if you expect to have a respectable medical career. I have to admit I was very reluctant to write this book and once I’d done it there was a part of me that hoped no one would actually read it! Especially people I work with. But now that it is out there and I still have my job, I’m feeling a bit braver about being more open. Conventional medicine is a very powerful machine and strongly founded on evidence-based practices. I understand that and, for the most part, agree with it. As body mechanics we need to be confident that the medicines we give and the procedures we do are not only safe for our patients but that they also are going to work and produce a good outcome. That is being responsible. But there is this whole other side to what it means to be a human patient that involves experiences that we cannot measure or reliably reproduce. We need to cultivate a new way of integrating these experiences that are very real to the patient and honor them. Telling the patient it didn’t happen because we, the measurers of phenomenon, didn’t see it is not only unhelpful, it is very disrespectful. And, as in Samuel’s case, potentially deadly. That is not good patient care.”
What are your views on all the mechanistic theories relative to NDEs, such as oxygen deprivation, hallucinations, stress hormones, etc.?
“Sure, those things happen, but those experiences then become muddled, disjointed and don’t take away a patients fear of death. Patients hallucinate and oxygen deprivation can cause visual disturbance, but there is a distinct clarity around out-of-body experiences during severe trauma and near-death states that patients often recall in exquisite, organized detail. Furthermore, the nature of transformation that patients experience just doesn’t happen during states of delirium, hallucinations or stress hormone surges. Again, my stance remains that we are talking about something that the experiencer can’t prove did happen and the nonexperiencer cannot prove did not happen, so we need to have a different approach to discussing these transformative events in a way that serves the patient we have taken an oath to care for and protect. I’m not sure that at this point in our human evolution we have the science to explain what is happening. Maybe we will never be able to. All the more reason to create a space where we can discuss the phenomenon without shaming the experiencer.”
You mentioned in the book hearing a physician interviewed on the radio tell an NDEr that he was likely hallucinating. If you, as a director of an ICU, were to overhear a young physician in the ICU offering a similar explanation to a concerned patient, how would you handle it?
“I have actually heard that said in my ICU and have intervened on the patient’s behalf to facilitate a different discussion without making either the patient or the health care provider feel bad. No one should feel uncomfortable or shamed around such an important topic. I am also an ICU attending, so when residents rotate through to work with me for a month at a time, we talk about it and I give them a copy of my book to read as an assignment. I really hope that how I have learned to facilitate this discussion over the past twenty years can offer these young doctors a short cut. Interestingly, a couple of nurses have pointed out that their curriculum often has a brief section to deal with such occurrences and the overriding theme in their training material is to respect it even if you don’t understand or agree with it. I was so impressed when a nurse brought in a textbook from her conventional nursing training program associated with our State university system and pointed out a short section on talking with patients about their near-death experience. My vision is to see that in physician textbooks!”
The NDE has been studied now for more than 40 years. Aren’t we well past the point of diminishing returns in what we can learn from them?
“Maybe, but continuing to ask the question and hold the phenomenon lighting in curious regard puts us in a better place to eventually understand it. Humans saw fire for much longer than that – millennia even – before they finally sorted out that it wasn’t a god or evil spirit and that they could even make it! It took longer still to uncover all of its uses and applications. The same for electricity and other things that were once so mysterious that we now take for granted as a normal part of our daily lives. I don’t know that we have the right science or even the right sort of brain to yet understand the near-death and out-of-body experience, but that doesn’t mean we should stop asking the question. Another example I give in my book is that for thousands of years early civilizations thought that jars of grain slurries left out in the open air were magically turned into alcoholic beverages by spirits. It wasn’t until many thousands of years later that science was able to inform us that wind currents carried yeast spores that settled into the liquid and did the magical transformation called fermentation.”
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
Next blog post: April 24