They walk among us, seemingly normal but somehow different, having been changed forever by indelible memories of what they believe have been visits to the afterlife. They are survivors of near-death experiences (NDEs), and though skeptics tell them it's all been nothing more than a hallucination, a trick of the dying brain, there's a place in Broward County where they can tell their strange stories of angelic beings, lost souls and the landscapes of heaven without being ridiculed. On the first Friday of every month, the South Florida chapter of the International Association for Near-Death Studies
As Rose Fahrenkrug, a hospital rehabilitation counselor, says, "Why should we suffer in silence? People need a room where they can go and know that they're not crazy, they don't need medication, and where they just need to know they're not alone." Indeed, some of those who come to this converted gym virtually every month - between 40 and 150 people - have gone through hell on earth, making even more remarkable the new calm and courage they've brought back to this life after glimpsing the heavenly realms that elude them for now.
Above all, they're no longer scared of death - or much else. "I lost all fear," says Ken Amick, 57, a regular member of the support-group chapter co-founded more than six years ago by Ft. Lauderdale internist Dr. Barbara Rommer and Coral Springs psychologist Joyce Newcomb. An engineer who has started a new telecommunications company, Amick says, "I don't look at life the way other people do. You know you don't die, and there's no sense worrying about dying, because you know that you're loved." He experienced that overpowering sensation while supposedly floating out of his body, hurtling past eerie high-pitched voices and encountering what he describes as a being of light after he suffered a near-fatal reaction to an antibiotic when he was 24. "I felt this incredible warmth," he says, explaining that he was given a choice to return to earth. "I felt like I had unfinished business."
For Rommer, who hasn't had an NDE herself, it's the fearlessness of these NDE survivors that helped inspire her. She has interviewed more than 500 of them; published a book in 2000 titled Blessings in Disguise
that looked at the rarely discussed issue of frightening NDEs; and started the support group. A buoyant, compassionate physician dedicated to her patients, she says, "I needed to help my patients to live and to not fear death." She began hearing stories from some patients about their near-death experiences and started researching the phenomena in earnest in the early '90s, later sending a letter to Broward physicians asking them to refer NDE cases to her for interviews. She noticed this about NDE survivors: "They seemed to really go for the gusto. They not only had been challenged, they'd already been dead. And spiritually, everything about their lives changed."
This meeting on a recent Friday night provides a forum for them to offer testimony about those changes and learn from the experiences of others. It's also a sign of the renewed interest in spiritualism and life after death on TV and on the bestseller lists, even as prominent skeptics point to self-delusion and fraud as the culprits behind this craze.
The number of people who experience NDEs, though still relatively small, is increasing as survival rates improve with modern resuscitation techniques. In addition, even science's biological explanations for their experiences - such as oxygen deprivation to the brain - have recently been challenged. A careful, long-term study of cardiac arrest survivors, published in a leading British medical journal, The Lancet
, reached a startling conclusion after following the 18 percent of resuscitated patients who'd had an NDE: "Medical factors cannot account for occurrence of [the] NDE." In other words, human consciousness may possibly survive after death, the December 2001 study suggests. But there's still no definitive evidence of one of mankind's most enduring mysteries: life after death. As Rommer concedes, "There's never going to be absolute proof."