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."
She adds: "What's so important is that so many of these people have profoundly and permanently changed."
One man who comes forward for the first time, Tom Scileppi, is a heavyset retired condominium manager in his early 60s who haltingly tells the group about his near-death experience in 1997 when he went to the hospital for a heart operation involving balloon catheters. As the procedure began, his heart stopped after one of the balloons burst in an artery.
As Scileppi tells it, he went through the classic near-death experience: He felt himself leave his body on the operating table as the doctors went ahead with open-heart surgery to save him. He passed through a pleasant tunnel of colors, and he saw his dead father and a family friend, both of whom told him to return. Until recently, though, he says, "I kept all this under wraps." He wondered if he was a little crazy. And he is still confused about the meaning of the NDE for him.
Rommer asks him one of her most critical questions: "How do you feel you might have changed?"
"I hadn't been to church in 30 years, and now, I go to church," he says. He adds, "I always was a great deep-sea fisherman, and now, I don't want to see anything die."
The audience pays close attention to these accounts, following up the talks with detailed questions. They're seeking comparisons with their own experiences or confirmation of the afterlife.
Some of these NDE survivors, even though they've found a home at the support group, haven't seen their lives become much easier after returning from their trips to the afterlife. Indeed a few of them, it seems, must have much to learn there, because they keep going back
, suffering repeated life-threatening accidents.
Are they just crazy? In fact, there's no evidence that those who've experienced an NDE and those who haven't have any differences in psychological health, researchers say. And survivors' purported afterlife encounters remain remarkably vivid and consistent years later, Rommer and others point out, even if they happened to them as young children. "Once you've had this experience, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks. There's no question in your mind," says Karen Shoemaker, a 49-year-old drug counselor, whose life was changed forever when she had her first NDE at age 7.
Barbara Rommer's belief in the afterlife was first stirred by her Orthodox Jewish father, a physician who suffered his first major heart attack when she was just 5. He comforted her by telling her, "You must never fear death. I'm absolutely certain it's just like waking up from a dream." Rommer now believes he was speaking about his own NDE.
Her interest in the afterlife was strengthened by her first encounter with a patient who had an NDE during her medical residency in 1971. She was working at the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Manhattan when one patient's heart stopped after a heart attack. Fortunately, a cardiologist and vascular surgeon resident were also on duty, and they cut open his chest to massage his heart and revive him. The next day, when she was doing her rounds, she visited the patient, and to her surprise, "The patient was looking at me with the most severe anger you could possibly imagine." Puzzled over his hostility, she went back later to talk to him and discovered that he'd had a profound near-death experience that included feeling filled with love and light and seeing deceased relatives. He didn't want to be back here.
Her fascination with these stories mounted over the years, and she decided to learn more about them by starting in-depth taped interviews in the early '90s. She began with her own patients, and by late 1994, she risked the ridicule of her fellow physicians by sending out a letter to them asking for more interview subjects.
About 17 percent of her subjects reported what she calls "Less-Than-Positive" (LTP) experiences. She doesn't call them "negative" because, she says, "They realize why they felt as they do and came away improved spiritually. They feel glad that it put them on a path to self-searching," as well as spurring changes in their lives. In her book, Rommer recounted the story of a nurse named Sadira, who worked with cancer patients and overdosed on drugs in a suicide attempt.
"What I saw was the most hideous, horrible thing! If you saw the movie Ghost
, it was like where those horrible black things came out and were grabbing you," the nurse told Rommer. "There were people screaming.Then, I actually saw these things, like horrible human beings, like anorexics. Their teeth were all ugly and twisted. The eyes were bulging. ... There must have been at least 50, everywhere, all around me. They were grabbing at my arms and my hair and were screaming, pitiful screams, but not saying words.
"I can tell you this: There is no way I will ever think of attempting suicide ever again or ever take that attitude. It was just horrific! I went to hell!" Sadira said. "When I woke up, I felt absolutely terrified, yet with a renewed hope. Suicide can never be the answer. This is not an option. God does not want this."
Rommer's research provides plenty of such uplift, but where's her proof that these experiences are truly supernatural? She notes that most doctors and skeptics resist accepting the reality of the NDE no matter what the evidence, and she says, "The evidence that means the most to me is the changes that take place in people's lives."
And for the many doctors and scientists who are still doubters, some of the NDE survivors have their own sorts of answers. When Rose Fahrenkrug attended a skeptical lecture about NDEs given by a nurse colleague, Fahrenkrug argued with her afterward. "Well, this was my only experience," Fahrenkrug finally told the woman. "But when I get to the other side again, I'll accept an apology from you."