Near-death experiences: A science to bright lights and bliss?

Local man recounts his near-death experience

Listen to Hector Lugo recall his near-death experience at his Blue Springs home. Lugo had a heart attack in 2000 and knows what happened to him after he died for several minutes.
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Listen to Hector Lugo recall his near-death experience at his Blue Springs home. Lugo had a heart attack in 2000 and knows what happened to him after he died for several minutes.

It’s been six months since The Star first delivered this weekend gift pack of local tales under the heading “Spirit.” The term evokes something we like to call the Kansas City Spirit, a source of inspiration and uplift.

Today we consider a Spirit of another kind, uplifting in its own way to those who say they’ve encountered it.

When Hector Lugo of Blue Springs suffered a heart attack in 2000, he found himself standing on a ledge. He insists that below him spread a field of blue and green colors the brilliance of which he had never seen. In front of him, a swirling wall of liquid … or something … with ribbons of bright gold weaving through.

“It’s really hard to put into words,” he says, except that it all felt perfect.

In 1977, a paralytic disease that struck 20-year-old Jean Renee Hausheer, then of Independence, triggered her own “near-death experience,” or, to a growing network of scholars, NDE.

A peaceful, enlightening experience that she and others call more real than reality, “it’s so impossible to describe,” says Hausheer, now an eye surgeon and vice president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. “There are no human words, and it’s not that I’m inarticulate.

“People who experience this just can’t describe it.”

Enter another ophthalmologist, John C. Hagan III of Kansas City, North.

As editor of Missouri Medicine, the journal of the state medical association, Hagan resolved to put into words, as reasoned and rational as possible, what people in near-death states say they’ve experienced. In his research, he met Hausheer at a physicians’ conference and persuaded her to go public with her experience, ending almost 40 years of silence.

Hagan’s compendium of academic research and personal testimonials, “The Science of Near-Death Experiences,” was recently published by the University of Missouri Press.

Its aim, he says, is not to prove one way or another that an afterlife exists (read: heaven). Such matters are for theologians to debate.

Rather, Hagan was compelled to gather up accounts of near-death experiences that mysteriously share common themes — bright lights, tunnels, stairways, vividness, a sense of calm — and to raise awareness among physicians and caregivers.

“The medical community tends to disregard near-death experiences,” says Hagan, a Christian who acknowledges his own spiritual beliefs but doesn’t attend church.

“When an NDE happens to a patient, nobody knows how it should be treated,” he says.

“The worst thing a physician can do is to flatly dismiss what a patient has experienced as some kind of psychotic reaction” to medication or a lack of oxygen to the brain.

Near-death experience skeptics abound. And Hagan includes in his book a chapter on the research of one of them, neurologist Kevin Nelson of the University of Kentucky School of Medicine.

Nelson argues that near-death experiences are not “out-of-body” events, as they’re commonly described. Instead they’re the haphazard product of any number of factors within the body — brain impulses, rapid-eye movement and what he calls “a borderland of consciousness” based partly on what people expect of an afterlife.

If you imagine that a bright light awaits at death, perhaps your brain under duress presents just that.

“We can’t discount the spiritual value of these experiences,” Nelson, author of “The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain,” told The Star. “But those are matters of faith, not matters of science.”

Back from the brink

Even skeptics note that near-death experiences have gained public attention and some scholarly interest as the baby boom generation approaches its own mortality.

Also, they’re occurring more frequently as advancements in medicine rescue more and more patients from the brink.

Websites for the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS.org) and the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF.org) archive a variety of studies and personal accounts in dozens of languages.

The founder of the research foundation, Louisiana radiation oncologist Jeffrey Long, said near-death experiences are reported by about 17 percent of people who nearly die, and that no two perceived events are exactly the same.

What the experiences do seem to share is a certainty among patients who attest to having them, Long said. In a foundation survey of 1,122 people reporting near-death experiences (Long calls them NDEers), 95.6 percent called the experience “definitely real” and nearly all other respondents said “probably real.”

“That’s astounding,” Long said. “Most report being more alert than normal.”

But some researchers in Hagan’s collection of studies note that the very meaning of a near-death experience depends on who’s claiming to have had one.

In many cases, a person nowhere near death merely faints, later to report rising out of his or her body. Some NDEers link their experiences in a near-death state to other moments in their lives when they believe a spirit visited them.

And not all reported near-death experiences are blissful; many are terrifying.

“There’s always a new group of people waking up to how astonishing this is,” says Raymond A. Moody, described by Hagan as “the father of NDEs” and creator of the acronym in the mid-1970s. “But it’s very important to recognize this is nothing new.”

Moody’s interest dates to his college days studying Greek philosophy. Plato, among other ancient minds, theorized about people known as “revenants” who had supposedly died and come back to life.

Though Moody titled his 1975 best-seller “Life After Life,” he tells The Star that “no way do these experiences prove an afterlife …

“I think that argument does damage to what should be a genuine academic discussion. I just wasn’t raised a religious person … so the concept of an afterlife is a hard thing to swallow.”

Still, the topic fascinates him: “It raises unresolvable questions that can’t be solved by empirical things.”

Not afraid of death

Lugo’s experience occurred Nov. 29, 2000, his wife Pam’s birthday. He was 48.

He still carries in his wallet a chart the size of a credit card given to him by the Kansas City hospital that treated him, in case another emergency arises. One side of the card shows in miniature form the electrocardiogram in which his heart activity flat-lined. The other side shows the location of a heart stent doctors inserted.

For 12 minutes they worked over Lugo on a surgical table to resuscitate him. During some of this time, he says, he saw his body from above and also saw the tops of the physicians’ heads. He ultimately stopped floating, arriving on a ledge facing what looked to be “rivers, swirling horizontally and vertically …

“At no time did I give any thought to the life I was leaving,” Lugo says. “I looked out ahead and knew that’s where I wanted to go.”

Golden domes glimmered out there. And though Lugo was unable to turn his head to the right, he describes catching a peripheral glimpse of a robed figure with an obscure face, “someone angelic,” reclining on a stairway.

After Lugo was revived, he embraced Pam and told her that a voice in his head was asking, “Do you want to come back?”

Still married, Pam believes him.

“Why I never went over to the other side, I can’t tell you,” says Lugo, who works as a hospital security guard. “What I can tell you is I’m not at all afraid of death now. Not at all.”

Raised a Catholic (though he says he hasn’t practiced his faith since he was a teen), Lugo contends the experience changed his life. He and Pam formed the 10th Dimension Paranormal Group, dedicated to exploring spiritual encounters, hauntings and such.

Hausheer, the eye surgeon, hasn’t gone in that direction.

But the near-death experience she describes is similar to Lugo’s: Bright, peaceful, “all loving,” she says. An unearthly realm — where, facing a choice, she seemed to know everything at once.

As a Missouri medical student, Hausheer, now 59, nearly died from respiratory failure linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome. It scared her then but, long since healthy, she has no fear of dying.

In fact, she feels joy when somebody dear to her dies.

For years, Hausheer disclosed her experience only to her father, who passed in 1993.

“Now I think this a story that has to be told,” she says, “and I feel people are more willing to listen.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r