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Near-death experiences focus of Octoberfest lecture

Nov. 5, 2015, 9:57 AM

Most of the people who work in critical care medicine have cared for patients who have had near-death experiences, but many patients are reluctant to discuss such experiences with caregivers, said Debbie James, MSN, R.N., a critical care nurse and senior nursing instructor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Debbie James, MSN, R.N., spoke on near-death experiences during VUMC Nursing's Octoberfest.

James’ lecture on near-death experiences was the keynote address at this year’s Octoberfest, VUMC’s annual nursing education event.

Since patients are often so reluctant to discuss near-death experiences, knowledge about how many people have had such experiences is spotty. James, who conducts near-death experiences support groups, cited a U.S. News and World Report survey from 1997 that there could be as many as 15 million people in the United States who have had such an experience.

“Many patients hold back from talking because they’re afraid they will be sent for a psych consult,” said James, who has extensively interviewed patients reporting near-death experiences, said.

“One woman said she did not tell her husband (about her near-death experience) because, she said, ‘He is a scientist; he won’t believe me.’”

But, she added, it is important that physicians and nurses be open to hearing from patients who have such experiences since they are relatively common and can have important influences on the lives of patients.

Some of the experiences described by patients include a “tunnel of light,” a feeling of being out of the body and out of pain, the presence of a loving spirit that some people perceive as God, and the welcoming presence of loved ones who have died.

James said that a common factor is that, after such an experience, when patients discuss their lives, they say their outlooks have changed.

“Patients will tell you they’re not afraid to die. Fear of death is gone,” she said. After recovery, patients who have reported a near-death experience often become more aware of joy, more altruistic and more creative, she said.

Such changes can, paradoxically, lead to stress in other areas of life. James related the story of a hard-charging and successful businessman who, after a near-death experience, no longer was interested in working long hours and amassing wealth — much to the dismay of his wife, who liked her husband just fine the way he was before.

“Patients who have had near-death experiences have a divorce rate higher than the national average,” she said.

Throughout the lecture, James’ emphasis was on the importance of listening to patients’ stories as a gateway to delivering better care.

“Open your mind,” she told the audience. “We should tell patients we are excited and want to hear. Listen, don’t judge.”

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