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One man recounts his near death COVID story

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We can't know what happens when we die, but sometimes a small number of us who occupy that space between life and death, even for a few moments, catch a glimpse.

What happened to you? What did you see?

RANDY SCHEIFER: I remember my consciousness awakening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Today we're thinking about near-death experiences - NDEs. The voice you just heard is that of Randy Scheifer. In the spring of 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns, he went into the hospital with COVID. He had developed severe pneumonia as a result and was deteriorating fast. His organs were all failing, and doctors put him in a medically induced coma. Here's how Randy describes what happened next.

SCHEIFER: I was moving through this tunnel, and the tunnel was encased in light - beautiful, warm, loving light.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHEIFER: And I remember, suddenly, I look over my shoulder, and this big, beautiful white staircase rose up into the sky as far as you could see. And I said, if I can get onto that staircase, maybe somebody will find me. And I remember making my way over, and I - literally crawling up this staircase. No clue how far I got. I have no clue. But I remember somebody yelling, there he is; there's Randy. And it was like they grabbed me by my shirt collar and just whisked me off those steps. And when they whisked me off those steps, I remember it going black, back to my little dark, sedated world.

MARTIN: Now, I'm not asking you to believe that what happened to Randy really happened, but it's crucial to understand that, for him, this was real, and this experience changed him. He's not afraid of death like he used to be, and he navigates his life differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHEIFER: I'm much more open, much more welcoming, much more understanding than I was before. I think much more loving as a husband and father as I was before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Dr. Bruce Greyson is professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia. And throughout his career, he's interviewed thousands of people who've had near-death experiences, and that's made a huge impact on their lives. I asked Dr. Greyson for a clinical definition of a near-death experience.

BRUCE GREYSON: Well, the best definition we have is that it's a profound experience that many people have when they are near-death or sometimes pronounced dead that includes enhanced thought processes. Your thoughts are faster and clearer than usual. You have a sense of being in a timeless state.

You often have a review of your entire lives. It includes strong emotions, like a sense of overwhelming peace and well-being, a sense of oneness with everything, an experience of unconditional love, a sense of being outside the physical body and often seeing things that can later be corroborated and, finally, many people report, seem to be in some other realm that's not the physical world, where they may encounter other entities that they interpret as deities or deceased loved ones, and come to a border or point of no return beyond which they can keep going and still come back to life.

MARTIN: I have so many questions based on that. But first, I guess we should establish how rare or common are near-death experiences.

GREYSON: They're actually much more common than I expected them to be when I first started studying this. Between 10 and 20% of people who have a documented cardiac arrest - that is, when their hearts stop - will report a near-death experience.

MARTIN: Are there certain kinds of people, are there certain kinds of brains predisposed to this kind of experience?

GREYSON: Yeah. We haven't been able to find anything yet. We look to the obvious things - gender, age, ethnicity, religiosity, religious beliefs - and they don't seem to be correlated with the near-death experience, nor do physiological conditions around the close brush with death. We have the same types of accounts told to us by people all over the world. And going back to ancient Greece and Rome, we hear the same accounts that we hear today.

MARTIN: Are some of these just dreams or hallucinations? I mean, folks are near the end of life. They're on so many different medications.

GREYSON: Right, right.

MARTIN: And visions come quick.

GREYSON: It certainly is something worth looking at because no one has access to the information except the experience of himself or herself. So we can't validate most of it. But some parts of it we can. And in hallucinations or dreams, you don't see things accurately that are going on around you, but in near-death experiences, you often can. Also, there's a consistent pattern of aftereffects that follow near-death experiences that don't follow hallucinations or dreams.

MARTIN: Like what?

GREYSON: You have the decreased fear of death and the increased sense of spirituality, which, by the way, doesn't occur in people who come close to death but don't have a near-death experience. And it really changes the way people lead their lives, what they think is important in life. I've got story after story of people who couldn't go back to the same profession - people who were, say, career police officers who couldn't shoot after a near-death experience, people who were at competitive businesses who no longer felt it was meaningful to get ahead at someone else's expense.

MARTIN: I mean, I will tell you, I am spiritually inclined, so it's not a big stretch for me to be able to reconcile that these things happen. But you're the scientist (laughter). How do you confront the skepticism, the - like, the wave of skepticism...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...I hear out there in the world...

GREYSON: Sure, sure, sure.

MARTIN: ...As people listen to us talk about - what evidence is there? What is the proof of any of this?

GREYSON: Yeah. Well, I understand the skepticism because I'm a skeptic myself. I was raised in a scientific household. But after 50 years of studying thousands of cases, I can't deny that they happen and that they profoundly affect people's lives and present us with things that we don't have materialistic explanations for. If you look at what science can tell us, we have to say we just don't have the answer. I can't say that I've become much more spiritual as a result of this, but I have become much more comfortable with the idea that we don't have the answers and that the science we have now may not be capable of giving us the answers. We may need to stretch science and come up with new methodologies.

MARTIN: Do you feel comfortable with that?

GREYSON: I do now, yes, probably because I've been living with this uncertainty for so many years. It becomes like an old friend. And probably because near-death experiencer after near-death experiencer has told me that the universe is a friendly place. There's nothing to be frightened of. And there's something that's greater than us that is in control of things. I can't say that I believe that, but I certainly have absorbed the feeling of that, that this is a safe place to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Dr. Bruce Greyson is professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia. He's written a book about his study of near-death experiences called "After." You can hear much more of our story about NDEs this Sunday on our podcast Up First. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.