Many times we as nurses may have pondered life after death, be it in reference to our patients or ourselves. The name of the higher presence may differ, but most religions are based upon the notion that our souls go somewhere after we leave our human forms. I have participated in codes for patients in the ED and I've wondered what might be happening to them as they enter the realm between life and death. Are near-death experiences real? Are there second chances? I wonder no more.
On Aug. 25, 1998, I had spinal surgery to correct flatback syndrome, a condition caused by the Harrington rods that were placed in my spine 20 years ago to correct scoliosis. The surgery was scheduled to last about 10 to 12 hours, but things didn't go as planned. Five hours into the surgery, something went wrong. I had been taking large doses of several arthritis medications and injectable steroids preoperatively. Most likely because of these drugs I started to bleed heavily. To stabilize me the physicians gave me large amounts of fluids. When it was all over, I had received nine liters of normal saline and 15 units of blood, platelets, albumin, and fresh-frozen plasma. Still my heart rate was 240 beats per minute and my blood pressure was only 70 on palpation.
My lungs filled with fluid, and I was in fulminating pulmonary edema. My physicians had to stop the procedure and were unsure whether I would survive. Several hours after the surgery, I awoke intubated to hear a full description of what had happened and that I was in critical condition. Luckily, before I heard this discussion I had already wiggled my toes and moved my fingers and had assured myself I was okay. Listening to the graphic description was rather shocking, but I felt fairly well and went back to sleep. I awoke many times that night choking on the fluid in my lungs, in need of suctioning. I noticed the fluid was blood-tinged, but I was too drugged to be terribly concerned.
The next morning - I know it was morning because I could see the sunlight from windows in my room - I was trying to get my bearings when a strange feeling came over me. I closed my eyes. At first I felt a coldness in my legs, then it slowly moved up my body. Next I felt no pain. I could no longer feel the respirator breathing for me. I no longer felt my three large incisions, nor was I any longer aware of having my hands tied to the bed. It was as if none of what had happened to me existed. All the tubes and drains, all the machines and noise were gone. Once the coldness covered me completely, a feeling of peace, comfort, and love enveloped me. I had never felt anything like this before. There are no words to describe just how I felt.
Then, someone started to talk to me. I say “He” but there was no gender or form to the presence. “He” explained what had gone wrong and just how sick I was. I had wanted to end my life before the surgery because of all the pain, disability, and depression. “He” let me know that “He” was aware of how hard I had fought. “He” was satisfied and assured me I could also be satisfied that I had tried my best. “He” offered me a choice and had come to show me what death was like and that there was nothing of which to be afraid. The way I was feeling at that moment would be how I would feel for eternity. The pain and suffering would be over. I could rest if I were to go with him. The feeling was so wonderful, so peaceful, so calm, so perfect.
Alternatively, I could return to the world of the living and work my way through the pain and long recovery. It was made clear to me that nothing else would go wrong, if that were my choice. I was overwhelmed by this wonderful state. There was no way I was going to turn my back on it. Yes, I was ready to go! Yes, I had had enough! Yes, I had fought the best fight I could and was more than willing to follow and enjoy this fantastic new experience. I was instructed to just close my eyes and follow. Funny, they were already closed, but I visualized them closing in my mind.
Just as my lids were coming together the face of my eight-year old daughter flashed before me. I had had a brief thought of my husband earlier but discounted it immediately. As a grown man, being left alone would be hard, but he would be able to survive without me. My daughter, no! Nor my son! My eyes flew open in my mind and I started to scream “NO, NO, NO, I will NOT! I will not leave my children.”
Do not ask me how I know, but at that moment I felt a smile. I did not see a face but I felt the smile and its warmth radiate through my whole body. I had not been influenced directly; I had been allowed to make my own decision, but something put the image of my daughter before my eyes. I had become rather self-centered before the surgery. The struggle to keep living was my entire focus and my family had taken a back seat. The warmth stayed with me for a short time.
Then, suddenly, with a jolt, I could hear and feel all the machines again. The pain had returned. My hands were tied. The respirator whooshed. I opened my eyes and could see the hospital room. The first real day of my long recovery had begun. I spent several more days on the respirator until the fluid cleared from my lungs. One week after the first surgery, I returned to the OR and they finished the surgery. I bled again and needed six more units of blood, but I knew I was in no real danger. I was being watched over the whole time. Miraculously I went home from the hospital four days postoperatively to celebrate my daughter's ninth birthday the following day.
Three weeks postop, while rolling over in bed, I dislocated two disks in my neck. I endured the pain for another three weeks before returning to the hospital. The pain was terrible and nothing could control it. They tried morphine and more than 40 trigger-point injections. I screamed in my head, “You lied to me.” I was angry and disappointed. I had not been told the whole truth. I knew my recovery would be long and hard. I knew it was going to take all my strength to accomplish, but I had been led to believe nothing else would go wrong. Yet here I was in horrible shape again looking at cervical fusion surgery. How could this have happened? I felt so abandoned.
It took time for me to realize that I had not been abandoned at all. I was being given a reminder. I had been treated to a special gift. I had lived through it and had forced myself to forget about it as soon as it was over. I had not learned my lesson. What lesson? The lesson that I should share my experience and not be ashamed of it. I should use my gift, the best I could, to assure others that death is not really something to be feared.
But I had been embarrassed to talk about it. I thought it was hokey. Although I had always wondered if near-death experiences were real, now that I had had one, I rejected it. It took even longer for me to be able to freely talk about it to others. Once I did, I could see the comfort in their faces as I described the sensations and total state of peace, as the tears streamed down my cheeks.
Yes, I was meant to talk about it, share it. Many people have told me how much better it has made them feel to hear my story. For the dying, it validated their hopes and beliefs. For their families, it gave comfort and made their own grief less, knowing their loved ones were going someplace - a place full of love and peace. I assured them that grieving is for the living, not the dead. We all miss those we lose. That pain is real, but those who leave us enjoy a state the living do not experience.
Some people say when one door closes another opens. Most of the time it's hard for the person involved to see any good behind a loss or major change. My surgery meant I could no longer be an ED nurse. I now have many restrictions in my life.
ED nursing was my life and my soul. It was who and what I was. The loss was devastating to me. For a long time I had no idea what I would do with the rest of my life. The hardest part of my physical recovery took one year, though I am still learning how to adapt my life.
But through it all I have not been alone. “Chance” led me to a new job as a clinical researcher working on a national drug study. I have shared my experience with nurses, lab technicians, the hospital chaplain, and some of my patients' families, when appropriate. I may not be an ED nurse anymore, but I am a better, more open and forgiving person. And that makes me a better nurse. I found my open door.
Holly Ingram, RN, CEN, works for Fusion Clinical Trials, Middletown, NJ.
Reprinted with permission of Nursing Spectrum magazine. April 03, 2000