Near Death in the ICU: Stories from Patients Near Death and Why We Should Listen to Them

Near Death in the ICU: Stories from Patients Near Death and Why We Should Listen to Them

Written by Laurin Bellg, MD
Reviewed by Matthew Fike, PhD


Sloan Press, Appleton, Wisconsin

210 pages, $15.95

In Lives of the Psychics: The Shared Worlds of Science and Mysticism, Fred M. Frohock notes “the possibility that psychic experiences might be more effectively explored [than they are in ‘textbook science’] with different vocabularies and forms of reasoning that are still within the purview of science” (132). Laurin Bellg’s collection of NDE stories supports Frohock’s point by suggesting that there is more afoot in anecdotal evidence than medicine’s scientific materialism is willing to admit. Or as Hamlet puts it in the first chapter’s epigraph, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (1; Ham. 1.5.175‒76). Statements by the author echo this sentiment and frame the book. For example, the existence and truth of NDEs remind her “of Shakespeare’s wisdom in recognizing that there are realities beyond what we have dreamt of in our current philosophies and theories” (200).

Hamlet, although guardedly credulous that the ghost he has seen is his late father, states to his friend Horatio, “Never make known what you have seen tonight” (1.5.150), probably because he believes that others will think him crazy if word gets out. In addition, he surely knows that there is some truth in his ironic remark that “there is nothing either good or bad [or true/false] but thinking makes it so” (2.2.250‒51). As Bellg corroborates, point of view conditions thinking, and woe to those who trespass on others’ belief systems. Recording how she gently deals with patients’ and their family members’ biases, she describes herself as inhabiting a diplomatic middle ground between unchecked enthusiasm for “the flight path of mystery” and rigid adherence to data-driven scientific materialism (xv). But she directly criticizes the violation of patients’ own truth by both materialistic caregivers and NDE experts, urging all parties to understand that NDEs are “very personally transformative moments” (xvi).

Bellg does not register any parallels to Shakespeare besides the Hamlet epigraph, but other statements by the Bard are relevant to Near Death in the ICU. Her many accounts of patients who can perceive what non-traumatized persons cannot call to mind King Lear who says, “Look there, look there!” (Lr. 5.3.317). The actor playing Lear probably raises his eyes and points upward to indicate that the king, in a liminal state just before his own death, can perceive his daughter’s spirit waiting for him. In a similar way, Bellg’s patients apparently converse with nonphysical relatives and friends—entities not visible to others in the room—who have come to guide them into the afterlife.

Another thematically relevant statement appears in As You Like It: “Feed yourselves with questioning; / That reason wonder may diminish” (5.4.137‒38). As Peter G. Platt points out in Reason Diminished: Shakespeare & the Marvelous, the syntax allows dual interpretations. When we ask questions about the marvelous, reason diminishes our wonder; but in the absence of logical answers wonder can diminish reason and go on expanding. Bellg’s position is that NDEs, while currently awe-inspiring, marvelous, mysterious, and wondrous, may one day yield answers via the scientific method: “holding them in curious regard” will eventually lead to scientific explanations of the phenomenon (59). In the meantime, all concerned must unlearn scientistic denial of NDEs—that they are hallucinations, pathological events, or symptoms of oxygen deprivation to the brain—and appreciate the wonder they inspire.

By remaining neutral about the possibility that NDEs are actual spiritual events, Bellg strikes a rhetorical pose in between reason and wonder, but this strategy makes her a bit like the player queen in Hamlet, of whom Gertrude says, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (3.2.228). Throughout the book are assertions that we do not know what NDEs are or how they happen. “I don’t think at this point in human evolution,” Bellg writes, “[that] we have the scientific theory, language, or methodology to untangle and understand consciousness phenomena. We simply don’t know what is happening when patients perceive themselves to be floating outside of their bodies and can then later relate details to us with astonishing accuracy” (58). Nevertheless, Near Death in the ICU does imply a series of conclusions and interpretations. Insofar as these are enacted rather than stated, the book invites readers to generate their own conclusions and interpretations.

Here are some possibilities. Consciousness exists prior to conception and survives physical death. The mind is greater than the brain, but the left brain and the physical senses block our perception of the transpersonal realm. Trauma at least temporarily lowers those barriers so that NDE is a conscious experience of transpersonal reality. Physical damage to brain and heart figure prominently in Bellg’s accounts. It is as if these organs are the soul’s anchor; when one of them suffers trauma or stops working, the soul sets sail. Cardiac issues are a factor in most of Bellg’s accounts, and the heart’s importance is reinforced by the image of a heartbeat’s electrical display at the start of chapters and between sections within chapters. Psychological stress and physical exhaustion can also open our perception to the transpersonal realm (or perhaps the collective unconscious—C. G. Jung is mentioned at one point). Sometimes consciousness is tethered to the body (Bellg does not specifically mention the silver cord), but after consciousness travels through a tunnel (a dimensional border), one is often told to return to the physical body in order to complete unfinished business, which implies the involvement of the Higher Self in the near-death process and in life contracts. Perhaps NDEs themselves are part of patients’ contractual agreements. Once back in the body, experiencers are often transformed by certainty that physical death is a transition from Here to There rather than the end of consciousness. Occasionally, a patient comes back with psychic abilities or enhanced physical senses. All experiencers feel a need for acknowledgement of their stories of what took place in “that space-in-between” (97, emphasis in the original). It does not appear that many of Bellg’s patients touch Focus levels 22‒27, but many appear to visit a place of waiting—death’s doorstep—in the lower astral.

Near Death in the ICU is not only a collection of NDE stories but also a record of the author’s journey from being unable to fit NDEs into “the data-driven environment of science” to embracing the reality of patients’ experiences (13). She saw two blue orbs during a moment of great emotional upset, and a late friend visited her while she was recovering from septic shock. As patients helped shift her paradigm toward affirmation of NDEs as genuine experiences, Bellg began to encourage them to tell her their stories. Eventually her all-important question—“Did anything unusual happen when you experienced cardiac death?” (73, emphasis in the original)—did not even have to be asked because patients intuitively recognized her as a receptive audience. Receptivity to their stories constitutes a gift to patients, has become a standard part of her caregiving, and repeatedly facilitates their personal transformation.

Unfortunately, Near Death in the ICU suffers from various lower-order errors, the most frequent of which is the dangling modifier; but substantive omissions are more troubling. Although the many NDE stories are highly engaging, there needs to be more interpretation than the suggestion that NDEs may be a self-defense mechanism to help people endure physical trauma. Bellg could have referred to more NDE literature than Raymond Moody’s Life After Life and drawn on supportive theory in the OBE literature. “Numerous people,” she states, “have reported spontaneous out-of-body experiences not preceded by a traumatic event” (163). But the statement goes nowhere. There is no mention of Robert A. Monroe, Robert Bruce, William Buhlman, or any other experts in the field. The omission is unfortunate because statements such as Buhlman’s on the mechanics of NDEs are directly relevant. He states that NDEs’ “occurrence is caused by the loosening and deterioration of the ethereal connection between the physical body and the subtle spiritual form (first energy body)” (137). Using the idea that humans have multiple nonphysical bodies that play a role in NDEs, Bellg could have strengthened her case that they are a phenomenon of the greater mind, not merely of the traumatized brain. Also missing are transpersonal psychology and NDE studies, though she could have easily noted, for starters, that chapters 12‒15 of Charles T. Tart’s The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal Is Bringing Science and Spirit Together deal with OBEs, NDEs, and postmortem survival. Including some of the scholarly context might have compromised her neutral pose, but it would also have given Near Death in the ICU greater authority.

In the final analysis, Bellg affirms the notion “that there is an as yet undefined but real part of us” that can experience itself apart from the physical body during a traumatic experience, but she expresses only the “suspicion that there is likely more to us than just this physical earth-plane existence” (163, 155, emphasis added). Her scientific point of view makes her back away from the message that resonates in her patients’ stories, which is that we are more than our physical bodies. That tentativeness makes Near Death in the ICU a good companion piece to Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Whereas Alexander claims to offer iron-clad proof of the veridical nature of his NDE and of the afterlife, Bellg more humbly suggests that NDEs are real (at least to the experiencer), that they should be honored as truth (at least in the subjective sense in which a dream is also true), and that one day science may catch up with mysticism. In the meantime, she and her book, though they inhabit a liminal space not unlike her ICU or her patients’ NDEs, nevertheless participate in the unfolding of truth despite materialism’s hold on science.


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Matthew Fike is a Professor of English at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Works Cited

Alexander, Eben. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Bellg, Laurin. Near Death in the ICU: Stories from Patients Near Death and Why We Should Listen to Them. Sloan Press, 2016.
Bevington, David, ed. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. 4th ed., HarperCollins, 2004.
Buhlman, William. The Secret of the Soul: Using Out-of-Body Experiences to Understand Our True Nature. HarperOne, 2001.
Frohock, Fred M. Lives of the Psychics: The Shared Worlds of Science and Mysticism. The U of Chicago P, 2000.
Moody, Raymond. Life After Life: The Bestselling Original Investigation That Revealed “Near-Death Experiences.” HarperOne, 2015.
Platt, Peter G. Reason Diminished: Shakespeare & the Marvelous. U of Nebraska P, 1997.
Tart, Charles T. The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal Is Bringing Science and Spirit Together. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. Bevington, pp. 292‒325.
———. Hamlet. Bevington, pp. 1065‒1116.
———. King Lear. Bevington, pp. 1172‒1218.

Book TitleNear Death in the ICU: Stories from Patients Near Death and Why We Should Listen to Them
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Written by Laurin Bellg, MD
Reviewed by Matthew Fike, PhD


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