Changed by a Near-Death Experience : Up First When Randy Schiefer was hospitalized in March 2020 with COVID-19, his chances at survival didn't look good. After nearly a month in a medically induced coma he pulled through, but an experience he had while unconscious left him forever changed. Randy shares the story of his near-death experience and psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Greyson shares what he's learned from 50 years of studying what happens when people are close to death.

To learn more about Dr. Greyson's research visit his website or the International Association For Near-Death Studies.

Changed by a Near-Death Experience

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Not long after Randy Schiefer turned 16, he had an experience that would shape the rest of his life.

RANDY SCHIEFER: We were on vacation up in New Jersey.

MARTIN: His family was staying at a hotel. This was 1969. And Randy was woken up at 4 a.m. by his mother screaming. His father was having a heart attack.

SCHIEFER: And my mom was yelling at me to do something, to try to save him. Do something. Save your father. Save your father. He's dying. Save your father. Get help.

MARTIN: Randy had recently learned CPR, so he jumped into action.

SCHIEFER: I pulled him down off the bed to get him onto a hard surface, cleared his airway, gave him some breaths, you know?

MARTIN: It wasn't working. Randy started to panic. He didn't know what to do. So he ran out into the hotel hallway, crying out for help.

SCHIEFER: Pounding on doors at 4:30 in the morning to try to get somebody to come out to help. But nobody did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Randy's father died that night. He was devastated. But over time, his heartache started turning into curiosity. Randy wanted to understand what happened when people died - as in the very moment they died. What caused it? What did the body go through?

SCHIEFER: And it actually led me to get my master's degree in forensic science. And I specialized in death investigation.

MARTIN: He channeled his grief into a career as a homicide detective, working to solve the deaths of other people.

SCHIEFER: So I've seen all kinds of deaths. I've attended hundreds of autopsies, and I became fascinated with that aspect of death. But I feared my own death.

MARTIN: Away from work, in his quiet moments, Randy would find himself thinking about his dad and inevitably his own eventual death.

SCHIEFER: I'd get real tight in my chest.

MARTIN: He started having panic attacks.

SCHIEFER: And the only way that I could control it is just try to settle myself down and say, OK, get it out of your head, get it out of your head, and try to start thinking about other things. And that would, you know, settle me back down.

MARTIN: Randy was OK thinking about death when it came in the context of his work, where there was a lot of evidence, when he was trying to solve a crime. But what comes after death? That was something he tried to put out of his mind. It was a black wall, a question mark, until he faced it himself.

SCHIEFER: I mean, I've been there. I've been there. I've experienced it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. I'm Rachel Martin. And today we're thinking about people who have come close to death and come out of that experience changed.

SCHIEFER: I'm more relaxed and at peace internally than I was before.

MARTIN: And we'll talk about what the rest of us can learn from these near-death experiences.

BRUCE GREYSON: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is UP FIRST Sunday. Randy Schiefer's near-death experience came in March and April of 2020. While the U.S. was in those first weeks of the pandemic, Randy was in the hospital with COVID-19, fighting for his life.

SCHIEFER: I was admitted in critical condition with bilateral pneumonia.

MARTIN: The situation was bad.

LISA: Really, within four days of being in the hospital, he was intubated.

MARTIN: This is Randy's daughter Lisa (ph).

LISA: At that point, they put you on heavy sedatives to keep you calm so that you don't fight the tube in your throat.

MARTIN: Lisa is a nurse, and at the time she was working at an OB-GYN office in Mississippi. But once she knew her dad was seriously sick, she dropped everything and drove to her parents' home in Pensacola, Fla. She became his de facto advocate and caregiver.

Was it a lot of pressure to be the go-between?

LISA: Unbelievably. It was very rough on all records because not only was I having to - I had to compartmentalize, I guess was the best way about it. I had to play more nurse than daughter.

MARTIN: I talked with Lisa and Randy separately about this experience they went through together.

Was there a point where you were aware enough to be afraid of death?

SCHIEFER: Oh, I knew I was sick. When I went into that hospital, I told the doctor, I said, look, I know I am sick. And I said, you've got to help me. And he took me by the hand and looked me in the eye, and he said, you're in good hands. We'll take care of you.

MARTIN: Randy doesn't remember too much after that point. As Lisa said, he was quickly intubated. A tube was put down his throat to breathe for him, and soon after that he was put on an ECMO machine that was pumping his heart for him.

SCHIEFER: So all my blood was being removed, oxygenated, and then pumped back into my body. My kidneys failed. I was on dialysis. I was bleeding from internally. My veins were bleeding, liver enlarged, sowing (ph) blood clots and my heart enlarged. Every major organ, basically, was in failure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Randy was in a medically induced coma. And remember, these were the early days of COVID, so the hospital was figuring out what to do on the fly. And Lisa was trying to figure out how to stay involved without even being allowed in the hospital.

Could you have a nurse hold up a phone and talk to him or sing to him or...

LISA: So we had - I just got chills thinking about it. So we had one really incredible nurse who, at the very beginning, let - like, brought her personal cellphone in, stuck it in a biohazard bag and let me talk to my dad when he was intubated and let him know that I was going home to mom and that I was going to, you know, take care of her.

MARTIN: While her dad's condition was deteriorating, Lisa was researching any possible procedures that could help. A nursing friend of hers said they should try a convalescent plasma treatment, which would mean injecting the blood of someone who has recovered from COVID into her dad to help give him an antibody boost. The doctors were hesitant at first, but eventually, they tried it.

SCHIEFER: I did receive it on Good Friday in 2020, which was what I think was April the 10.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SCHIEFER: And I received convalescent plasma. And by Easter morning, they were able to turn off the ECMO machine. My lungs had completely cleared. By that Tuesday after Easter, I came off dialysis. My kidneys started to function fully again. My heart went back to normal and so did my liver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Now, of course, that's a story all on its own, but what's really exceptional is what happened next. After the drugs wore off, Randy began to wake up.

LISA: It was only after I was allowed at his bedside did he start communicating with me about what he experienced.

MARTIN: Randy started describing what sounded like a dream.

LISA: I was, you know, in these streets, and I was so confused. And then I saw this staircase. And I tried to go up the stairs, and this man pulled me off the stairs.

MARTIN: Lisa says Randy described seeing a beautiful city like Paris. Lisa told him he hadn't been to Paris recently. He had been in the hospital for nearly a month. Randy pushed back, saying...

LISA: But no, this is what happened to me. These are my memories. This is what happened, you know? And then he would kind of look at me confused when I'd be like, no, Dad, you've been in the hospital, you know? He would just look at me like I was crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: What happened to you? What did you see?

SCHIEFER: I remember my consciousness awakening. I was in, like, an airplane fuselage. And I was moving through this tunnel, not real fast, but I was moving down this tunnel. And the tunnel was encased in light - beautiful, warm, loving light. And I came out of this tunnel, and I was in a beautiful room. It was a big, big hall. And this gentleman walked up to me. And I said, what a magnificent room. I said, this room is absolutely beautiful. And we talked about it. He goes, yes, this is one of our favorite spots. But he said - but you don't belong here. He said, you have to leave.

And I started to move through these streets of this city, and I would pass just beautifully maintained, pristine parks. The green of a grass that - we have nothing like it here on Earth. And I've been to the highlands of Scotland and Ireland, and I've seen some deep green, beautiful, vibrant grass. But what I saw in these parks was just three times as beautiful. And there were trees and flowers all in bloom. And as I continued to meander through this golden city, I remember I started to get scared because I was lost. And I got frightened about how I was going to find my way back. I started to panic, and I started to cry. And I remember being cold - real cold. And that feeling of warmth and love left me. And I was panicking of how I was going to find my way back.

I looked over my shoulder and this big, beautiful white staircase rose up into the sky, as far as you could see. I remember making my way over, and I - literally crawling up this staircase. No clue how far I got. But I remember somebody yelling, there he is. There's Randy. Get him. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Randy says in that moment, he felt enveloped in love, in compassion. He felt like everything would be OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Now, I need to say here, I am not asking you to believe that what happened to Randy really happened. But it's crucial to understand that for him, it was real. It wasn't a dream. It wasn't a hallucination.

SCHIEFER: And I felt so much peace and love and acceptance that I had never, ever felt before.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, Lisa, who was in the room listening to all this, wasn't convinced.

SCHIEFER: She goes, oh, Dad, it was the drugs or something like that.

LISA: You were on very strong medications, and you were having the time of your life, you know? And that's how I saw it.

MARTIN: But then she started to notice changes in her dad.

LISA: It was literally, I want to say, Day 2 from being home.

MARTIN: Randy started to talk about what it was like watching his father die after a heart attack.

LISA: My mom and I sat at the kitchen island, and he just spoke. And he was telling us about it.

MARTIN: Then Randy asked Lisa to go to the closet and get an eyeglasses case. Lisa brought it to her dad and opened it. He told her they had belonged to his father.

LISA: It was never something that he touched or acknowledged or allowed himself to process. But it was the glasses that my grandfather had the night that he died. Yeah, all of a sudden, he was very open to talking about this corner of his life that he never allowed us to be a part of.

MARTIN: And this wasn't a one-time thing. From that point on, Randy was very open to discussing things he never would have before he went into the hospital.

LISA: Pre-COVID, Dad never talked about death. We didn't talk about death. We didn't talk about dying. We didn't talk about God. We didn't talk about the afterlife. We didn't talk about any of that. And so that's when, all of a sudden, my brain kind of went, OK, what has he experienced?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: So Randy's now opening up about death and the biggest questions in life. He's also starting to pray regularly. He started digging deeper into his family's Christian faith. And, as a result, he says he became a better version of himself.

SCHIEFER: 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.

MARTIN: My conversation with Randy lasted close to an hour.

He likes talking about it.

LISA: Yeah, he loves talking about it, which is good for him. I'm glad he has a hobby, you know? Like, I'm glad he has a thing.

MARTIN: Lisa tells me that before COVID, her dad seemed a little lost, and now he's excited. He's optimistic. But adjusting to this new version of him has been complicated.

I'm trying to imagine what that would be like for you. On the one hand, I imagine it had to have felt good to have more access to him - right? - more emotional access to him but also strange because it just wasn't typical of the father that you knew. It was - he was different.

LISA: Yeah. And that's probably the best way to explain it is, I was very - I would I remember, like, looking at him and being like - I, like, wanted to pinch him, right? Like, you're like, are you real? Because I had been FaceTiming this man with a tube down his throat for, you know, weeks at this point. And I was so grateful that we were one of the lucky families that got to bring our family member home alive. But then I was very - it was, like, almost a time of mourning because I missed my dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Lisa says her dad has always been her best friend. So even though this transformation she was witnessing was a good thing, she missed that pre-COVID version of him, the one that was a little short-tempered, even closed off.

LISA: And so selfishly, I felt very alone. I felt very hurt or very, like, just frustrated because I was like, I just want you to go back to normal, right? Like, I just want you to go back to pre-COVID. I want to have my dad here, and I want to pretend like these six weeks had never happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: For Randy though, there's no going back to who he was, and he wouldn't have it any other way. He isn't afraid to talk about death because he's not afraid of it anymore.

SCHIEFER: I mean, I've been there. I've been there. I've experienced it, you know?

MARTIN: Do you have panic attacks anymore?

SCHIEFER: No, not over that. No, I'm very at peace with death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, I'll talk with a psychiatrist who has spent his career studying and talking with people like Randy.

GREYSON: It's often hard to reconcile the new values of your near-death experience with your prior roles and lifestyles, which no longer have the same meaning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Welcome back to UP FIRST Sunday. 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, people who came back changed.

GREYSON: 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, of people who were in competitive businesses who no longer felt it was meaningful to get ahead at someone else's expense. And they had to change their careers. They often go into helping careers - you know, health care, teaching, social work, clergy, that sort of thing.

MARTIN: And these changes are often so significant that friends and family have to adjust to a new version of the person they knew and loved.

GREYSON: Often, families can't accept the changes. They feel they don't have the same values in common anymore.

MARTIN: Of course, no two experiences are identical. But over the years, Dr. Greyson has noticed patterns, and he's paid close attention to how these near-death experiences overlap with one another. It's important to point out that Dr. Greyson started his career believing that the physical world was all there was.

GREYSON: And when you die, that's the end of it. That's just the way life is. That wasn't a sad thing. And then when I started my psychiatric training, I started being confronted by patients who claimed they had left their bodies and seen things from outside the body when they were in a near-death situation or sometimes pronounced it. And I realized that these were common experiences that were happening to normal people all over the world.

MARTIN: Is there an actual medical or psychological definition of a near-death experience?

GREYSON: Well, the best definition we have is that it's a profound experience that many people have 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 being the people who 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. Most researchers have found that about 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 words? Is there language that you see as a pattern when people describe their near-death experiences?

GREYSON: We are, but we have to be careful about the language because most near-death experiences will start their story by saying, I just can't put this into words, or there weren't any words in the language to describe this. So we say, great. Tell me about it.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREYSON: So we force them to use metaphors, and they often use metaphors that come from their culture or their religion. They often talk about a warm, loving being of light. And they talk about feeling unconditional love in spite of all their shortcomings and so-called sins in life. They often report that no matter what the NDE itself - the near-death experience was like - they come back with no fear of death or dying. And that's often a great change. I mean, can you imagine a near-death situation - you're in pain; you're afraid, and all of a sudden, you're overwhelmed by this overwhelming peace and well-being, and you come back not afraid at all?

MARTIN: Are there visual patterns that have emerged in these stories - for instance, you know, a tunnel or a beam of light?

GREYSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: What kind of images do people paint?

GREYSON: Well, the first thing they usually talk about is a sense of leaving the physical body, often rising above it, looking down and seeing things that they can describe going on around the body. And, you know, often, they're things that we can't corroborate. They're just common ideas. But sometimes, they report very unusual things, such as a nurse having mismatched shoelaces that could be corroborated. They often then report being distracted by some other things going on in the apparently other realm, and they will turn their attention away from the physical body and go off into a tunnel or some other structure and find themselves in this realm of light where they see entities that they may describe as beings of light or they may describe in more anthropomorphic terms. Sometimes, they will call them deities, God or something like that. Sometimes they may identify them as deceased loved ones. Now, often, when we hear this, we think, oh, of course, this is expectation. You thought you were dying. So you want to see your deceased grandmother, so you imagine a reunion (inaudible).

MARTIN: Right.

GREYSON: And that is plausible in some cases. But in many cases now we have people who claim to see in their near-death experience deceased individuals who were not known yet to have died. And that makes it hard to dismiss this as expectation or wishful...

MARTIN: What do you mean? They're seeing a premonition that a person dies in the future?

GREYSON: No, no. These people have actually had died. Let me give you an example.

MARTIN: Dr. Greyson gives an example from his book. He met a 25-year-old man who had been admitted to the hospital with severe respiratory problems.

GREYSON: They kept having respiratory arrests where he had to be resuscitated. And his primary nurse, who worked with him every day, told him once that she was going to be leaving for the weekend, and some of the nurses would be substituting for her. So she left. And while she was away on the weekend, he had another respiratory arrest where he had to be resuscitated. And he found himself in a beautiful pastoral scene. And there, to his surprise, this nurse, Anita, comes walking towards him. And he does a double take and says, you know, Anita, what are you doing here? And she said, you can't stay here, Jack. You need to go back to your body. And I want you to find my parents and tell them that I love them, and I'm sorry I wrecked the red MGB. And then she turned and walked away. He then woke up back in his body in the hospital with a complete memory of this vivid experience, and tried to tell this to the next nurse who walked into his room. And she quickly exited the room in tears. It turned out that his primary nurse, Anita, had taken the weekend off to celebrate her 21st birthday, and her parents surprised her with the gift of a red MGB. And she got excited, jumped in the car, took off for a test drive, lost control and crashed the car, dying instantly, just a few hours before he had his near-death experience.

MARTIN: Oh, my God.

GREYSON: I don't know how he could've known that she was dead - not expecting it either. And specifically how she died.

MARTIN: That is just - that's a phenomenal account. I mean, you have - you are looking at this from a scientific point of view. I mean, have you, through all of this, been able to determine - I don't know - whether certain kinds of people - are there certain kinds of brains that are predisposed to experience?

GREYSON: Yeah. Yeah. Those are great questions, Rachel. We haven't been able to find anything yet. We look at the obvious things - gender, age, ethnicity, 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, in Judeo-Christian cultures, in Hindu-Buddhist cultures, in Shinto cultures. And going back to ancient Greece and Rome, we hear the same accounts that we hear today. So we don't seem to know why some people have near-death experiences and other people don't.

MARTIN: Are some of these dreams? I mean, that story is so - feels so exceptional. But 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 the visions come quick.

GREYSON: It's certainly something worth looking at because no one has access to the information except the experiencer 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 that are accurately going on around you. But in near-death experiences, you often can. Also, there is a consistent pattern of aftereffects that follow near-death experiences that don't follow from 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.

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 know, you're the scientist. How do you confront the wave of skepticism I hear out there in the world...

GREYSON: 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, and I didn't believe any of this stuff before I started encountering it. 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. Of course, that doesn't mean we never will, but that's not a scientific position, saying, oh, someday, we'll understand it. That's not science. That's philosophy. If you look at what science can tell us, we have to say we just don't have the answer. I haven't - I can't say that I've become much more spiritual 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, partly 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. It's nothing to be frightened of. And the fact that you don't know the answer doesn't mean there isn't one there. But 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. It is called "After". This episode of UP FIRST Sunday was produced and reported by Lee Hale and edited by Jenny Schmidt. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

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