A seasoned doctor takes on the head-scratching phenomenon of near-death experiences.
Part gallery of cases, part theory of medicine, debut memoirist Bellg’s look at near-death experiences bridges issues of body and mind. After forgoing a research career, Bellg pursued work as a critical care doctor in an ICU. The often high-stakes scenarios of the ICU brought her into contact with patients close to drawing their last breaths—or who had “died.” Both recollection and commentary, Bellg’s book tracks her patients’ puzzling out-of-body episodes and her attempts to grapple with them. In one startling anecdote, a patient recovering from cardiac arrest described to Bellg not only the details of his surgery, for which he was supposedly unconscious, but the specifics of a nurse training center on the floor above. Another patient recounted how an injection given as part of an imaging procedure sent him on a race through the cosmos. By happenstance, on Bellg’s first day of medical school—when she received a copy of an anthology that dealt with the “more philosophical, relationship-centered” side of medicine—she encountered something of the approach touted in her own book, one that convincingly advocates stronger roles for empathy, patient testimony, and emotional intelligence in institutionalized medical practice. Framing the history of medicine as a prolonged refutation of superstition, she recognizes the obstacles inherent in persuading others to see NDEs as genuine, not just apparent, medical phenomena. Bellg’s responses to these obstacles, though hardly conclusive, are well-considered. She indicates, for instance, the difficulties that would plague any attempt to seriously study NDEs empirically and suggests that observations of NDEs are “simply the beginning of developing a scientific understanding of them.” And she emphasizes the qualitative differences, for her patients, between NDEs and average dreams. Above all, she argues persuasively that patients should be accorded dignity when their stories about these bizarre but often transformative experiences are acknowledged rather than dismissed.
Sensitive but skeptical, a narrative for practitioners and patients alike about the search to understand a corner of the unknown in medicine.