This trip had been odd from the beginning. We had been able to get cheap enough seats on a flight to a Does God Exist? lectureship that my wife Phyllis was able to go with me, but it had been a last-minute special fare that allowed it. The lectureship had gone well, and we had met some old friends and renewed and revived past experiences. Phyllis had not felt well for most of the trip and had fought a high blood sugar, which we blamed for her ill feelings. As we flew home, she got worse; but we caught earlier flights and got home much sooner than planned. We exercised as always and went to bed. The next morning as I left for school, she told me that she had been restless all night and that she was going to call her doctor as soon as his office was open. During my second hour class, I was called to the phone. It was Phyllis who told me she was having trouble breathing, and the doctor had told her to go to the hospital emergency room, not to his office. "I'll be fine," she said, "but I wanted you to know where I am." I hung up the phone, but common sense told me not to leave my wife to drive alone to the emergency room. I called her back and told her I was on my way home and that she should rest until I could get her.
When I arrived home, I found her struggling to breathe and barely able to dress herself. We reached the hospital and began the routine of blood tests, oxygen, nitroglycerin, and pain killers. A heart catheterization was planned at 11:00 AM on election day--November 5, 1996. I walked by the gurney and kissed my wife good-bye as she was wheeled into the catheterization room. About 20 minutes later, two doctors came to me and told me my wife would die in a matter of hours if immediate surgery was not done. Phyllis and I had discussed what we would do if this was, in fact, the option given us and had decided we would make one attempt to extend our time together on earth. Five minutes later, she was wheeled past me on her way to a dangerous surgery for a person suffering from 49 years of diabetes. I had a dramatic, loving farewell message to give my wife of almost 38 years as she came by; but she raised her head as she approached me and said, "Looks like neither of these characters (meaning Clinton and Dole) will get my vote!" So much for flowery good-byes.
I was taken to the waiting room and told I would be informed periodically about the progress of the surgery. After an hour, I was told that things were proceeding on schedule. Several hours passed, and finally a nurse came and took me to a conference room. "Your wife's surgery is finished," she said, "but we have run into a problem. We are unable to get her heart to start beating again. This is very serious, Mr. Clayton, would you like for me to get the chaplain?" "Are you saying that my wife is dead?" I asked. "Well, we are trying some chemical methods of stimulating the heart so that it will start to beat again; but this is very serious. Do you want to talk to the chaplain?" she replied. "No, I have my own connections," I replied. She nodded and left me alone.
For over an hour, I waited for the final word. I made sure the hospital had our living will material. I thought about what funeral home to use and where to bury my wife. I talked to God. There was no voice from my wife's departed soul, no fuzzy warm feeling as I have heard people describe when someone they loved passed away, and no feeling of fear or concern for my wife. She had always said she hoped she would leave quickly and it looked as though her wish had been granted.
My racing mind was interrupted by the nurse who said, "We have your wife's heart beating but her blood pressure is 40 over 10--she has a chance. A hour later, it was 68 over 21, and two hours later, I was allowed to go in to see her. My wife was still alive--supported by pumps and tubes--but alive. A day later she squeezed my hand when I spoke to her. But it was the end of the week before she could speak. On Saturday when I came in to see her, I found her nearly unconscious as doctors and nurses fought a racing arrhythmia that, once again, put her at death's door. It was a week after the surgery before the medical staff could say, "she is going to make it," and over a month before she could return home to stay. Infection in the legs from where the veins were taken has caused this to be an even more painful and longer period of time (we are talking months, not weeks in getting these legs cleared up) as the circulation problems in her legs make healing a much slower process. One night in the hospital when things were quiet and we had some time together, I asked Phyllis what she remembered about her near-death experience. She looked at me blankly and said, "Nothing!" "Was there no bright light, no tunnel, no sensation of floating out of your body?" I asked, "No--nothing" was the reply. The only recollection my wife has of the entire ordeal is leaving me for the catheterization and small snippets of things that happened in the Intensive Care Unit. None of the "out-of-the-body sensation described by Kathryn Kubler-Ross or David Denton were part of her experience.
Many years ago, I had wisdom teeth cut out, and sodium pentothal was used as the anesthetic. I paid very little attention as the nurse inserted the needle into my arm, as I was engaged in a discussion with the dentist. Suddenly I heard, "Mr. Clayton!" and turned my head to see that the young lady administering the drug to me was a former student--one of the worse lab students I have ever had. This girl broke or spilled everything in my lab--and now she was in control of my life. With that astonishing realization I lost consciousness. When I came to, I heard this girl talking to people around me; and I saw her clearly even though my eyes were closed. I grimaced as I saw and heard her tell of all the wild things I did in class and how she bugged me with her sloppy lab work.
An hour or so later, when my mouth would work and I could see her clearly, I asked her how she could remember all those wild stories she told about me. Her eyes grew wide and she blushed as she said, "You heard that?" "Well, of course I heard. I was right here with you," I replied. "Mr. Clayton, we were in the front office," she replied. "How could you possibly have heard?" The effect of the anesthetic allowed me to hear and to visualize her.
We understand very little about how the human brain works or what chemicals can do to it. If out-of-body experiences were a spiritual or physical reality, there should be some common thread of experience! The fact that people have a common experience can be due to a common anesthetic. Many people who have had diethyl ether as an anesthetic have the experience of falling and many see a bright light. There may even be similar responses of the brain to stimulus and/or similar secretions of natural materials.
Death is the separation of the spiritual part of man from the physical body. Until the Lord accomplishes that separation, death does not occur. It is not related to the heart, the brain, or the nervous system. My wife is a fighter. She fought back and is continuing to work toward full recovery for me and to extend her service to her God. "If it were up to me," she says, "I'm ready for the death experience--ready to begin my new existence free of triple by-passes, heart attacks, insulin shots, blood test pricks, antibiotics, and pain." I am thankful to her, to God, and to the skill and dedication of a team of doctors, nurses, and technicians that I am able to have her by my side a little longer.
--John N. Clayton
Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Mar/Apr 97