Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Sunday, 28 September 2008 10:16 UK

Journey to unlock 'out of body' mysteries

Penny Sartori with her book
Penny Sartori's research led to a book on near death experiences

In September, medical teams at 25 hospitals across the world revealed they were undertaking the largest study of its kind into near death experiences (NDE).

Researchers want to know if there is any truth in so called "out-of-body" incidents reported by gravely ill people.

One of the hospitals taking part in the research is Morriston Hospital in Swansea, where Dr Penny Sartori has become a leading expert on the phenomenon.

She gives her own personal insight into why the research is so important - and the impact it has had on her own life.

I was caring for the man on the night shift prior to his death. He communicated to me how he was feeling and that he wanted to die.

He looked into my eyes and the connection we made was something that profoundly affected me. I was very upset by the way the patient had died and became so depressed that I almost gave up nursing.

I looked for support by doing a nursing course that may give me a greater understanding of death but found that there were no suitable courses available. The only courses concerning death were palliative care courses which have a very different approach to caring for dying patients in intensive care units. So I read all that I could about death and came across NDEs.

I was instantly intrigued because people who had undergone a NDE were saying that death is nothing to be afraid of and that it is a wonderful thing.

This didn't mean that these people wanted to die but they knew that when it was their time to die they would not be afraid.

They described leaving their body and looking down from above then moving through darkness towards a bright light, some report watching the whole of their life flash before their eyes in a matter of seconds, they feel very peaceful and comfortable where they are.

Many meet deceased relatives who tell them that it is not their time and they have to go back, some may see a religious figure or a 'Being of Light'. Following the experience the person is usually profoundly transformed.

My scientific training as a nurse told me that these experiences couldn't possibly be more than an overactive imagination or some kind of wishful thinking or hallucination as the brain was shutting down as death approached.

How could it be possible for people to report clear, lucid experiences with great clarity of thought during a time when their hearts had stopped beating and blood is not being effectively pumped to the brain?

My curiosity got the better of me and as I was working in the ideal place in which to study these experiences I decided to undertake my own research project.

I wanted to investigate if these experiences could be attributed to the drugs that we gave the patients, to abnormal levels of oxygen or carbon dioxide in the blood and was there a way of verifying the out of body component?

So I hid symbols on top of the cardiac monitors at each patient's bedside which could only be viewed from an out of body perspective.

I began the research, which is the UK's largest clinical study to date, in 1997 and completed the data collection in 2003. The project was written up and the results analysed and in 2005 I was awarded a PhD by the University of Wales, Lampeter.

In June 2008 my book, an academic monograph, The Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive care Patients: A Five Year Clinical Study was published by The Edwin Mellen Press. The reason that I chose to publish an academic book is because I believe these experiences need to be taken seriously.

Previous research into NDEs has been retrospective so there was no way of verifying if what the person was saying was correct or if indeed the person was near death at the time of their experience.

Important information was extracted from the medical and nursing notes such as oxygen / carbon dioxide levels in the blood during the time of the experience, the drugs administered during the emergency situation as well as people present in case an out of body experience was also reported.

The aim of the study was to have a greater understanding of death and therefore benefit future patients. Aspects learned from the study can make the last few weeks/days of a dying patient more comfortable and ensure heightened awareness of the patient's needs.

It also proved to be very helpful when counselling the relatives of patients who were critically ill. In appropriate situations it was useful to mention the experiences that some people reported as it had a very positive effect on the relatives and gave them great comfort.

Another great benefit of this study is to raise public awareness of these experiences.

People who have an NDE are initially overwhelmed and do not understand what has happened. They have just undergone the most profound experience that has totally transcended anything else they have experienced.

Very often words are not adequate to describe it and recall of the experience can evoke great emotion. If a patient plucks up the courage to talk about the experience then the response they get is of the utmost importance.

If they are met with a dismissive attitude that it is just a side effect of the drugs or a hallucination then this can be detrimental to the way in which they integrate the experience into their life. The patient may withdraw and never speak about it again but be left with lots of unanswered questions.

Hence it is important that the subject of NDEs becomes a very important aspect of the education of all healthcare professionals. This will ensure the best psychological aftercare of patients who have a NDE.

As our technology is becoming more advanced so it seems most likely that the incidence of NDEs will increase.

Accounts of NDEs have also been shown to be very helpful to people undergoing bereavement.

On a wider scale, the transformational aspect exhibited by many people who have had a NDE can greatly influence society. These people are usually more compassionate, tolerant and caring and this usually has a knock on effect to those around them.

Undertaking the study has not only enhanced the way I care for the patients in intensive care units but it has also given me a greater understanding of life. I believe that it is only when we start to learn about death that we really start to learn about life.

Current reductionist explanations for these experiences such as side effects of drugs, low levels of oxygen or that they are simply hallucinations are not supported by the clinical research so far.

It is therefore very important that this study is conducted on a large global scale as the more patients recruited the greater our understanding of these experiences, and indeed consciousness. Ultimately this will be of benefit to all future patients.

I have worked as a nurse in Morriston Hospital since 1989 and am very proud to say that I work there. It is great that Morriston is involved with this study as it will get world recognition for being the centre of excellence that it is.


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