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Pam Reynolds Near Death Experience
© G.M. Woerlee
Many people claim that the wondrous near death experience (NDE) of a woman with the pseudonym Pam Reynolds is evidence that the mind is something separate from the body, capable of existing separately from the body, and survives the death of the body. A cardiologist called Dr Michael Sabom has devoted many years to the study of NDEs. He claims the report of this woman is the clearest and best verification of the reality of a life after death that he has encountered (1). Many other people agree with him. But is the story of Pam Reynolds truly evidence of a life after death?
In 1991 CE, the then 35 year-old Pam Reynolds was found to have a large saccular aneurysm of the basilar artery. A personal disaster. Having such an aneurysm is like walking around with a bomb in your head - it may rupture and bleed at any moment, destroying the adjacent brainstem and causing death. Removing such a giant aneurysm is tricky, and this was at a location which was also difficult to approach. So the neurosurgeon wisely decided to operate using a technique called "hypothermic cardiac arrest". This would make it possible to remove the aneurysm without excessive blood loss, as well as protecting the adjacent brain tissue from damage resulting from a temporary lowering of the blood flow. Hypothermia, or extreme lowering of body temperature combined with temporary stopping of the heart (cardiac arrest) is a technique that has been used since the 1960's. It is a complex technique, but one making some types of otherwise impossible heart, large blood vessel, and brain surgery possible.
The technique used with Pam Reynolds in 1991 was complex, although reasonably straightforward. She was brought into the operating theater. An intravenous drip was inserted, anesthetic drugs were injected, and she was under general anesthesia. The usual technique of general anesthesia then, as now, was a combination of drugs to keep her asleep, painkilling drugs, and muscle paralyzing drugs to prevent involuntary movements in response to the pain of surgery. A person anesthetized with such a combination of drugs cannot move, cannot speak, and cannot breathe. So a person under such a form of general anesthesia is attached to a respirator which takes over their breathing. This is a perfectly normal anesthetic technique used for many operations performed under general anesthesia. The usual monitoring of her vital signs was used by the anesthesiologist, in addition to which her electroencephalogram was monitored, as well as the response of her brain to clicking sounds in two earplugs was measured (VEP = vestibular evoked potentials). (N.B. VEP measurement is a very useful measurement of the depth of general anesthesia.) Her head was fixed in the position needed for the operation with a large clamp. The other parts of her body were covered with sterile drapes, and the neurosurgeon began the operation on her head.
At the same time as the neurosurgeon began to operate on the head of Pam Reynolds, the cardiothoracic surgeon, a Dr Murray, began an operation to insert the tubing of the cardiac bypass machine into the blood vessels in her groin. Cardiac bypass applied via tubing inserted into the blood vessels of the groin is a standard technique, and part of the procedure of hypothermic cardiac arrest. Blood is pumped out of the body, passes through a heat exchanger circuit in the cardiac bypass machine, is cooled, and pumped back into the body. This makes it possible to efficiently cool the whole body, as well as pump blood around the body when the heart eventually stops beating due to cooling of the body.
The body of Pam Reynolds was eventually cooled to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 degrees Centigrade), the circulation of blood in her body was stopped, and the aneurysm was successfully operated. At this temperature, the metabolism of the brain and the heart is lowered to such a degree that the circulation can safely be stopped for about 45-60 minutes without causing any brain or other tissue damage. Subsequent to successfully operating on the aneurysm, the cardiac bypass machine was restarted, and used to restore her body temperature back to the normal 37 degrees Centigrade. Normal heart action was restored, the cardiac bypass tubing removed, and all the operation wounds were closed.
Pam Reynolds reported initially undergoing an out of body experience during this operation, after which she underwent a tunnel and light experience during which she entered heaven and interacted with deceased family members. During her out of body experience, she found herself floating above her body, and was able to accurately describe all she saw and heard in the operating theater. The time period during which these experiences occurred was accurately given by her statement:
Someone said something about my veins and arteries being very small. I believe it was a female voice and that it was Dr. Murray, but I'm not sure. She was the cardiologist. I remember thinking that I should have told her about that ... (1)
She was not on cardiac bypass at the time of her out of body experience, because the cardiothoracic surgeon was having trouble introducing the cardiac bypass machine tubing into the blood vessels of her right groin - they were too small for the size of the tubing and the blood flow needed for cardiac bypass. So the cardiothoracic surgeon eventually used the blood vessels in her left groin (1). This means that at this time she had a normal body temperature, and the normal responses of a paralyzed person who was supposedly under general anesthesia. And I say "supposedly under general anesthesia", because what she described was a typical period of conscious awareness under general anesthesia. This is something familiar to all anesthesiologists, and is an event that all anesthesiologists try to prevent. She felt no pain, but was clearly able to able to hear and describe what happened to her. How was this possible?
The ways in which the functioning of the body can generate clear out of body experiences during general anesthesia and other states of consciousness is extensively described in the book "Mortal Minds" (2). No immortal and separate mind is required, the functioning of the mechanisms of the body can generate all aspects of these experiences.
Why was her awareness not signaled by the VEP monitoring, or her electroencephalogram at the time she was able to observe what was happening in the operating room, or during her out of body experience? After all, both the awareness and the out of body experience are conscious experiences, and can only occur in a conscious brain. The embarrassing and humbling truth is that these monitors of consciousness are not 100% reliable. Measurements such as these, and other measurements are generally very reliable, but due to a variety of reasons, are simply not 100% reliable. This is certainly my experience, as well as that of other anesthesiologists. I have occasionally heard a patient tell me after an operation during which their clinical signs convinced me that they were asleep, that they were awake during part of the operation. These are humbling experiences, and ones which show that even careful monitoring is not always accurate. For example, recently a woman to who I administered general anesthesia for a varicose vein operation was quite evidently awake during her operation, (she felt no pain, but did respond to command to lift her head and grasp the hand of the anesthetic nurse), remembered absolutely nothing of her period of awareness after awakening.
Pam Reynolds wore tightly-fitting earplugs during her operation. These were attached to the VEP monitor, and continually fed clicking sounds into her ears to arouse VEP signals. These earplugs supposedly excluded all external sounds. This is why some authors make much of the fact that she could hear everything - after all, ther earplugs supposedly blocked out all external sounds. But the truth is that earplugs do not totally exclude all external sounds, they only considerably reduce the intensity of external sounds. Proof of this is seen all about us. There are simply enormous numbers of people all around the world, wandering around, listening to loud music played through earplugs, while at the same time able to hear and understand all that happens in their surroundings. So Pam Reynolds was able to hear what happened in her surroundings. And people under general anesthesia can hear things, otherwise this perfectly standard VEP monitoring technique would be useless as a measure of the depth of general anesthesia. Furthermore, she would have been able to hear the bone saw extremely well, because as the saw was cutting through her skull, the sound made by the saw would have been conducted directly through the bones of her skull into her middle ear where she perceived it. This is the normal phenomenon of bone conduction which everyone can test for themselves by pressing a vibrating tuning fork to one of the bones of the skull. So being able to hear, despite the insertion of earphones making clicking sounds is nothing wondrous.
Some writers also make much of the tunnel and light experience which followed her out of body experience, saying that these occurred during her period of hypothermia with cardiac arrest, and were amazed that this could happen during this period (1). Yet there are no temporal localizing features. One thing is certain - she could have had no conscious experience during the period of hypothermic cardiac arrest. So she underwent these experience either before the period of hypothermic cardiac arrest, or after restoration of normal body temperature and before awakening from general anesthesia. For this experience is no more than a product of anesthetic drug-induced abnormal interpretation of bodily sensations, together with a drug-induced socio-culturally modified experience in which a woman who expected to die saw deceased family members acting as her guides in a life after death (3). A reading of the citation below, together with my more than 20 years practical experience in anesthesiology, indicate clearly to me that the experience reported in the citation most likely occurred near the end of the operation as her body temperature increased to near normal levels, together with her awakening from general anesthesia.
... and saw the thing, my body. I didn't want to get into it ... It looked terrible, like a train wreck. It looked like what it was: dead. I believe it was covered. It scared me and I didn't want to look at it. It was communicated to me that it was like jumping into a swimming pool. No problem, just jump right into the swimming pool. I didn't want to, but I guess I was late or something because he [the uncle] pushed me. I felt a definite repelling and at the same time a pulling from the body. The body was pulling and the tunnel was pushing ... It was like diving into a pool of ice water ... It hurt!
When I came back, they were playing "Hotel California" and the line was "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." I mentioned [later] to Dr. Brown that that was incredibly insensitive and he told me that I needed to sleep more. [laughter] When I regained consciousness, I was still on the respirator. (1)
She emerged out of the tunnel and no longer saw deceased people, an indication that her mental function was returning to normalcy. She could again hear what was happening about her - she heard the music of "Hotel California" played and sung by "The Eagles" which had reached the line, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." A curious coincidence, and very appropriate. She was still paralyzed by a muscle paralyzing drug, so she still could not move, breathe, or talk - she was indeed locked inside her body - she could not leave. Furthermore, she could not talk because of the muscle paralysis and the tube passed through her windpipe and attached to the respirator.
All these things explain the wondrous story of Pam Reynolds. The experience of Pam Reynolds was not a product of an immaterial soul, or immaterial mind, which can exist for eternity separately from her body. Instead, her experience was a product of anesthetic drugs, abnormal interpretations of bodily sensations, together with a perception of personal imminent death all causing her body to function in such a way that she underwent a series of truly wondrous experiences. And they were wondrous experiences, even though they were products of abnormal body function. They possibly confirmed her vision of the world, possibly even gave her a new vision of the world, possibly even gave her a reason for existence. To her, and to others, these experience were significant. This is also true, for they are powerful and wonderful demonstrations of the functioning of the human body - demonstrations of the true nature of our being.