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How a near-death experience could change the way you live

A man's forehead and his eyes which are closed. Inside him a tunnel of light with floating iridescent particles, in the end a light.
Raquel Aparicio for NPR
A man's forehead and his eyes which are closed. Inside him a tunnel of light with floating iridescent particles, in the end a light.

Randy Schiefer remembers being woken up by his mother's screams at four in the morning.

He was 16 years old at the time. It was 1969, and his family was staying at a hotel while on vacation in New Jersey.

He ran toward the screams and found his father having a heart attack. He had some CPR training so he began some mouth-to-mouth resuscitations. But it wasn't working.

He ran out into the hallway, pounding on doors trying to get somebody to come out and help.

"But nobody did," Schiefer says.

Schiefer's father died that night. He was devastated. What's worse is that every time he thought about his father, he would be consumed with feelings of guilt and fear. He'd think about him on that hotel floor and then inevitably he'd think about his own eventual death.

"I would go into panic attacks," Schiefer says. "I'd get real tight in my chest and the only way that I could control it is just try to settle myself down and say, 'Okay, get it out of your head, get it out of your head.'"

For Schiefer, death was a black wall, a question mark. That is, until he faced it himself.

He had what's known as a near-death experience — which have been documented around the world and can lead people to change the way they live their lives.

Facing Death

In March 2020, Schiefer had what felt like a very persistent flu. His doctor had told him he just needed rest but as the days went on his symptoms got worse. He tested for COVID-19, and was positive.

Things deteriorated fast for Schiefer. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was put into a medically-induced coma and placed on a heart-lung machine.

Randy Schiefer was put into a medically-induced coma as doctors scrambled to find ways to treat his severe case of COVID-19.
/ Courtesy of the Schiefer family
/
Courtesy of the Schiefer family
Randy Schiefer was put into a medically-induced coma as doctors scrambled to find ways to treat his severe case of COVID-19.

He was unconscious for nearly a month. But he came through, after a convalescent plasma treatment that his daughter Lisa Schiefer pushed for. He received the blood transfusion on a Friday and by Sunday, the doctors were able to turn off the heart-lung machine that had been keeping him alive.

"My lungs had completely cleared by that Tuesday. My kidneys started to function fully again and so did my liver," Schiefer says.

After the medication wore off and Schiefer was steadily improving, his daughter was permitted to keep him company in his hospital room.

"Only after I was allowed at his bedside did he start communicating with me about what he experienced," she says.

An Unexpected Experience

Near-death experiences can occur when someone faces a life-threatening situation such as cardiac arrest or is under deep anesthesia.

Some people have reported the feeling of leaving their body and observing their surroundings. For Schiefer, his journey started with what looked like an airplane fuselage.

Schiefer says there was a moment while he was in a coma when he remembers his consciousness awakening. He was traveling through a kind of tunnel, with light streaming through like windows in an airplane.

"Beautiful, warm, loving light," Schiefer says.

The tunnel brought him to a large room with arched windows and stained glass. It was also permeating with that same warm, loving light. Then Schiefer says a gentleman approached him and said he didn't belong therethat he had to leave. He walked out through giant oak doors into an even more serene scene.

"I remember going through the doors and it took me out into a golden city, and it was absolutely stunning," says Schiefer.

When he first described the city to his daughter Lisa, he said it was like Paris, but more beautiful, more pristine. He says the grass in the parks was a deeper green than anything on earth.

"And I've been to the highlands of Scotland," Schiefer says.

But this awe-struck stroll took a turn when Schiefer realized he didn't know where he was or how to get back. He felt lost.

"I remember sitting down and I started to panic, and I started to cry," he says.

That feeling of warmth left him. He says he felt cold and scared.

"Suddenly I looked over my shoulder and saw this big white staircase that rose up in the sky as far as you could see," says Schiefer.

He began climbing the staircase, crawling on his hands and knees, and then he says someone called him by name, grabbed him by the shirt and whisked him away.

"I remember it going black, back to my little dark sedated world," Schiefer says.

His daughter listened to Schiefer's story intently, but let him know that he hadn't traveled to any cities lately. In fact, he'd been in a coma in a hospital room for nearly a month. But he insisted the experience was real.

When she offered up that it was probably a dream or hallucination from the heavy medication that didn't sit right with Schiefer.

"My dreams were foggy. And my hallucinations were just stupid. I saw nine dancing panda bears on the ceiling," Schiefer says. "But this was so real. I was there. I was involved with my environment and I felt so much peace and love and acceptance. More than I have ever felt before."

A Noticeable Shift

Schiefer's daughter Lisa started noticing differences in her dad almost immediately after he got home — like when he started opening up about that night he watched his father die from a heart attack.

"My mom and I sat at the kitchen island and he just spoke," she says. "He was telling us about it."

The sign that welcomed Randy Schiefer home after his brush with death.
/ Courtesy of the Schiefer family
/
Courtesy of the Schiefer family
The sign that welcomed Randy Schiefer home after his brush with death.

As he was talking about that night in New Jersey, he asked his daughter to get an eyeglasses case from a closet.

He took the glasses out and stared at them. He looked a little stunned as he told her that the last person to take them out of their case was his father.

"My dad was 16 when his father died," she says. "He's almost 70 now. That tells you how long those glasses have just been sitting in their case."

This wasn't like Schiefer. He wasn't one to divulge emotional details, especially when it involved the deaths of loved ones.

"Pre-COVID dad never talked about death. We didn't talk about dying. We didn't talk about god. We didn't talk about the afterlife," Lisa Schiefer says. "We didn't talk about any of that."

It was moments like this that caused her to think differently about what her dad had shared in the hospital. She began seeing his near-death experience as what it was for him — something real.

What We Know About Near-Death Experiences

Experiences like Schiefer's aren't uncommon.

Researchers have found that between 10 and 20% of people who have a documented cardiac arrest — that is, when their hearts stop — will report a near-death experience, says Dr. Bruce Greyson, professor emeritus of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia.

Greyson has been studying first-hand accounts like Schiefer's for about 50 years, looking for patterns.

"The best definition we have is that it's a profound experience that many people have that includes enhanced thought processes," Greyson explains. "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," he adds.

Most surprising to Greyson is that people can see things in their near-death experiences that will later be corroborated as accurate. Like certain tools used during open heart surgery or conversations that happened when they were unconscious, or pronounced dead during.

But most significant to Greyson is what comes after a near-death experience.

"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."

Greyson says these people often change their careers, or make other dramatic lifestyle changes.

That was Schiefer's experience. Along with a willingness to discuss death freely he was open to talking about all sorts of existential questions. He also started to dig deeper into his family's Christian faith and began praying regularly. As a result, he says he's become a better version of himself.

"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," Schiefer says.

Adjusting to the New Randy

Before his brush with death, Lisa Schiefer says her dad seemed a little lost. Just going through the motions. But now, he has newfound energy. He's excited and optimistic. And he loves sharing his near-death experience with anyone who is curious.

"He loves talking about it, which is good for him. I'm glad he has a hobby," she laughs.

But the adjustment for her hasn't been easy.

For one, each time she hears her dad's story it takes her back to the most terrifying few weeks of her life — sleepless nights spent worrying about whether she'd get the dreaded call from the hospital.

"It's not exciting for me to sit back and listen and be reminded of how my dad almost died," she says.

And she was so grateful they were one of the lucky ones whose family member came home, but there was still a period of mourning.

She 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 who was a little short-tempered and closed off at times.

Randy Schiefer's daughter Lisa spent a lot of time with him in his hospital room as he recovered from a life-threatening case of COVID-19.
/ Courtesy of the Schiefer family
/
Courtesy of the Schiefer family
Randy Schiefer's daughter Lisa spent a lot of time with him in his hospital room as he recovered from a life-threatening case of COVID-19.

"Selfishly, I felt very alone," Lisa Schiefer says. "I felt very hurt and frustrated. I would think, '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.'"

Schiefer came home more than two years ago, and the family has since found a new rhythm. His daughter moved to Florida permanently to be a short drive from her parents.

But Greyson says that some families don't make it through an experience like this one.

"Often they can't accept the changes," Greyson says. "They feel they don't have the same values in common anymore."

Regardless of whether or not a loved one wants to validate a near-death experience as "real," they often can't ignore the real changes that come from them. Some of these changes have caused Greyson to rethink preconceived notions.

"I was raised in a scientific household, and I didn't believe any of this stuff before I started encountering it," Greyson says. "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."

Greyson says that uncertainty didn't always sit well with him, but he's learned to embrace it.

"It becomes like an old friend," Greyson says. "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. That 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 that this is a safe place to be."

For Schiefer, his explanation is simple. He's no longer afraid to talk about death because he's no longer afraid of death.

The panic attacks that used to plague him have stopped.

And if you ask Schiefer why he's no longer afraid of death, he puts it this way:

"I've been there. I've been there. I've experienced it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.