Near-death experiences

Eugene Costello

What started off as a delightful family trip to the south of France, resulted in a nightmarish brush with death…

Summer was a busy time for me. First, I went to Carcassonne, France, on a press trip with my daughter, Evie. After, we visited my brother at his holiday house in the Pyrenees, with his wife and two grown children. My parents were there also, and we flew back with them, leaving my brother and his family to do the long drive back.

I’d been experiencing severe chest pains throughout the holiday and when I arrived at Stansted, my dad insisted on driving me to the local hospital. While there, staff realised I was having a heart attack—possibly the latest of several heart attacks that I’d been having in France. They put me in an ambulance and blue-lighted me to a specialist hospital in central London.

I don’t remember much more until I woke up and had to set off on another trip with Evie, this time to Dublin. It should have been a simple enjoyable journey, but I was travelling with a group who seemed to dislike me. Several times I tried to engage them in conversation but they were sullen and unfriendly. Later, one of the them finally showed some friendliness and invited me out to a stately home in Wicklow for Sunday afternoon drinks, telling me not to bring my daughter.

"When I came round, I was in a high-sided bed, strapped in, in the front room, once a dining room, no doubt"

The house was at the end of a long, straight drive with a gravel-strewn car park at the front—a slate-grey, square, Georgian-style detached place. I rang the bell and a nurse opened the door, but slammed it behind me. She and a male nurse pinned me against the wall as they injected me. When I came round, I was in a high-sided bed, strapped in in the front room, once a dining room, no doubt. She said, "Look, don’t resist, they only want to teach you a lesson—they’ll keep you here for a few hours, then you’ll be free to leave late tonight."

I protested, saying “What about Evie?” but she replied, "Look, I'm just being paid to do this, just go along with it and don’t struggle." When the nurse left the room, I managed to sit up and get out of the bed. I smashed a window and climbed out, ran down the drive and flagged down a car. I picked up Evie and we got out of Dublin.

Next, I had to go to New York, where I was shot in the abdomen by a gang member. I recovered, thankfully, and was able to take Evie to Italy where we were visited by a beautiful woman I’d met in New York, who looked just like Evie’s mother. A few more crazy trips and imprisonments later, I headed to an Indian wedding in Jaipur, Rajasthan. My sister-in-law, Claire, appeared and told me firmly that I needed to pull myself together…

 

As you might have guessed, only the initial trip to France really happend. Much later, I pieced together what had transpired. I had experienced a huge coronary at the specialist hospital and they had to perform life-saving open-heart surgery. The surgeons took an ankle-to-thigh vein and, after opening open my sternum with a circular saw, used sections of the vein as grafts in a triple bypass. My lungs were full of fluid, consistent with pneumonia; they had to be drained. I had a stroke during the surgery, and they found a blood clot on my brain. My body shut down. I was, my surgeon told me later, “dead on the table”.

What should have been a straightforward hour-long operation took five times that long and, unable to breathe, they put me on to life-support. I was in a coma for ten days. When I finally awoke, my sister-in law, Claire, told me to pull myself together because they were about to cut a hole in my windpipe for a tracheostomy. I gave her hand the faintest squeeze. It was enough. I was coming back…

"My body shut down. I was, as my surgeon later told me, 'dead on the table'"

 

My visions were the result of postoperative delirium. It seems I was reinterpreting fragments of what my unconscious mind was experiencing. The beautiful woman from New York? Moira visited me every day when I was in a coma. The Indian wedding? In the bed next to me in intensive care, an elderly Indian gentleman played an Indian radio station all day, providing the soundtrack to my Rajasthani wedding. The incident with Claire really happened.

Valerie Page, an intensive care consultant at Watford General Hospital is recognised as one of the UK’s foremost experts on postoperative delirium. The physical trauma of invasive surgery seems to be a common factor. While postoperative delirium affects fewer than one in ten people having routine heart surgery, that rises to four or even five in an emergency, intensive care scenario.

“Opening someone up, fumbling around inside, taking some bits out, putting some bits in and then closing them up again — it’s a massively traumatic event for a body,” Dr Page explains.

“Travel, escape, and death are all common experiences,” she continues. “But most are simply a misinterpretation of their environment, creating complex delusions to try and make sense of it. People talk about seeing a white light, but that’s because as your optic nerve loses blood, a white light is what you see,” she says. For Dr Page, postoperative delirium is nothing more than a physical malfunction—the visions have no spiritually or psychologically revealing significance.

“These are simply physical neurological manifestations of the brain malfunctioning due to transmitters, blood flow, and inflammation,” she says matter-of-factly. She tells me I’m unlikely to be as sharp as I was before, but with luck, my “cognitive reserve” (education, a mentally stimulating career and so on) should help me to form new synapses to compensate for the damaged parts of my brain. I have, it seems, been lucky.

"When I finally awoke, my sister-in-law, Claire, told me to pull myself together"

 

But for others, the hallucinations that come with postoperative delirium might provide evidence of a gateway to the spiritual world. Charlotte Haigh is a down-to-earth health writer from southwest London—but more unusually, she’s also a priestess and shamanic healer.

“A spiritual view could be that your soul was experiencing what your body had just been through,” says Charlotte. “That is, a massive threat to your life, which you survived on both the spiritual and physical planes. As well as pulling through physically, you were a warrior on a spiritual level.”

"Shamans would view my near-death experience as an 'initiation, a profound spiritual awakening"

Shamans would view my near-death experience as an “initiation, a profound spiritual awakening after which life will never be the same”, says Charlotte. Any mental crisis—such as my delirium—can be seen as a glimpse into another level of consciousness, or a “merging of this world with the spirit world, which can give you important messages,” she adds.

This doesn't necessarily mean everything I experienced in my delirium was relevant, Charlotte says, but while it may all seem like nonsense, “it could be worth thinking about whether any of it could be giving you messages about your life”. These messages will be symbolic rather than literal, similar to psychedelic experiences.

“In many cultures, what you've been through would be seen as a great honour, given you survived it, and a chance to bridge the gap between our world and the spiritual plane.” Whether my own delusions were indeed symptomatic of some deeper, spiritual response to what my surgeon later called "catastrophic events" that would not have been "survivable" but for a unique set of circumstances, is—for me—doubtful. But I do understand that others will feel differently. In the ten days that I was on life support, I wasn’t conscious of anything, and had I slipped away there would have been no great "reveal" as I passed.

The first sign of awakening was a vision of gold stars on a blue background that seemed to last for hours, days even, that eventually gave way to my hallucinations. For me, it was my subconscious mind taking scraps and fragments of my reaction to being sawed open and having complete strangers tinkering around under the hood with my major organs, not least my heart, synonymous for centuries with life itself.

But whether they were indicative of something greater, something deeper, is neither here nor there. I'm alive and healthy and will be here for longer after all—with luck to watch my daughter grow and become an adult herself. I have been given a second life. And I intend to make the most of it.