Doctor says near-death experiences are in the mind
updated 10:04 a.m. EDT, Fri October 16, 2009
NEWTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- For Laura Geraghty, April 1, 2009, started out just as any other day. It was sunny but cool, she remembers.
The mother of two, also a grandmother, was at her job, driving a school bus for the Newton Public School District in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.
Her passengers, special-needs children, were wheelchair-bound.
Seemingly in good health and in good spirits, Geraghty was finishing up her late-morning run, transporting a student and teacher back to Newton South High School, when she realized she was in trouble.
As she was pulling into the school parking lot, she began having sharp stomach pains. She was able to park her bus, but she kept feeling worse.
The pain "went right up my arm and into my chest, and I said, 'Uh-oh, I'm having a heart attack,' " she said.
The teacher ran from the bus to get help. Newton South's nurse, Gail Kramer, and CPR instructor Michelle Coppola arrived moments later with the school's new automated external defibrillator.
Geraghty, barely conscious, was fading fast. She was weak and having trouble breathing. And then she went into full cardiac arrest.
"Her eyes were wide, and all of a sudden she stopped talking to us," Coppola said. "I grabbed the two pads, stuck them on her, started it up, and I'd say within 20 seconds, she had her first shock."
Coppola and Kramer performed CPR while they waited for paramedics.
See an expert give a quick lesson in CPR »
At that point, Geraghty says, her body died. She remembers watching the scene unfold -- as if from above.
"I floated right out of my body. My body was here, and I just floated away. I looked back at it once, and it was there."
Geraghty says she saw deceased loved ones, her mother and her ex-husband.
"It was very peaceful and light and beautiful. And I remember like, when you see someone you haven't seen in a while, you want to hug them, and I remember trying to reach out to my ex-husband, and he would not take my hand. And then they floated away."
Next, she says, she was overwhelmed by "massive energy, powerful, very powerful energy."
"When that was happening, there were pictures of my son and my daughter and my granddaughter, and every second, their pictures flashed in my mind, and then I came back."
What Geraghty had was a near-death experience, fairly common in people who go into sudden cardiac arrest.
Geraghty was down for 57 minutes. No blood pressure, no pulse, no oxygen, no blood flow. She was shocked 21 times before she finally came back with tales of the afterlife.
According to the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, nearly 800 near-death experiences happen every day in the United States.
Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist in Louisville, Kentucky, studies near-death experiences and says they're not imagined. The explanation, he says, lies in the brain itself.
"These are real experiences. And they're experiences that happen at a time of medical crisis and danger," Nelson said.
Humans have a lot of reflexes that help keep us alive, part of the "fight or flight" response that arises when we're confronted with danger.