Many of Melvin Morse's fellow doctors thought that ``near-death experiences'' shouldn't be dignified by scientific investigation. Some whistled the ``Twilight Zone'' theme whenever he broached the subject.
But still the young pediatrician felt ``NDEs'' shouldn't be shoved into the same category as sightings of Bigfoot and UFOs. He determined to learn more about the NDE, a term coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 book, ``Life After Life,'' and referring to a mystical experience that apparently happens to people who almost die.
NDE survivors describe a sensation of soaring from their body, speeding down a dark tunnel and then bursting forth into brilliant light for a reunion with long-dead relatives and a personal life review by a godlike being.
Such experiences are recorded in ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths and described by St. Paul in the New Testament. The phenomenon is also explored in ``Flatliners,'' a new film about two medical students who briefly stop their hearts so they can preview an afterlife.
Now Morse's book, ``Closer to the Light'' (Villard Books, $17.95), presents eight years of astonishing research, which he believes scientifically validates the near-death experience.
The personal result of what he calls the ``Seattle study'' is that he now believes in the existence of the human soul.
``This study has changed my life,'' says the bearded Renton pediatrician, who lives with his wife and three children in a Maple Valley log cabin.
Further, he says, medical science is now grudgingly admitting that comatose patients near death may actually be undergoing a profound experience that involves total awareness of what is going on around them.
Morse's interest in the NDE mystery began in the early 1980s when a little girl he resuscitated from drowning said she'd seen heaven and that the experience was fun.
Was Katie fabricating her strange story?
Morse decided to find out. While working at Children's Hospital and Medical Center from 1982 to 1985, he launched a spare-time study. Helping him were anesthesiologist Dr. Donald Tyler, pediatric neurologist Dr. Jerrold Milstein, University of Connecticut psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Greyson, and psychologist Kimberly Clark Sharp, a West Seattleite who now heads the Northwest chapter of the International Association of Near-Death Studies.
In the study, which focused on 12 Northwest children saved from cardiac arrest, eight reported visions of leaving their bodies and traveling to ethereal realms. Most said that at about the time their doctor said, ``We've lost him,'' they found themselves floating above their body, feeling freed like a balloon when its string is cut. ``Seven-year-olds, 3-year-olds and even 2-year-olds all describe the same thing,'' Morse says.
Skeptics attribute this to hallucinations caused by medical drugs. But, says Morse, ``As a physician who paid his dues in Seattle's tough Harborview Hospital emergency room, I can confidently state that narcotic hallucinations don't resemble NDEs.''
Morse's study was published in the AMA's official pediatric journal to present the conclusion that most critically ill children have near-death visions. However, Morse says, the Children's Hospital Human Subject Review Committee ``suddenly and mysteriously'' refused permission for him to continue his study.
But this reception didn't stifle his interest, and he continued to collect other doctors' stories of patients' near-death experiences.
His conclusion: Medical practice should be modified to accommodate NDE knowledge and help dying patients through ``their darkest hour.''
To this end, he believes that intensive-care units should be re-designed to accommodate visitors.
What's more, he says, ``It's important to talk positively and frequently to comatose or dying patients since we now know that they may be much more aware of things around them than we realize. Indeed, they may even be hovering above us as we administer to them!''
Morse laments the decline of the time-honored ritual of friends and relatives gathering at the dying person's bedside to bid farewell. Instead, expiring patients are now often heavily sedated and pretty much alone.
Morse's breakthrough in establishing the physiological mechanism of NDEs came when he was casually discussing the subject with Dr. Arthur Ward, professor emeritus of neurosurgery at the University of Washington.
``Art Ward is not given to metaphysical thinking,'' says Morse. ``Hard science and just-the-facts are his domain. Yet when I described NDEs to him, he said he was very familiar with them because they'd been recounted to him by many of his patients.''
Ward referred Morse to the writings of pioneering brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, who while probing a patient's brain had accidentally discovered how to trigger a near-death experience. When Penfield electrically stimulated the sylvian fissure in the temporal lobe just above the right ear, patients frequently had the experience of ``seeing God, hearing beautiful music, seeing dead friends and relatives and even having a panoramic life review.''
Therefore, says Morse, the anatomical location of the NDE is apparently clear.
However, he says, we still don't know where the bright light comes from. His own conclusion is that it must come from outside the body, and he relates a curious piece of supporting evidence.
One of his patients, Cher, age 8, fell out of her father's fishing boat and sank 20 feet to the bottom of Puget Sound. The diver who found her body in the black water 20 minutes later was led to it because it was illuminated by a soft, bright light. Says Morse, ``I believe that Cher was having an NDE, and that both she and her rescuer were seeing the light at the same time.''
Morse says his own experience and his reading of scientific research into higher brain function led him to believe in the existence of the human ``soul.'' In his view, ``Events such as floating out of the physical body and giving accurate details of one's own cardiac arrest - things a person couldn't see even if their eyes were open - are virtually impossible to explain if we do not believe in a consciousness separate from our bodies that could be called soul.''
Consequently, he believes that understanding the near-death experience could be ``the first step toward healing the great division between science and religion that began about 300 years ago.''
``Death has replaced sex as the forbidden topic,'' Morse says. ``Sex education is part of a child's school curriculum. But death education is ignored.''
He says the real value of the Seattle study is its establishment that the near-death experience is a natural and normal event,``not an obscure psychic phenomenon.''