Pat Johnson’s kayaking trip on a rain-swollen Blanco River took him on a life-changing journey, with a stop at death’s door. Four years later, he’s still working out what he saw behind that door.
Johnson, now 56, easily recalls the accident that nearly killed him on a brilliant September day when he and childhood friend Robert Humphreys paddled down the roiling river. Johnson’s kayak tipped over, and a fierce current pulled him into a large, submerged pipe.
Johnson fought against the water and clawed at the corrugated metal, inching his way toward daylight. Once there, he grabbed Humphreys’ hand reaching for him in the water but got sucked back into the pipe. As he wondered how much longer he could hold his breath, he thought of his grown children and wife, Jody.
Then he passed out and had what is called a near-death experience — a phenomenon that provokes intense interest and debate.
Unconscious yet feeling aware, Johnson says he saw a blue-stained glass window with people walking by, silhouetted by bright light streaming through a jagged hole in the glass. He was surrounded by “multitudes of souls,” he said, and felt overwhelming love, forgiveness and peace. He knew he — and his family — would be fine if his journey ended right there.
Instead, his body shot out the other end of the pipe, and Humphreys found him face down in the water. He flipped Johnson over and was shaken by what he saw. His friend’s blue eyes were blank and cloudy, his skin was gray, and he was starting to turn blue.
The next thing Johnson remembers is Humphreys yelling, cussing and squeezing his chest, raising him up and down. Humphreys was telling Johnson he loved him and begging him not to die. Lying on the shore, Johnson coughed up water and noticed the clouds looked lit from behind. Later, an egret flew by and appeared to glow. He then told Humphreys what he had seen and felt.
“He was very clear … and emotional. He knew there was a higher being and a higher purpose and we are all on this Earth, and we are all connected,” said Humphreys, a telecommunications engineer. “Pat died and came back. … It was a wonderful, terrifying, beautiful time.”
Johnson, who lives in Hays County and owns a Brenham furniture store and loan company with his wife, had a lot of questions. Encouraged by his wife and Humphreys to seek others who have had a similar experience, he found the International Association for Near-Death Studies. Now he helps lead a Central Texas chapter, which provides support to other “experiencers” and meets in Austin every other month.
A group of 27 convened Aug. 24 at the Ruiz Branch public library. It included family members and the curious, gathered to hear a panel of four discuss “What Dying Teaches Us About Living.” Although details differ, common themes emerge: Being drawn to a light, sensing a sacred presence and having deep feelings of being loved, of not being alone, of being connected to everyone and everything. Some feel “homesick” for that place.
One man on the panel said he saw his life unfold like watching “a 3-D video.” Two others said they floated outside of their bodies.
Several studies estimate that 3 percent to 5 percent of the population has had a near-death experience. Many neuroscientists and others say that while it seems ‘hyperreal,’ it is actually the brain on high alert, not an otherworldly experience.
“It’s a kind of hallucination,” often induced by lack of oxygen to the brain, said Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society. “I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming it’s an internal brain experience, and most neuroscientists believe what I believe.”
Not all do.
Eben Alexander says in his 2012 book, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” that he glimpsed heaven during a weeklong coma. He had meningitis so severe that it shut down the part of the brain where thought and emotion reside. Before that, “he could not reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with any belief in heaven, God, or the soul,” his website says.
A scientist whose highly publicized work on the surprising activity of rat brains after the animals’ deaths agrees with the skeptics.
“This is their brain’s SOS mechanism,” said the scientist, Jimo Borjigin, associate professor of physiology and neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “When things are falling apart, the brain is actually alerted to save the organism, and the mental experiences are the side effect from that effort.”
Because it would be very difficult to conduct near-death experiments on people, she attached electrodes to the brain tissue of nine rats and induced a cardiac arrest, a time when the brain is believed to be inactive. She was amazed to discover that for 30 seconds after death, brain activity surged. Such a finding could provide insight into near-death experiences, and further research could yield ways to save lives, Borjigin said.
“We know very little about death and dying,” she said.
She doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and her research has strengthened that perspective, she said.
Shermer, an author and columnist for Scientific American, doesn’t believe in an afterlife, either. “There are a dozen different conditions that cause the brain to do weird stuff,” he said. “We don’t have a solid explanation for altered states of consciousness. That’s because we don’t have a solid explanation of consciousness, and that opens the door for people to speculate.”
Those explanations don’t matter to Johnson.
“Many of the people that I’ve met believe that it can only be possible if there is scientific evidence,” he wrote in an email. “The reality … is that there is a lot more that we don’t know than we do know. There are many questions that humans will never answer. We don’t even know what some of the questions are.”
He tried to tell the doctor he saw after his near-drowning about it. “He said it’s the euphoria of your frontal lobe shutting down,’” Johnson said. “At that point, I realized I didn’t need any confirmation from any doctor. … I’ve talked about this thing with 30 near-death experiencers, and we don’t really have any need to have proof of it. We know what we know, and that’s good enough.”
‘Ministers of God’s love’
Because some people worry they will be called crazy, they can spend decades keeping quiet about the experience, Johnson said. At the support group, the four speakers expressed a certainty and vividness that hasn’t faded, even after decades.
Nancy Moore of San Marcos said that after a head-on vehicle collision 30 years ago, she floated outside of her body and saw vivid colors and could hear people praying and cussing in nearby cars. She also saw a common thread that connected the trees, the birds, the dirt, everything. “It was beautiful,” said Moore, who gave her age as “mid-60s.”
A spirit that she said accompanied her asked if she had completed her life. “I said, ‘No, I have a lot left to do.’” The spirit then instructed her to breathe, and she woke to find a woman comforting her and informing her that her young son, a passenger in her car, was on his way to the hospital; she’d go next.
She has come to realize that “miracles happen every second of every day,” she said, and “we are the ministers of God’s love, that unconditional love.”
Not everyone’s experience is pleasant. Rebecca Pierpont of Jonestown said in an interview that she thought she had gone to hell after overdosing on drugs at a party in 1998 when she was 26. She experienced a dark place and felt like her body was breaking apart, she said. She hated herself and feared spending eternity that way, she said. Then she says she heard a voice telling her, “You don’t belong here. You need to find something in life that you love and get out.”
She thought of her young daughter, and then she regained consciousness. Now the mother of three, she wants to be a devoted presence for her children. “I’m still trying to love myself,” she said.
Johnson said it can take eight to 10 years to “integrate this into your life.” He is still working on it, he said.
Loved ones also can be affected. Jody Johnson and Humphreys are more introspective, and they no longer see death as something to fear.
The Johnsons are more active in their church and attend conferences on near-death experiences. There, most participants talk about what they can do to make the world better, Pat Johnson said.
“You feel like you’ve been given this information, and then you’re sent back and you’re supposed to figure out what to do with it,” he said.
He believes he is supposed to share his story and encourages others to as well. “If we get out there, we can change the freaking world,” he told the support group.
In an interview later, he said: “I believe there’s an afterlife, but, just as importantly, I think there are things the near-death experience is trying to teach us about how we’re supposed to live. The dying part is just the beginning. The real story is what happens afterwards.”
Support for near-death ‘experiencers’
The Central Texas International Association for Near-Death Studies, a support group for people who’ve had near-death experiences, meets every other month. The next meeting, which will be on the topic of unconditional love, will be 2-5 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Austin Public Library’s Ruiz Branch, 1600 Grove Blvd. Meetings are open to the public.
For more information, call Pat Johnson at 512-663-6357.