I had a new pole barn built in January 2009 and was eager to grade around the foundation to prevent water from entering the barn. I was frustrated because it had rained for most of January and February and now that we were finally into March I had hoped for drier weather. Sure enough, we had been without rain for five days, but now it was threatening to rain again in the evening so I was trying to finish grading before dinner. I didn’t realize how important that day would be in my life. That afternoon in early March I had a Near-Death Experience.
The question, for me, is not how has it changed me but, in addition how has it changed the way I do what I do. I am a part-time hospital chaplain and how I deal with death has changed and I have changed.
But before I get into my experience, I want to back up to 1945/1946. I was three at the time and in the attic with my mother. Even to this day I can remember very clearly every detail of what happened. She was upset and looking for some clothes she had placed up there. I was walking around holding my pillow. I loved to feel the soft fabric and was holding the pillow in front of me. The next thing I remember is being up in a large tree in our front yard next to the walk and watching my mother run out of our house toward our next door neighbor’s house. I wondered what she was carrying in her arms. Then I realized it was me she was carrying. I wasn’t concerned, I just watched. The next thing I remember is being slammed down and water running over my face. I opened my eyes and saw that I was on the countertop with my head in the sink. My mother told me later that I fell over the protective railing around the steps and landed on the steps some 10 feet below. For years I never told anyone about my experience.
One thing that puzzled me about this fall was the tree I was in while my mother ran next door. We didn’t have a tree in our front yard next to the walk. I remember later, when my father wanted to plant a tree, he asked where we thought would be the best place to plant the tree. I immediately responded and was very determined that the tree be planted next to the walk. I was so insistent that he planted the tree in the exact spot I requested.
As the years rolled on I would often look at the tree and think to myself that the tree used to be bigger.
I have come to believe that this experience opened the door to God in a way that has allowed me to have some amazing spiritual experiences. I thought these were common to all individuals but it has only been recently that I have come to know that what I have experienced my entire life is a very special blessing.
With this as a backdrop let me move into my NDE, which I stated earlier was in March of 2009.
It was a Monday afternoon, around 5:30 pm and I was on my tractor, the one equipped with the front end loader and a snow blade in the back. I was moving some dirt around the foundation of our new barn; it was my last load before going in for supper. Somehow something went wrong and I heard this inner voice scream, “Jump.” I have been driving tractors for years and I have never even thought of jumping off a tractor, especially while it is moving, but I jumped. I suddenly found myself face down in the dirt. At first I didn’t think I was hurt and tried to jump up to assess the damage to the tractor. That is when I realized I was unable to get up or even move. I had the full weight of the tractor roll bar on the small of my back. I never felt the roll bar hit my back, so I was surprised that I was pinned down. It was as if the angels had cushioned the fall of the tractor on me. Then I realized I was having trouble breathing and it was getting worse by the minute. I instantly knew I was going to die. I told God I didn’t want to die curled up under my tractor; I wanted to be in my wife’s arms with our children and grandchildren surrounding us. I started yelling for help but no one heard me. I was on the back side of the barn unable to see our house or yard.
At one point I looked over to see the tractor and I saw my front yard. It was beautiful with all kinds of flowers and it was filled with people, young and old, having a great time. There was so much laughter and happiness. I thought that God was showing me that I was going to make it and I would be in my front yard again. I now realize that I couldn’t have seen my front yard from where I was pinned down. I have come to believe that I saw a piece of heaven.
I also remember seeing my parents walking toward me. They were smiling and holding hands with a small girl. I have come to think that the child was the child they lost in a pregnancy between my sister and me.
As all this was going on, I realized I had to calm myself and concentrate on breathing. Each breath was getting harder and harder. I pleaded with God to not let me die but I knew I couldn’t last much longer. I prayed and asked God to forgive me for all my sins. I said goodbye to my family and close friends. I pictured each one as I told them I loved them and asked God to surround them with his loving light of protection.
I got to the point that I couldn’t hold out anymore, it was getting so hard to breathe and I was out of energy. I finally turned my face to the right and put my head down and closed my eyes knowing it was the end. That is when I heard the inner voice say, “Look for the light.” I looked and saw an opening with a light at the far end. It was just a short distance away from where I was. I had read every book I could find about NDE and knew about the tunnel and the light but what I saw wasn’t a tunnel, like I had read about, but rather a large tube that was bending and twisting around. The best description I can give is that it looked like a very large clothes dryer vent tube. It was spinning and angels were all around it. It looked like an upside down tornado with the large end at the bottom. I thought that it must be a portal to heaven. I was amazed to see the cover of the winter 2010 Vital Signs publication for there on the cover page was a picture of the tube I saw.
I floated to the opening of the tube. I must confess that I first looked into the tube to see if it was going up not down before I started to float into the tube. As I entered the tube I realized that I didn’t hurt anymore and I wasn’t having trouble breathing. I have never felt such love, compassion, understanding and calmness in my life. All my worries about those I was leaving behind were gone. I now know the meaning of the peace that surpasses all understanding. I knew that God was asking me if I loved and if I accepted love.
Then I heard Carol, my wife, call me for dinner. Her voice was very different but at the same time it was the same. It was as if all the angels were shouting with her. All at once I felt I was yanked out of the tube and slammed under the roll bar and grasping for every breath again. That was the first time I felt the weight of the tractor on my back and it was excruciating. I yelled for help but I didn’t think Carol heard me. I couldn’t yell very loud because I didn’t have much breath. I didn’t think she heard me. I was desperate and prayed even harder to God to help me. What a relief it was when I heard Carol’s voice just around the corner of the barn asking, “Jack where are you?” She had heard me after all and came running. At first she tried to lift the tractor herself. She tried so hard that she bruised her arms. The tractor was way too heavy and she couldn’t budge it. She found a steel pipe and wedged it under the tractor and against a tree and was able to move the tractor just a fraction of an inch but it was enough to let me get a little more breath so I could hold on.
She went running for the phone and called 911. As she ran back, I could hear the dispatcher talking to her; Carol had the phone on speaker. I could hear the sirens in the distance and knew they would be here soon. Then I found myself standing out in front of the barn watching the ambulance drive up to the back of our house. I was upset that they were turning around and backing down to the edge of our parking pad. I was yelling at them to hurry up that every second counted and pointing to where I lay under the tractor.
It took four or five of them to lift the tractor just enough so they could pull me out. They quickly cut my clothes off and I heard one of them say, “My God look at his spine.” The next thing I remember was being carried to the waiting ambulance. There was a pair of hands holding my head. I was jostled as they carried me up the hill, but the hands never moved. I wondered at the time if the hands might be of an angel. As they loaded me into the ambulance, I heard a man say that he was a doctor and that he would be with me in shock trauma. I never heard or saw him again. I have been told there wasn’t a doctor at the scene. They loaded me into the ambulance for a quick ride to the helicopter. I was flown to the shock trauma in Baltimore. I don’t remember much about the ride only the takeoff and landing.
As we landed, the shock trauma staff was waiting for me. The staff surrounded the stretcher and started running, pushing me as fast as they could. Everyone was asking me questions at once and I couldn’t remember the answers. They were prepared to do surgery and I was x-rayed, cat-scanned, probed and prodded by multiple hands all at once. I kept asking them to give me something to help me breathe. Although I was out from under the tractor I was still having trouble breathing. They told me that they couldn’t give me anything until the test results were back. When the results of the tests came back, everyone just stared at me; there was no damage to any part of my body. The blood tests did show that I had muscle and tissue damage so they kept me overnight in shock trauma to monitor me. They told me that if my numbers kept going up that they would have to do exploratory surgery to find where I was bleeding.
When they finally let Carol come to be with me, she told me about all of our friends that came to the waiting room to be with us during the crisis. I was overwhelmed with emotions knowing that so many had come running to be with us and at the same time I felt bad that I couldn’t see them. The hospital only allowed two visitors at a time and I couldn’t let go of Carol and my son for fear I wouldn’t see them again. Knowing that our friends were in the waiting room and praying for us meant so much to me. I also knew the request for prayers had gone out on our church prayer chain even before I was in the ambulance.
On the day of my discharge, three doctors, one at a time, came in to examine me and see for them that I wasn’t hurt. The last doctor turned to me, on her way out the door, and said, “You are one lucky guy to escape without major damage.” I said, “No doctor, I am not lucky I am very blessed,” realizing I had received a miracle. She paused for a moment and then said very slowly and thoughtfully, “I think you are correct.”
About a year later, just following our four foot snow storm, I was in the hardware store picking up some items when I heard this voice behind me say, “You be careful on that tractor with all of this snow.” I turned around and saw the medic who was with the team that rescued me. He asked how much permanent damage I had to my back as the result of the tractor accident. When I told him none, in fact I didn’t even have a bruise, he was astonished. He said, “It sure wasn’t a pretty sight when they pulled you out.”
How has this experience changed me? For starters, I think I have been changed starting with my out-of-body experience as a child. I have always been comfortable with death. In grade school, (I went to a parochial school) I was the one the priest would call out to serve at funerals.
I have always been on a spiritual quest. I was raised in a very conservative Irish Catholic family. As I grew, I realized that the Catholic faith didn’t fit for me and I needed something more. I searched then found and joined an independent church. The church provided me with a lot of what I was looking for. I looked for ways to give back to others and became a volunteer pastoral visitor in the hospital. I volunteered for 17 years and then seven years ago I was offered a part-time staff position as a chaplain; I have been on staff ever since.
After my NDE, things got a lot more spiritual for me. Although I still belong to the same church, I have not been as involved as I was before. I also have become a lot more active in the hospital. My wife wouldn’t let me go back to work until the bruises on her arms went away. The first day I was back to work after my NDE, I was on call. I got a call in the middle of the night and was asked to come to the hospital to be with a patient who was dying. I asked the daughter, who called, what she would like me to do and she said, “Prepare the way for my mother.” I went to the hospital and was with the patient who only had a short time to live. I asked her how I could help her and she said, “Tell me what it is like to die.” I told her that I could tell her about my near-death experience, which I did. At the end she said that my story helped her a lot. She died that evening.
Since that evening I have been using my NDE to help people who are considering removing life support from a family member. I also use it with patients who are facing death and are worried about dying. I use it frequently with families who have unexpectedly lost a loved one. I have gotten a lot of very positive feedback from patients and family members.
For years I have taught a 30-hour class in the hospital on how to be a pastoral care visitor in the hospital. I now include a discussion on NDE and share my story with the class. I have also conducted a daylong seminar to a group of community clergy about death and shared with them my NDE. It was very well received.
I realize that I am much more spiritual than religious and in my class I teach how to pray in a way that is acceptable to all religions and faiths. I find meaning in all religions and faiths and draw from all in my journey toward God. I feel that I have one foot in heaven and one foot here on earth and I am not in a hurry to change either. When asked, my wife said I am more compassionate and more relaxed following my NDE.
A few years before my NDE, while taking a ride, my granddaughter asked me to show her the house I grew up in. I took her by the house and noticed the tree in the front yard was as big as I remember from my first out-of-body experience when I was three. Following my NDE I had an occasion to drive past the house again and to my surprise I saw that the tree had been cut down. I thought that was symbolic and realized the connection between my two experiences.
I am on a journey toward God and am not afraid of death for I have been shown what to expect.