Recounted by Susan, Witnessed by Susan and Friend, Signed Off by Hospice
Hospice Nurse: “He’s in severe agonal breathing, severe prolonged apnea. The body is shutting down.” The night nurse gently touched my arm as she spoke these words to me. “He will not coming back from this,” confirming what I already knew, “but he’s not feeling any of this. He’s in no discomfort, it only sounds like that. He’s gone.”
Susan: Had I not experienced what I am about to share next, had I not seen it myself, I would be, at best, skeptical. But there are the medical records and the nurse to back it up and my best friend, Lunita, who experienced it with me …
At about 7:15 PM, July 26, having told family, friends, and his hospice team that he was not going to let the disease take him and that he intended to “meditate his way ‘out'” as he’d done for nearly half a century — except that his intent would be that on one of these journeys soon he would simply remain on the “other side”— Al meditated and fell asleep. By about 7:30 he appeared to be gone, with long intervals between extremely labored breathing. I called Lunita to tell her it was time, and she came over to stay with me. About 8:30 PM the hospice nurse arrived.
She took one look at him in the hospital bed and explained, “His body is simply doing what bodies do as they shut down.” She made her notes on her computer and took his vitals. “His heartbeat is extremely erratic, his pulse is very, very low, and there is very little, almost no, air exchange… ” She turned to face me full-on and look into my eyes. “There is almost no air exchange. He is experiencing severe prolonged apnea,” she called it. “Severe agonal breathing.” She sat down to make additional notes and I returned to the couch. When she was finished with her notes, she went back to Al’s body, and I joined her. She was lifting the covers looking for additional signs and checking his vitals again. She walked with me back to the couch and sat beside me, asking gently, “Do you understand what to do when this process is complete?” I told her I did. She waited with me and Lunita for awhile longer, looking over at Al each time there was prolonged silence only to have him loudly gurgle one more time. After awhile, she gave me a hug and quietly left.
Lunita and I kept watch as Al’s body continued this process of shutting down… for five agonizing hours. Sometime after midnight, after the longest period of silence from Al since the night had begun, assuming what this meant, I slowly walked to his bedside. I was shocked at what I saw! His head was now turned slightly to the side, nestled into the pillow, and his breathing was gentle, easy, and perfectly rhythmic! Gone was the waxy-looking body, head arched back, haunting sounds escaping his gaping mouth. Instead, his color was returned, his body was wholly at ease, and he appeared to be dreaming. I motioned Lunita over! At first, we were both ecstatic, amazed, whispering and giggling quietly with delight, shaking our heads in disbelief: He appeared to be coming back! How was this possible?! Then, suddenly, our eyes locked on each other, no words exchanged between us but we knew what the other was thinking: If he returned, it would likely be to a severely incapacitated body because of the hours of oxygen deprivation. Simultaneously, we began all but yelling to him. “No! Don’t do this. Go back, stay! Be free!” But he was unconscious and unresponsive. After awhile, we returned to our make-shift beds in the room to continue our vigil.
At about 3 AM, I went to check on him. Everything was exactly it had been since about 12:30 AM, no change that I could detect, his head and body having remained in the exact position. I turned to go back to my bed when, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of Al’s arms shoot up. I turned around and he was throwing the covers back. In one nano second, Lunita had seemingly leapt over the sofa because she was standing beside me as Al sat up and swung his legs over the side of the hospital bed. “I really have to use the bathroom!” he said firmly. “And what’s Lunita doing here?” And he got up from the hospital bed and walked briskly to the bathroom. No sign of any incapacitation whatsoever. Lunita left quickly and I began answering Al’s myriad of questions — what had happened, what was Lunita doing there, how long had he been gone, etc.— until we were finally able to put aside the excitement and get some sleep. When Al woke up later that morning, not only were there no signs of his body having been through that unimaginable stress for five hours, but the rest of the miracle was that there was very little indication of any compromising physical condition.
Later that morning, his nurse and social worker came to see him. We were all trying to make sense of what had happened, what was going on. His feet and ankles had slight remnants of the edema and mottling common at end of life, but other than that, he was sitting, conversing easily. The team was befuddled … “sometimes there are things that can’t be explained.” The nurse he started out in hospice with 1 1/2 years prior to this “passing” said that in all her experience with the dying she had never seen nor heard of anything like this: Not only had he come back after all that, but he was back without the serious issues that had admitted him into hospice in the first place.
Al’s 82-year-old body continued to improve. For months following this event, there was not the need for the wheelchair, walker, or the former abundance of medicine and inhalation treatment given for end-stage Alpha-1. The Alpha-1 was not cured; his lungs were still diminished. But in the time he was “gone” he evidently adapted to that condition. Through rehab and exercises, he regained the muscle tone and stamina that had atrophied from minimal use over the past year and he gained the weight back that he had lost.
Unlike his NDE as a young child (see below), the only recall Al had of what happened while he was “gone” is of seeing three very large, brilliant circles in the darkness, which he understood to represent choices he could make, and a long passageway lined on either side by very large white columns, “like the Taj Mahal,” he said. He never did a reading to determine what took place during those eight hours and why. -Susan Miner