Pediatrician Melvin Morse was in an intensive care unit in Idaho facing a doctor's worst-case scenario. A 9-year-old girl had been found face-down in a swimming pool several hours earlier. In emergency room parlance, Katie was a "train wreck" - with less than a 10 percent chance of surviving. A CAT scan showed massive swelling of the brain. There was no gag reflex; an artificial lung machine was rhythmically breathing for her.
Morse asked her family to leave the room while he performed an arterial catheterization to find the exact oxygen reading in her blood. In a telephone interview, Morse explained why he wanted the family out of the room. "The procedure takes about an hour while I thread that tiny little catheter into a spurting artery."The family left but came back with their religious leader. "The parents approached me and asked if they could hold a prayer vigil during the procedure. They were in my way, frankly. I felt we were doing all we could do to save their daughter. But I understood we doctors see it only from our own point of view," said Morse. The family circled the bed and began praying. When the artery began spurting blood, they prayed out loud. Morse wondered how they could be so calm. Wasn't it obvious to them that Katie was dying?
Three days later Katie made a complete recovery. In a follow-up visit, Morse asked her what she remembered about being in the swimming pool. "Do you mean when I visited the Heavenly Father?" she replied. "I met Jesus and the Heavenly Father."
In further appointments Katie told about being in darkness and then seeing a tunnel. A "tall and nice" lady with bright golden hair came and escorted her through the tunnel, where she saw her deceased grandfather and other people. "Elizabeth," the nice lady, then took Katie to meet the Heavenly Father and Jesus. Katie was asked if she wanted to see her mother again. "Yes," she told them, and then she awoke.
As Morse questioned Katie and her mother, in no way could he explain Katie's experience by her family's religious beliefs. In all of Katie's Mormon instruction, she had never been taught about a tunnel or guardian spirits. Intrigued, Morse began searching medical literature but could find nothing more than a name for what happened to Katie: near-death experience (NDE). Dr. Raymond Moody coined the term in his 1975 book, "Life After Life."
Traditional medicine didn't acknowledge the existence of experiences like Katie's. Morse confronted that attitude by becoming the first physician to publish a description of a child's NDE in a medical journal.
Morse spent eight years researching children's NDEs and has just published a book called "Closer to the Light" (Villard Books, 1990, $17.95). Some of his findings:
- One has to be near death to have this experience. Morse surveyed 121 children who were critically ill. "Twenty-six of these children had epiglottis, a disease where the cartilage protecting the windpipe suddenly swells and prevents breathing. It is described in textbooks as bringing an impending sense of doom. We had children on lung machines, medicated with tranquilizers and narcotics, even those who had re-occurring fainting episodes. Not one child in this group had anything resembling an NDE. In Morse's control group, eight of 12 survivors of heart attacks had "visions of leaving their bodies and traveling to other realms. That is almost 70 percent, a percentage so high it eliminates the element of chance or statistical error," said Morse in his book.
- There is an area of the brain (the Sylvian fissure, an area in the right temporal lobe located just above the ear) that when probed electrically produces out-of-body experiences. In Morse's book he realizes the implications of this research. "Does the fact that we know where the experience originates make it more a reflex than a spiritual experience?"
During Morse's interview with the Deseret News he said, "I don't really believe in life after death. My researcher, Dr. Vernon Neppe, the director of the Division of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Washington, has more of an open mind. But finding an area of the brain where these experiences originate does not negate them."
Did Morse find a "circuit board of mysticism"? Did the children Morse interviewed "see" what they saw or actually experience it? He concluded, "Ultimately the concept of the soul is up to the individual to define. `Faith is the great mover, yet it cannot be weighed.' "