Image by Jia Sung.
In 1991, Pam Reynolds underwent surgery to remove a large aneurism from her brain stem. Doctors cooled her body to less than half of normal temperature and temporarily stopped her heart during the procedure. This is what she experienced.
Interview by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, originally recorded in 2009 for the NPR series Decoding the Mysteries of Near Death Experiences. Special thanks to Laura Kwerel for sending us the tape.
Final song: Believe by Amen Dunes, from the album Freedom on Sacred Bones Records.TRANSCRIPT
Nick van der Kolk: Yeah I know, but if you don’t mind telling me the story that’d be, that would be just–
Pam Reynolds: Where do you want me to start, do you want me to start at being dead?
Nick: First I want you to start with, actually, first I want you to start with just saying your name and what you do.
Pam: What did I say I do?
Nick: Oh, if you don’t want to say this that’s fine.
Pam: Yeah but there’s a bunch of stuff, I mean even with this.
Nick: Oh, okay.
Pam: I’m a writer, I’m a producer, I’m a musician…
Nick: From Radiotopia, you’re listening to Love and Radio. I’m Nick van der Kolk. Today’s episode, Coming Back featuring Pam Reynolds.
Nick: First, Pam, if you would just tell me a little bit what your life was like before.
Pam: Mhmm. At twenty-five years old, I was a singer, songwriter, I did some production. And I was busily being a mother and raising children and doing the suburban thing, working. And I began to experience excruciating headaches. I went to my doctor. He didn’t have an answer, he said, “Well, maybe it’s migraine syndrome, you stay under a lot of pressure.” He medicated me for migraine syndrome. No relief, no help.
Years went by, and the pain persisted and escalated and, in 1991 I was in Virginia Beach, Virginia with my husband, we are promoting a new record. And I inexplicably forgot how to talk. I’ve got a big mouth, I never forget how to talk. I had an excruciating headache, experienced some blindness, and then the coup d’etat, could not hear. If you’re a musician and you can’t hear, you might have a problem. We drove back into Atlanta immediately, picked up the children at my mother’s home, and my mother looked me right in the eyes and said something is wrong baby, it’s in your brain.
I went to the neuro lab and had a CAT scan done. They wouldn’t give me any information, they asked me to please go back to my doctor’s office. I found my doctor, he told me I had an aneurysm. I said “Okay, so what do I have to take for that?” He said, “No, sweetheart.” And he sort of teared up.
Obviously it’s bad. It was very large, it was in a part of the brain that was inoperable. Dead center in the brainstem, and that’s where no one goes, no one goes there. That’s your primitives, that’s how you breathe, you swallow, it’s all the things that keep us alive and make us what we are in terms of living beings. It was a bomb in my brain that had already begun to explode.
I went to the neurologist and he said that the surgical procedure, he would be willing to risk it on the slight chance that I might somehow survive, but he could not ensure in what condition my survival would be. What I’d be like. He told me, “We’re going to put you to sleep, we’re going to have to stop your heart, but I promise we’ll get you back.”
Nick: Brain was stopped. It had no blood.
Pam: Mhmm. He said that my job was to go see my attorney immediately, set my affairs in order. That this bomb could go anytime and was already leaking. And he gave me the last thing, the scrub kit. And told me how to use it in the shower the next morning to prepare for surgery and come on in early in the morning, we’d get her done. Okay.
I remember going in. I had a headache that morning, it was excruciating. That piercing light was just terrible. I remember Doctor Spetzler’s fellow, Carl Green. Said, “Sweetheart, we’re gonna bring your family in.” So in comes my entire family, and they came in, they didn’t look so good. So I kept thinking, knock me out, knock me out now! [Laugh]. And thankfully shortly they did.
I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business seriously unconscious. Dr. Spetzler said I was in a deep coma. When the top of my head began to tingle. And I started to hear a noise, it was guttural, it was very deep, it was a natural D. And it threw off harmonics. Scale harmonics, which was quite peculiar. The D replicated itself up and down the scale, as if several voices were producing this sound at the same time. And as the sound continued, I don’t know how to explain this other than go ahead and say I popped out of the top of my head. And I could feel like a suction cup at the top of my head popping. It was sort of like I was sitting on Dr. Spetzler’s shoulder. I was looking down at the body, and I knew it was my body. There was a case that–it all kind of freaked me out because it looked like my father’s toolbox, his socket wrench case, and there were these little bits in there, so it looked like he was doing home improvement and not brain surgery.
At that point, I felt the presence, and began to look around for the presence, and that’s when I saw the little tiny bright pinpoint of light. And I thought there’s a hole in the ceiling. A little hole in the ceiling. And I kept looking at it, and it started to get bigger and bigger and bigger. By this time I was pretty much convinced I was having some kind of hallucination, so you just go with it. I did. And it started to pull me. Now there was a physical sensation to that pulling. Like going over a hill real fast. Right above your belly button in your tummy. It, it’s a fun feeling. A roller coaster. So I had that feeling as it pulled me from that place, and I heard a voice I hadn’t heard in many years. It was my grandmother. And she was calling me.
Immediately I was a little bit sentimental. Grandma. The desire to go to her took over, and somehow or another all I had to do was want to go to her, and I did, I went to her. And with her with my uncle. My musical uncle, David Saxon. He passed away of a massive heart attack at thirty-nine. Inexplicably in his bed. I was still quite young and he was my mentor, my teacher. There was a youthful softening in their faces. It looks like they were wearing the light, it was radiating from them, through them, and it was the same kind of light that I had initially seen that begin to pull me. And I understood then, it was some kind of wonderful inner peace. And I felt it. And I think it leaked and invaded me, because I’ve still got it.
I wanted to go closer to the light, I still felt the pulling. I remember asking, “Is God the light?” The communication was, “No, he’s not the light. The light is what happens when God”–here’s a word I’ve reached for all these many years. Respirates. Breathes. It’s not God. But it’s what happens when he, breathes. And I thought, I am standing in the breath of God. As I looked beyond them, I begin to see other lights, and there was a sea of people. They also were wearing the light. It was humorous and serious all at the same time, I thought, uh oh. I hope I deserve to be here, it’s not like I’m a perfect person. And everybody laughed, it was this huge uproarious laughter. And my grandmother– see, here’s where I’m supposed to say what she said, but she didn’t say. It was an odd kind of communication. Now I know that with my children I can look at them, they understand what I’m saying. Maybe it was that. All of them are doing that. It wasn’t verbal communication, it was something beyond that, it was body language or, I would say pheromone, but that sounds pretty stupid because that’s a scent derivative and we weren’t in the body, so how would we do that, I don’t know. But I do know that they weren’t physically talking. It wasn’t verbal communication, it was something beyond that.
I ask a lot of questions that aren’t pertinent to anyone but me. The communication was, “Honey, you were a little child sent away to school. Little children spill their milk. It’s the manner in which you cleaned it up that gives cause for pride.”
[Sniffling] Sorry. [Sniffling]. I think that is the greatest lesson of my life. We screw up, we’re supposed to. By doing it wrong we learn how to do it right. The object is not to avoid screwing up, but to recognize when we’ve done it wrong. And make that tiny little minute infinitesimal correction and do better the next time. And there’s this whole huge forgiveness thing that was born in me on that day. I began to look at every brother and sister and every child and everything, even the animals, as learning, growing, screwing up. And I didn’t take that so personally anymore. We’re here to do that, that’s what we’re here for. And as long as we’re good hearted, right minded, and have the desire to do right and do good, goodwill towards man so to speak, as long as we have that in us, we’re okay. Cause there’s always that opportunity to do it different next time. I used to spend all my time focused and concentrated on shining. I’ve got to shine, I’ve got to give my best foot forward. But not anymore! It’s, it’s easy to be perfect, just write a book, put it on paper. You can create that imaginary perfect, but it’s not real, reality is we’re all screwups. And we’re supposed to be. And it’s a beautiful, wonderful thing.
There was absolutely no fear, and no sense of, “I must be in heaven.” They wouldn’t let me go all the way into the light, first of all, so, I–
Nick: You tried to?
Oh yeah, I wanted to. But I was stopped, I was told, if I were permitted to go all the way in there, then it would be impossible for the me that was there to be joined with the me that was back in the operating room, and there would be people who didn’t like that so, no. And I’ve heard that many people are given a choice during the near death experience whether or not to return to the body. They didn’t give me any choice. I was goin! And I didn’t like it!
Oh, I was shown my generations. I was shown a sea of people, not wearing light, looking perfectly normal. I recognized my children, or their faces in adulthood. Some of my elders, and there were a lot of people I didn’t recognize. And the idea was, if you give this, it outlasts you, because these are your voices, this, this is your voice, long after you’re gone from the world. This is what you leave the world. it’s the only true real thing that you leave. The ones that carry one when you’re gone. And there was a whole sea of people that because I lived carried on.
There was a point at which I understood, and I can’t really say how I understood, that I would be going back. The first communication was my grandmother expressing that she would not be the one to take me back, and my uncle communicated, “I’ll be the one.” And we back the same way I had come in. It was the entire process in reverse. It was not rapid, it was very slow, and there I was again, with him. Looking down at the body. Only at this point, that thing looked like a trainwreck. It looked like what it was, dead. I did not wanna get it in, I didn’t even wanna look at it. And now my uncle is reasoning with me, he says, “Sweetheart, it’s like diving into the swimming pool. Just dive in.” And I was, “You know what, I don’t think I wanna do that.” And he said, “Well, sweetie,” and he, here’s another strange thing: he started reminding me of all my favorite things. My favorite thing to eat, my favorite smell, my favorite birdsongs, and I’m looking down, and they, the body jumped. There people around the gurney and the body jumped. I thought, okay, you know what, they’re electrocuting that thing. I’m not getting in. My uncle pushed me.
I heard the title track to The Eagles’ Hotel California from where I was, but when I hit the body, the line was, “You can check out any time that you like, but you can never leave.” And the body jumped again. Now that time I was in it, I felt it. And I opened my eyes. Everyone was so solemn and so, and I thought, you know, I’m not dead yet. And this is not a funeral. And everything was just funny. Everything was funny. I just thought it was all a big joke of some kind.
Nick: And your description of the operating room matched what happened?
Pam: Yes. In fact, when I went back to see Doctor Spetzler a little over a year later for a check up, I mentioned to him, I heard rock and roll in the OR. Spetzler hates rock and roll, he’s a classical aficionado. I thought, okay, it’s a hallucination, they were playing the title track to the Eagles album. Okay. Doctor Spetlzer said, “You know what, I wasn’t there.” The minute he left, the rest of the team–and I didn’t know they played in the operating room.
Nick: You’ve said a few times that it was a hallucination.
Pam: I thought it was at the time, I’m pretty sure now it wasn’t.
Nick: Tell me, tell me why do you think it isn’t, wasn’t, now?
Pam: Well, Doctor Sabom did the research and Doctor Spetzler always knew that, and it takes an active brain to have a hallucination. Even in a deep coma, you don’t hallucinate. I was hooked up to an EEG machine which measures brainwaves both primitive and upper brain, and there was nothing, nothing, nothing. And if I had had a hallucination, it would have registered on the EEG.
Nick: And let me ask you, do you now believe that there’s life after death? The death of the physical body?
Pam: Personally? Always have. But that’s a faith motivated thing. I don’t however believe that my experience unequivocably proves life after death. What I do believe, on a clinical level, and I’ve spoken with a lot of physicians who think now and have thought quite some time that consciousness itself is not nec–while it may be recorded in the brain, for us to talk about, it is not necessarily experienced in the brain and the brain alone.
Nick: Yeah, brain was stopped. It was, had no blood.
Pam: It’s intriguing. I’m just absolutely blown away by it. My mind can go forever, what if this, what if that.
Nick: Right. Right. Well I think of it as, uh, William James, he talked about, to prove that not all crows are black, you don’t have to see every crow, you just have to see one white crow. And I think to prove–
Pam: That’s a lonely crow. [Laugh]. Poor crow. He’s great for science but, you know. [Laugh].
Nick: Do you feel like the white crow?
Nick: Does it feel lonely?
Pam: [Laugh] Yeah. Of course!
What was it, three, four hundred years ago. The truth was, the sun revolved around the Earth, and we were at the center of the universe. And the poor guy–was it Galileo?–who decided, you know what, that might not be true. He got, all of his life, wasn’t he excommunicated or something for thinking that way? And nowadays, how many of us would um, laugh, if someone were to tell us that the Earth was the center of the universe. So I just think it’s an ongoing process, we know what we know. It’s comfortable for us to rest there. And I’m the world’s worst. I like to know. But I’ve learned to give up what I don’t. Okay, this is something I don’t know, don’t understand, may never understand. And that’s okay.
Nick: That’s it for Love and Radio. I’m sorry to have to add that, since this interview was originally reported in 2009, Pam Reynolds died at the age of fifty-three. This episode was edited from an interview by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who originally conducted it as a part of the series The Science of Spirituality from NPR’s All Things Considered. Special thanks to Laura Kwerel for sending us the tape. The music for Pam’s out of body experiences were composed by George Langford. What a cutie. Love and Radio is produced by Steven Jackson and Julia DeWitt. We are a production of Radiotopia, the best podcast network on planet Earth, and only in existence because of the generosity of our listeners. Thank you. Radiotopia’s executive producer is Julie Shapiro. Thanks for listening. And we’ll be back in just a couple of weeks, so stay tuned to this podcast channel.