What happens after death?

Her heart stopped. Frozen in her tracks, her body fell limp, and she collapsed to the infield dirt. Some time later, bright lights overwhelmed her vision. A man appeared, repeating the phrase “It’s not your time.” She reached out, and everything turned into butterflies.

   People around the West Ottawa community are familiar with Sr. Lani Salinas’ inspiring story. On April 29, 2018, the then 13-year-old Salinas had a near-death experience when her heart stopped at softball practice. She was rushed to Zeeland Hospital, and then airlifted to Helen DeVos Hospital where she was put into a medically induced coma for three days before she was stable enough to go through surgery. 

   So little is known about what happens after we die. It is such a mind-boggling concept with endless theories, yet no concrete evidence. The only basis of knowledge we have for a possible afterlife is religion, inadvertent correlational data, and a handful of first-hand accounts from people who have crossed into the void and lived to tell the tale. Few have had a near-death experience, as those who are precariously close to death often never come back. 

   An article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences reveals that the few that are successfully resuscitated after cardiac arrest seem to share commonalities across near-death experiences: a sense of separation from the body, a sensation of movement toward a destination, a life review, and a feeling of peace or a sense of being home, followed by a return to life.

   Earlier this year, an 87-year-old patient suffered a fatal heart attack while undergoing an electroencephalogram (EEG), leading researchers to obtain unique data of the brain during death. The scan showed that the brain wave activity 30 seconds before and after death were extremely similar to those of dreaming, recalling memories, and meditating, leading the researchers to believe that it is possible for memory recollection and a sense of relaxation during death to occur. 

   Salinas’s experience parallels both the previous study and what others reported of their near death experiences. “When I was unconscious, I remember being in a large field, there was nothing but tall bright green grass. There was a bright light, and in the middle of it was my coach. He started walking close to me, and I felt compelled to reach out my hand to him. I was extremely confused and he just kept on repeating ‘It’s not your time.’ I reached out to him with the tip of my pointer finger and everything turned into butterflies,” Salinas said. Salinas’ personal account coupled with the EEG data indicates quite a compelling argument that people may have dream-like experiences right before they die. 

   After awakening from the coma, Salinas was incredibly disoriented. “I had an oxygen mask over my face, a large piece of tape over my chest, and extreme pain. I tried raising my hand to touch it because I didn’t know what was going on,” Salinas said. “My family then started walking me through step by step what was going on. I just remember being completely confused and I was in so much pain.” 

   Dr. Clint Griffin, an emergency medicine physician at Holland Hospital deals with cases like Salinas’ frequently. “We’re juggling eight to ten patients, sometimes twenty plus on the night shifts,” Griffin said. Griffin’s job involves diagnosing and treating a variety of medical emergencies. His expertise with resuscitation and emergency medicine provides insight on Salinas’ experience. 

    From the instant it is apparent that someone is in critical condition, Griffin and his colleagues in the emergency department play a vital role in the survival of a patient. Performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is crucial in getting oxygen to other organs so they do not lose their function.

    “We’re working to get blood and fluid through their circulatory system and trying to keep their heart muscle, lung tissue, and brain viable, so even if they’re down for five to ten minutes or longer while were doing resuscitative efforts and giving them medications, their vital organs won’t lose their function if their heart isn’t beating for an extended period of time,” Griffin said. Griffin warns that if efforts are not made to preserve other organs while the heart is out, those organs won’t get the oxygen they need. If this is the case, a patient runs the risk of ending up in a persistent vegetative state, even if their heartbeat is restored. 

   Griffin credits Salinas’ survival to the quick reactions and resuscitative efforts of everyone at Huizenga Park the day her heart stopped. 

   Griffin’s knowledge also offers a possible explanation about Salinas’ personal account of the event. “Between the drugs that are being administered to the patient and the actual strain of the arrest, they’re probably getting an amalgam of dreams and reality,” Griffin said. The sheer trauma Salinas suffered, along with the drugs she was given could likely have played a role in triggering her disorientation. 

    “The bright lights that people often report are a lot of times the bright lights we have in the emergency department. When you’re doing a resuscitation it’s like you’re on stage. I mean it’s super bright in the room. Every light is on, tons of voices around. Patients hear lots of that too. Certainly they are going to hear and incorporate things into any memory, whether real or imagined, about their experience,” Griffin said. Griffin does not intend to disregard what anyone reports of their near-death experience, he simply states that an overload of stimuli coming from the emergency room can certainly alter one’s perception. 

   Science and medicine can only explain so much. Any combination of emergency room lights, drugs, trauma, and EEG data offer a concrete explanation as to what happens during the last seconds of life. However, some experiences go beyond any data set and fathomable idea. The man Salinas saw in the field was her softball coach she lost two months prior to cancer. “My guardian angel,” Salinas said. 

   Furthermore, “I haven’t told many people this either, but when I was in the hospital, I convinced my parents that I had gotten a butterfly tattoo. I apparently said that I had a large butterfly tattoo on my back,” Salinas said. She does not have any body ink, and to this day is confused as to why she feels such a deep connection to butterflies. 

   Enter Brad Bartelmay, a pastor at First United Methodist Church of Holland. Bartelmay’s profound understanding of the Christian faith aids in explaining what science cannot about the near-death experience. 

   After we die there are two main beliefs in Christian tradition. “One tradition is this thing called heaven which is a paradise. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he turned to one of the criminals who was being crucified next to him and said ‘this day you will be with me in paradise.’ A lot of people look at that and believe when we die we go to this heavenly place,” Bartelmay said. 

   Another belief Christians hold is that when we die, we become unaware of everything going on around us, until God brings things to an end for this universe, at which point God brings the soul for judgment. “You can read about it in the book of revelation,” Bartelmay said.

   Surprisingly, Bartelmay opts to not spend a lot of time focusing on that in his ministry. “You don’t know what’s going on, and you’re asleep for thousands of years, so I don’t really think it makes that much of a difference, but a lot of people debate that rigorously,” Bartelmay said.

   Instead, Bartelmay elects to focus on living a fulfilling life. “I honor the people and the experience they have, but my experience is that I can connect with God without getting close to death, at least so far in my life, just by being in tune with the presence of God’s creation,” Bartelmay said. 

   The near-death experience is not proof of life after death. Due to the lack of concrete proof, believing in it requires faith, a point of emphasis in Christianity. By definition, faith is the confidence that events that have not yet happened, will. It is by and large believing in things that cannot be proven. “We hunger for proof, but we live in a world where we have to live by faith in what comes next,” Bartelmay said.

   For Salinas, her experience is proof. Butterflies serve as a reminder to her as to how precious life truly is. Like Bartelmay, she now embraces every part of life. “It impacted my beliefs, I was put on this earth for a reason, and my time isn’t up. I was given my second chance at life and I am going to take full advantage of it,” Salinas said. 

   A healthy religion and a healthy understanding of science recognizes that the two fields complement each other. Despite being extremely knowledgeable in their respective fields, religious leaders nor medical professionals contain all the answers. “As a believer, sometimes I tell families of patients that the best thing they can do right now is pray,” Griffin said.

   Together, science and religion help to better explain what happens after death.