Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: A Near-Death Experience

What is it like to die? What happens when a person is on that invisible thin line between life and death? Not many people find out and live to tell about it. In recent years we have begun to hear accounts of near-death experiences. Books have been written about the phenomenon, but very few people know someone who has had a near-death experience. It appears that people who have had such experience are reticent to talk about it. There are many reasons, but the primary one seems to be that those who have had a near-death experience have considerable difficulty finding words to describe what happened. Not understanding or being able to describe the experience themselves, they are afraid that other people will scoff or think them mentally unbalanced. But there are some well-credentialed, serious-minded people who have had this amazing experience. One such professsional person is my clergy friend and colleague, the Rev. Daniel Douglas Rhodes, erstwhile pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Graceville, Florida. I have edited his written account of his near-death experience in order to put it into the space of this column.

On January 6, 2011, Dan and his wife Cheryl were excited as they were preparing to leave on January 9 for Miami, where they would embark on a Caribbean cruise. Dan awoke from a deep sleep at 1:30 A.M. January 7th with severe chest pains and other classic symptoms of a heart attack. Cheryl called 911 and their next door neighbor, Dorothy. They did every thing they knew to do for Dan as they waited for the ambulance to arrive. They already knew that the small local hospital was not equipped to treat serious cardiac problems. The nearest large hospital was in Dothan, Alabama, some 20 minutes away.

Enroute, the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in the ambulance was doing all he could for Dan as his condition worsened. Dan was frightened as they sped toward Dothan, and he remembered praying over and over "Jesus help me" and "God be with me", with an accompanying prayer for the EMT. The Emergency Room staff was ready when they arrived. They took him to a treatment room and began to work on him. Dan was conscious and could hear and understand enough to know that his condition was grave. Five minutes after he entered the treatment room his heart stopped and the monitoring device showed a flat line. The doctor was frantically trying to restart his heart, but nothing seemed to work.

Then at the moment he flat-lined, something very strange happened to Dan. He went from paralyzing fear to complete peace. In this near-death state he continued to be aware of all that was going on, but he was experiencing something inexplicably wonderful. He described it in words that he had heard and repeated all of his professional life, but which he had never before felt. He said that he knew he was experiencing the "peace that passeth all understanding". Amid all the furor going on around him, he was in a state of perfect peace. The doctor and nurses were frantically trying to restart his heart with CPR and the electrical paddles. Dan later observed, "You really do rise up off the table when the electrical shock hits you!".

Once the ER staff managed to restart Dan's heart, the doctor said, "Now let's get him to the cath lab - STAT!" (a medical term meaning "Right Now!") The catheterization procedure opened some blockages and stabilized Dan's heart, which reversed his descent toward death.

Dan's wife and their good friend Dorothy were standing at the foot of the treatment table when he flat-lined. He later asked Cheryl what happened when his heart stopped. She said, "You closed your eyes and smiled as if every thing was just fine". A few days later as Dan reflected on what happened to him there was one haunting question: "Why did I survive when there were so many obstacles in the way?" Had the timing of the heart attack been different, there were so many ways he could have died. If they had been five minutes later getting to the hospital, he would have had cardiac arrest in the ambulance. On the way to the hospital the ambulance ran off the road to avoid colliding with an eighteen-wheeler. Had they wrecked, he surely would not have survived. If the incident had occurred on the flight to Miami, he might have died on the plane. If his heart attack had happened aboard the cruise ship, could he have gotten the help he needed? These were some of the many things surrounding his heart attack that made Dan feel that there had been something providential about the timing of this life-threating experience.

Although Dan had grown up in the home of a pastor, and had himself been a pastor for forty years, the experience had a profound affect on his faith. He said, "The God I have believed in and preached to others for so many years has given me a new assurance that 'Lo I am with you always' is real, not just words in the Bible. The lesson I learned from the experience is that life is truly fragile, and that every minute of life is a precious gift".

On a lighter note, Dan wrote, "Our wonderful neighbor was so helpful and caring during this incident. After the hospital stay, not knowing the whole story, I asked Cheryl when Dorothy got to the hospital. 'Oh', said Cheryl, 'she followed us to the hospital and stayed until you were stabilized'. Dorothy is the local funeral director. My response was, 'YOU mean YOU had the funeral director follow us to the hospital?!!'"

Six months after his heart attack the Rev. Daniel Douglas Rhodes retired from the ministry of the United Methodist Church after forty years of service. I doubt, however, that Dan will ever miss a chance to tell people what it is like to die and live to tell about it!!