The light at the end of the tunnel

And at the end of life, yet another transition awaits: from life to death, from being to being no more. What happens at the twilight zone, just before life ends, is an interesting question. And attempts to better understand this “near-death experience” have always drawn the attention of curious minds.

Before I dwell on the recent attempts made by the scientific community to address the phenomenon of near-death experience, I wanted to tell you about a Russian writer by the name of Lev Tolstoy. Yes, he wrote “Anna Karenina,” and “War and Peace,” but much more relevant to our discussion is his novella ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’. Tolstoy’s characters suffer from palpable pain, heart-wrenching grief, and tremendous misery. And such is the story of Ivan Ilyich, who at the age of 45 developed incurable and painful disease. His pain was excruciating, his suffering unimaginable. Desperate, he sought medical advice, but “it was all as he expected, it was all as it was always done. The waiting and the assumed doctorly importance…” Diagnoses such as a floating kidney and appendicitis were triumphantly made. Later, “Ivan Ilyich drew the conclusion that things were bad,” and in the end, there was no relief, no cure. He realized that he was not merely ill, he was dying.

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich”ends, how surprising, with Ivan Ilyich’s death. The book is short, but Ivan’s painful death is studied in details as if it was a scientific journey into the soul of a dying man. And what exactly was the near-death experience Ivan Ilyich had? Tolstoy writes: Ivan Ilyich “sought his own habitual fear of death and could not find it. Where was it? What death? There was no more fear because there was no more death. Instead of death there was light… He drew in air, stopped at mid-breath, stretched out, and died.”

The attempts to solve the mystery of the last moments of life did not end with Tolstoy, nor did it end with the demise of his fictional character, Ivan Ilyich. More than 100 years after the publication of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, a group of Dutch scientists set to investigate the experiences of 344 patients that were successfully resuscitated after their hearts had stopped beating (cardiac arrest). Out of this group, 62 patients (18 percent) reported ‘near-death experience’ with at least some recollection of the time of their death. Most patients reported that they remember having positive emotions, half of the patients reported being aware of themselves being dead, and several patients reported out of body experience, moving through a tunnel, observation of colors or of celestial landscape, and meeting with deceased persons. But more interestingly, fourteen patients (23 percent) had experiences similar to the one described by Tolstoy, whereby they had “communication with light.”

More recently, a group of scientists from the University of Michigan went even further in their quest to understand near-death-experiences. In their experiment, they studied adult rats. They served the rats food and water and let them acclimate to their new home at the laboratory. Then they put the rats under anesthesia and implanted electrodes in their hearts, and into the cortex of their brains. They fixed the electrodes to the rats’ skulls using dental glue. Then they injected potassium chloride solution into the rats’ hearts, inducing their death. What followed was a surprise: at their last moments of life, the rats’ brains was not quieting down or shutting off. On the contrary, their brain activity was surging, producing oscillations that were “global and highly coherent.”

The scientists from Michigan then took a far-reaching leap to humans and their near-death experience: “We now provide,” they wrote “a scientific framework to begin to explain the highly lucid and realer-than-real mental experiences reported by near-death survivors.” And the poetic and compassionate description of near-death experience by Tolstoy became a simple current of minute electrical impulses.

If life is a series of consequential transitions, then at the end of life, yet another transition awaits. When my time comes, I would rather my last vision of life be described by a writer, not a scientist.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming. Read and comment on prior columns by Dr. Madjar at