united kingdom.  |  new mum. author. researcher.

Penny Sartori was awarded a PH.D. in 2005 for her research surrounding near-death experiences. Penny worked as a nurse in a British hospital for 21 years and for over 17 of those years, she worked solely in the intensive care unit. While working with countless patients, Penny began to notice a pattern of interesting observations, which led to extensive research in near death experiences.

Dr. Penny Sartori is the author of the book The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How understanding NDEs can help us live more fully. She is the mother of a one-year-old boy, who was a “huge and lovely surprise.” After 17 years of marriage, she and her husband thought they were unable to have children … but voila—they have joined the club of proud parenting.

Allow me to introduce you to this amazing healthcare professional. Her work is attracting attention from around the world and I am grateful she took the time to share her thoughts on death and dying. Enjoy today’s highlight!


Was there a fork in the road that distinctly determined your career?

I had always been interested in the caring profession and nursing was a job that I loved, especially ICU nursing. There was definitely a distinct moment early on in my ICU nursing career when my life changed, which then influenced how my career was to develop from there.

This life changing moment happened when I was looking after a dying patient. I have written about this in depth in my book The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences. I made a connection with this man and I felt as though I had swapped places with him and could understand what he was going through. He died a few hours after my shift ended and that whole experience had a very profound effect on me and that was all I could think about for many weeks. I became very upset and depressed about what he had endured in the final days of his life and I know I certainly don’t want to go through what he had to and I wouldn’t want it for my own or anyone else’s loved ones either. This all made me question what happens when we die. Is death so bad that we have to subject patients to such indignities at the end of their life?

There were no nursing courses available to give me a better understanding of caring for dying patients in a critical care area. The only courses available were palliative care, which has a very different approach so I started reading about death. That is when I came across near-death experiences (NDEs) and immediately they grabbed my attention because these people who had died and been resuscitated described death as being a wonderful, peaceful experience. Of course, I was initially skeptical because my nurse training was very scientific and I’d always had the pre-conception that things like this were just some sort of hallucination. However, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided that I was working in the perfect place to research this further and that’s what I did.

 

You received a PhD for your research and work surrounding near death experiences. (NDE) Is there consistent data surrounding the subject matter of NDEs? If so, what is it?

Yes, I found (like other research described in the literature) that NDEs tend to follow a set pattern. Some people describe leaving their body and looking down at the emergency situation from above, they may travel down a dark tunnel towards a very bright light, they may enter into beautiful gardens where they often meet their deceased loved ones and even a ‘Being of light’ or a religious figure, some people have a life review and relive their whole life in great detail and see the impact of their actions on other people and some come to a barrier or point of no return where they know that if they cross that barrier they will not return to life. Not everyone has each of these components and they don’t occur in any particular order and each individual’s experience is unique.

People are profoundly changed after their NDE and undergo many life changes – these can include changes in their relationships, physiological after effects, psychological and sociological changes. My research has shown that NDEs certainly do occur and there are some aspects of them that can’t be explained. Now that more hospital research is being undertaken, we can no longer explain these experiences away or dismiss them as being hallucinations. We have to take more notice of NDEs to further our understanding of consciousness.

   

While you were conducting your research. Was there ever a moment that you felt afraid? If so, how did you work through that fear?

I never felt afraid of death as such because I felt so empowered by what I was learning from my studies and research. However, towards the end of my PhD I was afraid that I wouldn’t finish my research. It was such hard work alongside my nursing job and I was really exhausted at one point and my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t finish. Luckily, I was able to turn those feelings around when I sought help from one of my PhD supervisors. I realized that I was working on my PhD seven days a week and even when I had vacation time from my nursing job, that whole time was spent working on the PhD. I took a short break of four days where I did absolutely no work and when I went back to it after the four days I felt really refreshed.

    

For over 17 years, you worked as a nurse in the intensive care unit. What are your thoughts on death and where does healthcare fail those who are dying?

Well death happens to each one of us no matter how much we try to avoid it or avoid thinking about it, we are all going to die. This avoidance of death means that if we or our loved ones are diagnosed with a life threatening illness or involved in a serious accident we are usually left in a state of shock and fear. We are left not knowing what will happen to us as death approaches. We can be thrust into a situation where we suddenly realize that there are things in life that we want to do, things we want to say to people, make amends for something from our past, etc.

By contemplating death right now, no matter what our age—even better when we are young, fit and healthy—it means we can all plan and write down our wishes of what we want towards the end of our life. We can make amends and say the things we want to say to others while we are still alive, we can do those things that we’ve always wanted to do but put off until a later time. Rather than be afraid of death and avoiding it, when we think about it we can be empowered to live our lives to the full starting right now.

I think with regards to our healthcare system there seems to be the thought that death is a failure as opposed to a natural part of life. The medical profession, certainly when I worked in ICU, seemed to put a great emphasis on doing as much as possible to keep the patients alive even when sometimes it appeared futile or the long-term prognosis was very poor. I don’t think that is necessarily a failing of the healthcare system I just think it’s the way we’ve come to think about death as a whole society.

I certainly think there should be more awareness of the spiritual aspects of patient care and I would love to see things like NDEs and deathbed visions as an essential part of all healthcare workers education. I believe it is of the utmost importance that the spiritual needs of all patients are recognized and addressed especially at the end of life.

    

For the most part, human beings are afraid of dying. What do you say to those who fear death?

It is natural for us to fear death but I think this is only because we don’t ever contemplate it in-depth. Death is a taboo subject that we tend not to think about, it’s always something we distance ourselves from and just think it’s something we read about in the newspapers or something that happens to other people. When I began my research my friends and family thought I was being morbid but I really believe that when we begin to learn about death, that is when we really begin to learn about life. As a direct result of undertaking my study, I now feel empowered and I live my life in a totally different way to the way I did before my studies.

So if there is anyone reading this who is afraid of death then I would recommend that they explore what death means to them and to read accounts of NDEs and maybe attend workshops and seminars on death and dying and NDEs because they will probably find that it will give them a very different perspective to what they currently think about death.

There is a lovely quote by Eckhart Tolle that says, “The secret of life is to die before you die, and find that there is no death.”

    

What was your greatest lesson learned?

My greatest lesson learned, paradoxically, was not about death but about life and to appreciate all that I have in my life. Sometimes we strive to have the things we don’t have and to be like others and in doing so maybe spend a lot of time working long hours etc and when we do get those things we find they don’t always make us happy. So for me the biggest lesson was to realize that I already had the things that make me happy and then to appreciate them all the more.

   

If someone wishes to follow in your footsteps, what steps do they need to take to pursue a career in nursing? (conventional and unconventional)

First, it would be a good idea to get some experience with helping others who are not able to do so much for themselves. Maybe do some voluntary work with the elderly. Apply to a university that runs nursing courses and undertake nurse training. I would recommend a few years of experience as a nurse after qualifying and then if there is a specific area that is of interest then I would investigate ways in which to develop your knowledge in that particular area. I think it is important to do something that really interests you. For me it was NDEs, once I started reading about them I was absolutely fascinated and I was extremely motivated by the experience I described with the dying patient. It was my utmost goal to make sure that no one else had to suffer as he had. My goal wasn’t a PhD, it was to change things for other patients and try to gain a greater understanding of death. It was a lovely bonus to be awarded a PhD at the end of the eight years of study but that was not the motivation for my research, it was just a means to be able to study NDEs in depth. So I would say follow your heart and do something that really fascinates you.

    

What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?

I guess my best advice is derived from what I have learned from my study of NDEs. The message of the NDE is very simple but if adhered to by everyone it could change the whole world. It is about respect for others and for ourselves. The message is TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD WISH TO BE TREATED YOURSELF. This is the ‘Golden Rule,’ which is at the heart of all of the wisdom traditions. Can you imagine if everyone lived by that message, how different our world would be?


j. jane side notes:

To learn more about Dr. Sartori and her research surrounding near – death experiences, you may visit her at Dr. Penny Sartori. No doubt, her book surrounding near -death experiences is an interesting read.

Penny Satori