Study probes near-death experiences

00:44, Jul 21 2014
Jules Bailey-Rotman and Arpita Dutta
STAYING ALIVE: Jules Bailey-Rotman and Arpita Dutta thought they wouldn’t make it home when they got caught in a rip and thrashing waves on holiday in Samoa.

Some people see lights, others fly through tunnels - and then there are those who find themselves chatting to dead relatives.

Near-death experiences (NDE) brought about two very different reactions for mountaineer Sarah Wilson when she fell off the slopes, and on another trip was buried in an avalance.

In 2011, Wilson, of Waikanae, was trapped in an avalanche on Aoraki/Mt Cook and her climbing partner Cat Shand dug her out with her bare hands.

"I guess you could say I put my hand on the icy door knob, but I didn't turn it," she said.

Massey University psychology student Kate Steadman is seeking 100 New Zealanders willing to share their near-death experiences for a study that will build on the work done by her supervisor, Natasha Tassell-Matamua, in 2010.

An NDE is defined as one in which a person undergoes "intensely transcendental and mystical experiences when they are close to death, or in intense emotional or physical danger".


Tassell-Matamua had her own NDE when she was 18. She had a fever and fell asleep, and felt like she was being propelled at speed down a tunnel before being pulled back.

While Steadman did not know what an NDE was until earlier this year, she said her research would focus on how Kiwis' experiences led to profound, long-lasting changes in their lives.

Wilson's NDE involved her life flashing before her eyes when she fell off a mountain, some years before being buried on Aoraki/Mt Cook.

"It only lasted about a minute, but with time it's amazing how much you can retrace of your life."

The avalanche burial was different, in that she recalled a story she had read about a couple who were buried where one panicked and died while the other stayed calm and survived. "I knew I needed to stay calm but I just couldn't . . . I literally couldn't move a finger, but I kept screaming for my climbing partner."

She heard nothing and was convinced it was the end but, against mountaineering advice, kept yelling and, "as luck or fate would have it, that saved my life".

Wilson said her voice meant Shand found her more quickly, and was able to get her out just before she lost consciousness.

"I didn't see lights or hear the voice of God when I was buried. I felt very alone - but then maybe I didn't get close enough."

The two close shaves have had a lasting impact on Wilson, who now treats every breath as precious.

"You get a survivor guilt, even though no-one died. I feel like I have to use every moment."

She went back and conquered Aoraki/Mt Cook 14 months later.

"It was tough, but I felt like I had to get back on the horse."

NDEs are regularly reported by people from different cultures, some religious or spiritual, though atheists had also reported them.


The first day of a tropical holiday quickly turned into a near-death experience for a Wellington couple unaware of the dangers of a Samoan rip.

Arpita Dutta and partner Jules Bailey-Rotman arrived at their hut at Lalumanu beach late at night a year ago and didn't get a safety briefing before going snorkelling first thing the next morning.

Within minutes of heading out, the pair surfaced and realised they were miles away from the shoreline and other swimmers who might have been able to raise an alarm.

The current was strong and very quickly they were being slammed by waves more than four metres high.

Dutta said she lost a flipper, and then another three waves in quick succession crashed on them, which threw them both into a "washing machine" of water.

"At that point I lost my second flipper and my snorkel and started hyperventilating.

"Everything just became slow motion after that point, and I just thought that was it because I had started taking in so much water."

The waves kept coming, and Dutta said she started to fret that she hadn't made a will and began seeing images of her parents and sister. But Bailey-Rotman kept calm and told her they would make it out.

"He's a stronger swimmer and I knew he would get out of it because he still had his flippers and snorkel. But the waves just kept coming and I started to black out and gave up."

She remembered thinking, "at least I'm with Jules and not alone".

At that moment another three waves came crashing down and, when they surfaced, they realised the force had pushed them back towards shore and they could touch the ground.

A kayaker helped them to shore, and resort staff told them later that swimmers had died in the rip before, which was why they warned guests to stay away from it.

Bailey-Rotman has been in the water since and continues to dive, but Dutta said she won't go out beyond where she can still touch the bottom. "I haven't been snorkelling with Jules since and if I'm watching TV and there's anything about being underwater or diving, it makes me feel queasy and brings everything back."


Leaving your physical body

Moving through a tunnel

Being drawn to or seeing a bright light

Meeting deceased relatives or spiritual beings

An altered perception of time

Travel to another realm or place of existence

Overwhelmingly positive emotions such as love and joy

Any combination of the above

The Dominion Post