I SAW MY OWN DEATH
Stephanie Spencer is adamant that she saw the moment of her death. She can describe in detail how she left her body, which was lifeless on an operating table. And how she was then told, by a panel of mysterious beings, to return to it because it wasn't her time to go.
Sounds crazy? Just a bit. And Stephanie, a very sane 40-year-old PR director and single mum to Lucas, 10, admits it seems a bit bonkers, even to her, when she tries to explain to people that not only did she have a premonition of her death, but that it was followed by a near-death experience.
And she's not the only one it's happened to. In fact, so many people have reported a brush with the afterlife, that medical experts are conducting a three-year investigation into near-death experiences (NDEs).
Stephanie's happened when she went in to hospital for a routine op to have two wisdom teeth removed. The night before, she dreamt that she died on the operating table.
"I told the surgeon about my dream the next day. I was really scared and was convinced I was going to die. The surgeon reassured me, and I decided to go ahead with the operation - although I couldn't shake off the feeling of dread."
As it turns out, her fears were fully justified. Minutes into the operation, Stephanie, from St Albans, Hertfordshire, suffered a massive allergic reaction to the general anaesthetic and her heart stopped beating. Just as it had in her dream.
As doctors struggled to save her, Stephanie believes she saw a glimpse of the afterlife.
"I found myself standing before a panel of five people, with my dead grandmother beside me. I knew intuitively I had left my body. I wasn't scared, I felt very calm.
"The people on the panel weren't physical beings, and I couldn't tell if they were male or female. It was like they were made from shadows," she explains.
"They told me that it wasn't my time to go and I had to return to my body. I was upset that they were sending me back because I wasn't happy in my life at that time. I'd just broken up with my boyfriend and things weren't going right for me. But they said there was a reason I had to go back, although they didn't tell me what it was."
Stephanie woke up on the operating table, surrounded by a crash team of doctors giving her CPR. And while some people might have been terrified, Stephanie now says she finds it incredibly reassuring. "I'm not scared of dying now," she reveals. "I know it's not the end of the journey."
You may think Stephanie is crazy, or her 'vision' was just a hallucination, part of the allergic reaction she suffered. But she's adamant about what she experienced, and she's not alone.
Millions of people across the world claim to have had an NDE, with reports ranging from seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel to meeting dead relatives. And far from being dismissed as ridiculous, these experiences are being taken seriously by some doctors.
Reports of NDEs are now so common - due partly to the fact that hospital resuscitations are more effective these days, with around 15 per cent of cardiac arrest victims surviving - that a major scientific investigation is underway.
Coordinated by critical care medicine specialist Dr Sam Parnia at Southampton University, the study is taking place at 25 hospitals in the UK and the US.
Over the next three years, about 15,000 patients will be brought to these hospitals suffering from cardiac arrest. Around 1,500 will be resuscitated, and it's expected that hundreds will claim they've had some type of out-of-body experience while they were dead.
Part of Dr Parnia's study will involve hiding objects high up in operating rooms. The idea is that if people really do rise out of their bodies, they will see these 'hidden targets'.
Any reports can then be tested for accuracy.
This would help establish whether these out-of-body experiences are real, and lend weight to the existence of NDEs.
A simple enough idea, but why do it?
"The medical profession takes the study of what happens when we die very seriously, but really we know very little about the dying process," says Dr Parnia. "Although we do know that death is not a specific moment. It's a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and the brain ceases functioning - this is clinical death.
"Then there is a period of time, lasting from a few seconds to an hour or more, in which medical efforts may restart the heart. What people experience during this period provides a unique window into what we're likely to experience during the dying process. This study will help us have a better understanding of death."
Despite the fact that her NDE happened 12 years ago, the memory of it is still fresh in Stephanie's mind.
"When I came round I sat bolt upright and said to my surgeon, who was in tears: 'I knew that was going to happen.' I also knew that they'd only taken out one of my two wisdom teeth, which I later found out was correct. There was no way I could have known that as I'd been unconscious when it was removed," says Stephanie.
"I went into shock after that and spent several days in hospital recovering.
"My surgeon and the anaesthetist kept coming to visit me. They just couldn't believe my premonition had come true. We were all really freaked out."
Stephanie later learned that her heart had stopped for nearly 20 minutes. The experience initially left her both worried and confused, but when she started researching the phenomenon of NDEs, she realised the event was far from unusual.
"Until I read about other people having near-death experiences, I felt very alone," she says. "But now I know they happen to lots of people.
"Friends and family believed my story, but there's always the worry people will just think you're a bit of a nutter."
Since then, Stephanie says she's had another terrifying vision of her death.
"In 2007, I had another premonition I would die, this time in a car crash. A few months later, I was involved in a horrific motorway crash with a friend on my way to a work event in Manchester," she says.
"Somehow, we walked away with barely a scratch. I realised it wasn't my time again."
Although Stephanie has come to terms with what she experienced, she's still far from understanding it.
"I'm still trying to fathom what I'm here for - why I was sent back," she says. "Having come so close to death, I often think about how and when I really will die, and whether I'll have another premonition of it."
Opinion is divided among psychologists when it comes to NDEs.
"There's no doubt people have near-death experiences that can be totally life-changing," says psychologist Professor Christopher French.
"But there are two points of view about it. Some people believe NDEs are evidence that the mind or the soul becomes separated from the body, and gives some sort of glimpse of the afterlife.
"On the other side, where I stand, the most plausible explanation is that near-death experiences are essentially visions of a dying brain, and it just feels as though these things are happening, because of strange things happening in the brain.
"Either way, we shouldn't just brush off NDEs. Dying is part of life, and it's something that needs more research so one day we can get a definitive answer."
'I KNEW HE WOULD DIE BUT COULDN'T STOP IT'
Another woman who claims to have looked into the future and stared death in the face is 30-year-old Sapphira Chapman.
"When I was 21, I dreamt for six nights in a row I was in a car with someone called John. I couldn't see who John was but I knew he was going to be killed in a car accident," says Sapphira, a mum-of-one from Telford, Shropshire.
"I knew this wasn't a nightmare. Instinctively I felt it was a premonition - someone I knew called John was going to die. My cousin's name is John, and I was terrified it was him. I wanted to warn him, but was worried he'd think I was mad, so I kept the premonition to myself."
A week later, Sapphira learned her neighbour had been killed in a car crash - his name was John.
"At first I felt a massive sense of relief that my cousin was safe," says Sapphira. "But as the news sank in that this man had died, I became very upset. Why had I had that premonition when there was nothing I could do to stop it happening?"
Sapphira has had other spooky experiences. One of the strangest was when she believes she was visited by the spirit of an ex who she didn't realise had died from leukaemia.
"Five years ago, I was at home alone doing some ironing in my lounge. Suddenly I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I began to shiver. I knew someone was watching me and sensed he was male, young and tall," recounts Sapphira. "I was scared. Who was this person and what did they want from me? I shouted: 'I don't know who you are, leave me alone,' and he left the room.
"Two days later, I bumped into a friend who told me my ex-boyfriend Andrew, who I'd dated when I was 17, had died two days before - the day I was visited by the spirit. I knew immediately it was him."
Desperate to understand why, Sapphira consulted psychics and mediums, and even went to a spiritualist meeting.
"The conclusion I've reached is that some people are more open to contact from the spirit world. Spirits know that, and they seek out people like me to try to communicate with," says Sapphira.
"With the premonitions, it's not always a dream like I had about my neighbour. When I moved house six months ago, I saw a set of traffic lights near my 11-year-old daughter Courteney's school, and I was consumed by a terrible feeling that something bad would happen in that place. I sat her down and warned her to be careful crossing the road. Three weeks ago she was hit by a car there, but thankfully only suffered cuts and grazes."
Sapphira firmly believes there is something after death. "I don't think when you die that's the end," she says. "It's comforting to know spirits are around me, watching over me.
"The premonitions do feel like a burden at times, because there hasn't been anything I can do to stop them. But I've accepted that it's part of who I am."