January/February 2008 Cosmic
Real Stories of Life After Death
by Janis Amatuzio, M.D.
In the winter of 1994, police officers discovered the tracks of a car leading off the roadway, overturned into a frozen creek bed. It was 4:45 a.m., the engine was running and the driver was slumped over the wheel with obvious head injuries. Paramedics rushed to the scene and transported the victim, later identified as a 26-year-old man, to the ER.
Extensive head injuries were diagnosed, and despite all resuscitative efforts, the young man was declared brain dead several hours later. After confirming positive ID, his wife was notified.
As county coroner, I was acutely aware of my role in approving the donation of organs without compromising the death investigation process. The patient met the criteria for brain death, but since the death was due to trauma, a coroner's investigation was indicated.
I spoke with the attending surgeon and he told me the family would like to donate his organs. "I'll allow donation as long as it doesn't impede my documentation of injuries and determining the cause and manner of death. Do you see any evidence of injury to the chest or abdomen?" I asked.
The attending surgeon responded, "It appears to be all head injury. The chest and abdominal scans read as clear with no evidence for internal injury."
"OK, thanks. I'll approve the organ donation before the postmortem exam."
I finished my hospital duties that afternoon and hurried through the underground tunnel to get to my desk in the coroner's office. From a distance, walking toward me, I saw the hospital chaplain. He looked concerned. As his eyes met mine he stated, "I have to talk with you about the fatality in the emergency room."
I stepped up my pace to meet him in the empty tunnel, responding, "I spoke with the attending physician and OK'd the tissue and organ donation prior to the autopsy."
"That's not what I wanted to talk with you about."
As I unlocked my office door, he asked, "Do you know how the body of this young man was found?"
"Yes," I said, "by the Coon Rapids Police Department in a frozen creek bed at about 4:45 a.m."
"No," he said. "Do you know how they really found him? I spoke with his wife. They were recently married. When I was talking with her she said something that really stopped me."
He paused and held my eyes with his. "She told me that at about 4:20 a.m. she had a dream, a profound dream, in which her husband was standing by her bedside apologizing, telling her that he loved her, and that he had been in an accident. His vehicle was in a ditch where it couldn't be seen from the road. She abruptly awoke, called the Coon Rapids Police and with absolute certainty told them her husband was in an accident not far from their home and that his car was in a ravine where he could not be seen from the road. His body was discovered by officers less than 20 minutes later."
I felt a chill go down my back. "Let me call the PD," I said as I reached for the phone. The desk sergeant on duty confirmed with his dispatch the time of her call and content. "Amazing!" I said to the chaplain. "Did she say anything else?"
"Yes. She told me that it didn't really seem to be a dream - he was really standing there, next to her bed."
Later, I pondered my conversation with the chaplain and reflected on my caveats to death investigators: gather information, document the scene, follow the guidelines and observe and trust that you will arrive at the truth.
Standing at the crossroads of life and death, I occasionally catch a glimpse of a greater mystery and a larger truth. There was no doubt in my heart that our conversation shared that late afternoon in my office felt true. But there was no way to prove it to a reasonable degree of medical certainty. It was simply there and seemed more of a reminder than a challenge. It lifted my heart, and I began to understand a little bit more about what really happens.
Janis Amatuzio, M.D., author of Beyond Knowing and Forever Ours, is known as the compassionate coroner. Visit www.foreverours.com. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, www.newworldlibrary.com.