Two years ago, Stephanie Savage was on vacation in Sicily when she developed a persistent cough. At the time, she had been diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare muscle disease with symptoms including low-grade fever and inflamed lungs. But the drug she had been prescribed to treat the dermatomyositis had also suppressed her immune system, and she became infected with Legionnaires' Disease, a severe form of pneumonia.
When she returned from vacation, Savage suffered from sepsis, multiple strokes, and eventually fell into a coma that would last six weeks. During her coma, she says she experienced a series of dreams that partly mirrored reality, partly involved made-up scenarios, and were partly controlled by her own mind.
Now, two years later, Savage is still undergoing physical therapy (she shows no signs of cognitive impairment). She also writes about about her near-death experience, both on her blog and in the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Savage's observations offer a fascinating view of both consciousness and near-death experiences, so I got in touch with her to learn more about what happened to her.
VICE: Your coma lasted for six weeks. What do you remember from that time?
Stephanie Savage: My first memory came from my MRI. It entered as a disembodied voice—which I recognized because I had an MRI in the past—that said "hold your breath, exhale." I recognized that voice, it was very distinctive. I wondered if it was some sort of serial killer, because it sounded like something out of a movie. I don't remember the exact words, just the voice.
Later, I heard another disembodied male voice. I wondered if he'd put some sort of chip in my brain so I could hear it. I didn't understand what was going on. Eventually, that voice morphed into my "new boyfriend." He was telling me his plans for where we would go for vacation, he mentioned a possible Alaska cruise, because we enjoyed flying over Greenland and watching the glaciers. I thought it wasn't really my boyfriend Keith—even though he looked exactly like him—because he had a full beard. Keith only had a goatee. But I wondered why his glasses frames had the same repair as Keith's. I thought that was strange, because of course it was Keith. It was a sort of dream logic.
How was coma dreaming different from regular dreaming?
I experienced lucid dreams. My "dream reality" meant that suddenly I'm commenting and editing my lucid dream like a writer. At one point it's reality, and I'm editing and changing it because it's a dream, and then it's back to my dream reality.
What I discovered in my research is the REM intrusion theory(editor's note: REM intrusion is the experience of REM sleep during normal wakeful consciousness, resulting in hallucinations or lucid dreams. A study by Kevin Nelson concluded that REM intrusion is responsible for some of the subjective feeling of a near-death experience, which suggests there is a neurophysiologic basis for near-death experiences.) There are other forms of REM intrusion, but the one I experienced was lucid dreaming.
What kinds of things were you dreaming about?
Instead of seeing angels or demons or dead relatives, being a long time skeptic, I saw things that influenced my mental landscape—like science fiction movies. I think that inspired [some] episodes in my coma dream.
Other things I saw in many of my dreams were serialized, like Saturday morning segments of cartoons that would rotate. Many times I would see the same scenario but with different dialogue. One of the serialized ones was where I was riding a combination of a Big Wheel bike and one of those little ice cream pushcarts. It was sort of like that, but it churned ice cream. Sometimes I was a human when I did this, and sometimes I was a polar bear cub. And sometimes, while lucid dreaming, I would think, I'm not supposed to be a polar bear cub! and I would change back into a human.
Were there other factors that influenced your coma dreams?
Apparently my hospital room was very cold, and I was barely covered. They also packed me with ice sometimes because of my high fever from the Legionnaires' Disease. They didn't think I was feeling the cold so they didn't bother to cover me up. I think the cold influenced the nature of my dreaming. But I also love ice cream.
Many elements that were important to me from my childhood were present in my coma dream and I don't think that is coincidental. I think it's sort of the equivalent of "life review" of some people with near-death experiences. I didn't have a "life review," but instead had many things from my childhood.
"I've seen many more science fiction movies than thought about angels. I think that's what influenced my near-death experience." - Stephanie Savage
Did you experience the same types of "post death" situations people talk about?
Hearing voices of doctors and loved ones are, I think, what many people might perceive as "angelic voices." Because my brain automatically interprets things as natural phenomena, I didn't see angels. I was raised an agnostic. It's not in my intellectual landscape to see angels.
The images believers see in their near-death experiences are influenced by their beliefs. Hindus say they saw Vishnu; Christians see Jesus. How many Jews see Jesus? Probably not many. I didn't see any of those things. I saw science fiction films.
"I'm a little less fearful [of death] after my experience because I've been through about the worse thing I could and I came out OK." - Stephanie Savage
You wrote in your article for Skeptical Inquirer that being lifted by nurses to avoid getting bed sores caused you to experience what many others have described as an "out of body experience."
Right. I think that people who are inclined to see that sort of thing will think it was an out of body experience. But it's a common thing in dreams to feel like you are outside of yourself looking back at yourself. That's what it felt like. It didn't feel like an out of body experience. In my research I found that you can stimulate an out of body experience in the brain—that's a documented neurological phenomenon as well. There are many other things that can trigger [an out of body experience], like epilepsy and migraines, but I don't think that was the case with me.
For those who haven't had near-death experiences, is there anything else you would compare it to?
I haven't taken drugs, but I was reading The God Impulse and a lot of people have had near-death experiences while taking psychotropic drugs like magic mushrooms. They experienced some of the same things. I'm not the sort to take drugs though so I wouldn't know.
Has this experience changed the way you feel about dying?
I can't say I fear death, because I don't think anything happens after I die. I fear not existing. I want to keep existing as long as possible. I'm a little less fearful after my experience because I've been through about the worse thing I could and I came out OK. I think I've actually gotten a lot of positives from my experience.
It was the proverbial wake up call. I realized that I was living my life as though I believed there was life after death—even though I don't. I was too often distracted by things that are fun but not important. I was behaving like people who think they get another life when they die. I was believing this is my only life but I wasn't behaving like it. Now I'm taking charge of things I wasn't taking charge of before. I'm not sure if I would go back and stop the coma, even if I could.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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