Dawn is a reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

Bay locals share their near death experiences

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Locals share stories of life after near-death experiences with Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken. What did they learn? What can we learn?
Amanda Lowry. Photo/Andrew Warner
Amanda Lowry. Photo/Andrew Warner

Maybe it's happened to you: a near-miss on the highway, a sudden illness or sporting accident spins you into that thin space between life and death, wholeness and brokenness.

A recent study suggests 25 million people worldwide have had a near-death experience.

48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken brings us stories from locals who, while not reporting white lights or meet-ups with deceased loved ones, have had brushes with mortality that transformed their lives.

DEATH OF A FRIEND

Amanda Lowry says she wouldn't change who she is a 44-year-old woman paralysed from the chest down. A surfing accident three years ago left her a tetraplegic. On the day we speak inside her Bethlehem kitchen, she relies on a wheelchair to be her legs, a caregiver to be her hands.

"The old me, it's like the death of a friend and I'm really grateful to her for the foundations that she provided to me to build this one - this new life.

Because without that, this probably would be quite tough."

Amanda remembers vividly the moments she could've drowned in the waters off Mount Maunganui.

"I just dived off without my hands above my head and I hit the bottom and I heard my neck break. It was almost like I chose at that second. I could've gone or I could've stayed. And I went no, I'm staying." A friend rescued Amanda. She didn't need a doctor to tell her her old existence was gone.

"I knew my body didn't work anymore."

Today, the mum of 3-year-old Ziggy and 7-year-old Lola lives with partner Gemma Holroyd in a rental house.

But more changes - chosen, not forced - are coming.

Amanda's new home overlooking the Kaimais and wetlands in Bellevue is set for completion within two months.

Her arms, shrouded in plaster casts to her elbows, have just undergone bilateral tendon transfers at a Christchurch hospital.

They took tendons out of my forearms and weave them through my hands to give me a four-finger grip and a pincer grip - I will end up pretty much like a pukeko, I reckon.
Amanda Lowry

The trained chef hopes the operation will allow her to cook again.

"My partner is saying for her that will be the balance of the universe restored when she comes home and I'm in the kitchen making food."

The clink of dishes echoes as caregiver Jackie washes up.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" she asks.

I pick up my steaming mug as Amanda's sits before her, long plastic straw snaking from its top. She says it takes her caregiver up to 90 minutes to get her out of bed and dressed each day.

"What people don't grasp is at night when you lie me in a position I will stay there all night and I cannot move - I can't roll over and put my arm over her [Gemma] at night-time ... so all this stuff you take for granted about the beautiful physical aspects of loving a family and loving people, you have to find new ways to do it."

She's grateful 40 per cent of her body has movement.

She drives, swims three kilometres per week and started playing wheelchair rugby six months after her accident. She proudly brings her girls to watch.

"It helps us make a new normal in a much more healthy way. They see we're out there and doing it. We're not letting it stop us, and they recognise that there's other ways of being."

Vinnie Smith survived a stroke, thanks to his son Jordan, who is now aged 12. St John are doing a video shoot. Photo/John Borren
Vinnie Smith survived a stroke, thanks to his son Jordan, who is now aged 12. St John are doing a video shoot. Photo/John Borren

LIFE AFTER STROKE

Vinnie Smith has also found another way of being. Vinnie had a stroke last Christmas Eve while glazing a ham at his Tauranga home.

Son, Jordan, then 11 years old, called for help.

The boy's quick actions meant Vinnie got medication that may have prevented permanent mental or physical harm.

I've got no lasting effects. I don't know whether it's psychological, I still get tired very easy. When Jordan sees I'm tired, he's very protective of me ... and he says, 'Get to bed'.
Vinnie Smith

Vinnie works fulltime as a sales representative and says his biggest adjustment has been slowing down.

"Beforehand there would always be rushing around and trying to please everyone, where now my prime objective is to spend as much quality time with my son and with my wife and just cherish those moments that I nearly missed out on."

The 44-year-old says he's enjoying Jordan's activities rather than pushing him to do better.

"I'd rather go out there and have fun with him and teach him about life rather than be serious."

Married life is different too, according to Vinnie.

He and wife Liz are building a house together, but instead of managing construction, they're planning camping trips.

They have a date night every six weeks - massage for two - followed by dinner. The couple will celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary in December.

Vinnie says, "We are more appreciative of each other - it's quite weird - my wife has never talked to me about the stroke, about what she was thinking, whether she was scared or worried. We haven't talked about it, but I'd like to think we're closer, now."

SURVIVOR: Alec Were survived a heart attack. Photo/supplied
SURVIVOR: Alec Were survived a heart attack. Photo/supplied

HEALING HEART

Alec Were describes himself as a gym fanatic who never smoked and eats a healthy diet.

So he didn't suspect he was having a heart attack six months ago while lifting weights at the gym.

He reported no pain, numbness or indigestion, just muscle soreness and feeling unwell.

He cut his session short and drove to his office in Tauranga's CBD, where a staff member called an ambulance.

"In 10 minutes I was up in the hospital, that's where they worked out I was having a heart attack."

He arrived in time to get a blockage-dissolving drug.

Alec says he required just a stent and will remain on blood thinners.

"If you looked at me you wouldn't say, 'He's up for a heart attack, or heart event.' You can't presume you're free of this. It can happen to anybody."

Alec turned 65 years old the day before his hospital visit. The travel agency owner says he has known other people who've died of the same condition.

I feel very special and lucky. You can end up in a big black hole if you think about it all the time. You've got to be positive and get back into doing things again.
Alec Were

While he laughs off retirement, Alec says he schedules fewer meetings. He travels with his wife.

"I'm doing basically what I was doing before, but maybe two steps back. I think in some ways it's better because you see things from a slightly different point of view."

Alec says he doesn't panic about doing today what he could put off until tomorrow.

PAYING ATTENTION

Amanda Lowry refers to herself as "lucky" several times during our 45-minute chat. She'd like to continue her work with a disability rights group (CCS Disability Action) in a more formal capacity, but meanwhile relishes time with her partner and girls.

"I think my family get a way better deal because I'm here and I pay attention and I'm not off kiting, surfing, and, I mean yeah, that was super fun, but maybe I didn't pay attention, you know? And now I pay attention."

It's not all sunshine and silver linings - Amanda says she wishes she could teach her girls to surf; wishes she could pick them up.

And there's never a time in public she doesn't get a pitiful look or odd question.

Still, she focuses on using who she is to make memories with people she loves.

"I'm not less than. I'm still me and I'm still full and I'm still fully human. I'm just different than I was before."

Near-death experiences leave mark

Tauranga therapist Mary Hodson, with Achieve Health and Education Consultants, says some studies have shown the difference between the number of people who've reported a near-death experience (NDE) versus those who've actually had one is quite high.

She says medical staff might classify an NDE differently than people who report them do.

The figures show 3 per cent of people in the States think they've had a near-death experience, but studies are showing it's actually much lower than that.
Mary Hodson, Tauranga therapist

Regardless of how an NDE is defined, Hodson says it has fundamental effects on people's psychology.

"People will do complete about-turns in the way they will think about things. So things they perhaps ignored before become more important, like family. Or maybe people who were previously serious and studious, well-behaved, suddenly do an about-turn and want to enjoy life and have fun."

Findings of the biggest-ever scientific study of NDEs were published in 2014. Scientists at the University of Southampton found nearly 40 per cent of 2000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at hospitals in Europe and the US described some of kind of awareness during the time they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted.

One hundred and forty patients in the study survived and could be interviewed. Of these, 101 patients had detailed interviews, which identified nine patients who had an NDE.

Discoveries from the first large-scale study of NDEs in New Zealand were published last year by Massey University researchers. Their study indicates NDEs reported here matched accounts from other nations. People who identified as Maori reported deeper and more intense NDEs.

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