At exactly 5:36 p.m. on October 7, 2007, Cheryl Heinz, a 46-year-old pediatric nurse and part-time Sunday-school teacher, lost control of her 1992 Subaru Legacy sedan and skidded into oncoming traffic, where she collided head-on with a black Ford Explorer SUV.
The larger vehicle collapsed the front of her small car as it decelerated from thirty-five miles per hour to zero in a little more than half of a second. Cheryl’s body, still traveling at thirty-five miles per hour, broke free of the seatbelt and collided with the steering column, breaking seven of her ribs, two of which punctured her lungs. Her forehead slammed into the windshield, cracking both her skull and the shatterproof glass. By 5:37 two onlookers were on the phone with 9-1-1 operators while Cheryl lay unconscious in the front seat.
Seven miles away, 52-year-old Gary Trudell, the owner of a small bookstore, was walking home from work when a blood vessel in his brain ruptured due to an undiagnosed aneurysm, causing a massive hemorrhage. He collapsed on the sidewalk seventeen yards from the door to his apartment. It was six minutes before his neighbor found him to call for paramedics at 5:42 p.m.
By 5:51, both Gary and Cheryl were in separate ambulances on their way to Valley General hospital. Gary arrived at 5:59, and Cheryl less than a minute later. Both were wheeled, unconscious, into the emergency room and were immediately set upon from all sides by nurses and surgeons.
Gary would later describe a feeling of “floating” or “weightlessness” as he discovered that he was looking down at his unconscious body among the bustling nurses and paramedics. He felt a sense of calm and well-being, even in the midst of the chaos. As he watched, the scene grew distant as though seen through a retreating zoom lens. Gary turned to the hallway door, which opened slowly to reveal a “perfect beam of light” from which emanated several voices. Gary couldn’t make out most of what was said, but he could recognize among the voices that of his mother, who had died a year earlier. Following the voices, Gary stepped forward into the light.
He found himself in standing on a hill looking down at a lake that reflected the perfect blue of the sky above. In the distance behind the lake a mountain range cut the sky in to jagged wedges. All around were uninterrupted fields of grass. He recognized the place immediately; it was the scene of a recurring dream from his childhood. And just like in the dream nothing happened, he simply stood, looking at the water, the mountains. He felt what he would later call “a sense of oneness with the world around [him]” and “an overwhelming feeling of love and of being loved … unlike anything [he had] ever experienced.”
Three rooms away from Gary, Cheryl’s punctured lung collapsed and quickly filled with blood. The heart-rate monitor flat-lined at 6:04 p.m.
Later, Cheryl would claim that she watched from outside her body as the sharp peaks of the monitor went flat and the lead surgeon began to administer electric defibrillation. She would also be able to recall the names of every doctor and nurse that operated on her, despite being unconscious (or clinically dead) the entire time she was in the room.
As the doctors worked, Cheryl turned to he hallway door. Outside, a fluorescent light flickered and went out. She stepped out with bare feet and looked both directions down the dark hallway but saw no one. To the right she heard soothing voices, telling her to follow them, that everything would be all right. Cheryl found herself following the sound of the voices down the hallway. Along the way, the lights slowly dimmed and finally went out, leaving Cheryl traveling in the dark.
Over time the voices grew louder. They shouted at her, seeming to reverberate within her skull. They screamed at her, laughed at her. She felt something rip away her surgery gown. A hand gripped her throat while something wet slid down her back. She felt more hands touching her, pulling her hair, fingers sliding into her mouth, up her nose, between her legs. She tried to scream, but found that no sound would come.
The voices continued to laugh. They told her to pray to God, to ask him to save her. But she couldn’t talk. She tried to pray in her head like she had before going to sleep as a child. She asked God to save her, but the voices just got louder. She prayed to Jesus for salvation, but none came.
The hands began to claw at her flesh. She felt them tear away her skin, rip out her hair. They pulled back her fingers one by one until she heard the knuckles snap. They tore away chunks of flesh, and eventually her legs, her arms. They ripped open her stomach and she could feel them pulling out her intestines. Before long, “it felt as if [she] had no body at all, that it had all been ripped away,” and that “all existed were those voices, screaming at [her], mocking [her].” In that moment she knew that no one could save her, and she felt a greater despair than she had ever known.
Two days later, on the afternoon of October 9, both Cheryl and Gary woke up in their hospital beds at Valley General Hospital. They both recounted their experiences to their loved ones, and later to researchers of out-of-body experiences and other near-death phenomenon.
Gary, who denied any religious affiliation, called his experience “life-affirming” and said that he believed he had visited what others might describe as “heaven.” Cheryl refused to draw any conclusions from her near-death experience, calling it “a horrible nightmare, nothing more.” But after recovering from her injuries she declined to continue teaching Sunday school, and stopped attending church entirely a few months later.
Photo by Mike Lacon