Dr. Linda Smith’s course The Afterlife in Literature, Religion and Science explores the concepts of consciousness and death. The Honors College seminar encourages critical thinking and open-mindedness.“In class, we examine views about the survival of consciousness after death. We also look at questions such as what is death and what defines it? What is consciousness and where is it located? And what is happening in a near-death experience as reported by those who ‘die’ and are resuscitated?” said Smith, professor and associate dean in the Honors College.
While facilitating discussion on near-death experiences, Smith brought a special guest into the classroom — an Army specialist wounded in combat.
Matthew Drake, a retired Army specialist, was serving in Iraq in October 2004 when his military vehicle was struck by a suicide bomber. Medical experts didn’t expect him to live through the first night. It seems they may have been at least partially correct.
“Eight months post-injury, we were in the Veteran’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. By this time, Matthew was able to spontaneously speak and was beginning to regain some memory, although he was still very childlike in his understanding,” said Lisa Schuster, Drake’s mother. “One day I mentioned something about talking to God, and Matthew replied, ‘I think I met him, God. I met God.’”
“I replied, ‘You met God?’ And he continued on saying, ‘Yes, he touched my hand and told me that I’m not done and there are things I have to do. So here I am,’” Schuster said. “I asked Matthew what God looked like, and he said, ‘Well he isn’t an old man; he wasn’t even a person at all. He is more like a light. It was white, yellow, gold and warm.’ I asked if there were angels, and he said, ‘There were angels, and they were lights of all different colors.’ That was the end of the conversation on that day.”
Drake was the sole survivor of the attack on his vehicle. In later conversations with his mother and his aunt, Drake reported seeing his two friends who were killed in the attack walk into a bright light, greeted by loved ones.
He suffered massive injuries, including brain and skull trauma, a fractured spinal vertebra, two broken clavicles, a fractured upper right arm, jaw fractures, third-degree burns, and glass and shrapnel in his head, face, neck and throat.
“Because of the brain trauma, it is hard for me to remember things I told my mom and to pick out certain memories,” Drake told the class during his guest lecture last month. “But I will always have that feeling of extreme peace I felt in heaven.”
Schuster said they receive mixed responses from people about their story, but for the students in Smith’s class, Drake provided insight into near-death experiences.
“Some people have skeptical views, and individuals who have near-death experiences often suffer from disbelief or outright ridicule when they try to tell their health-care workers about the experience. It is often suggested that their experience, which to them was profound and inspiring, is merely a hallucination or the results of medical or drug treatment,” Smith said. “Many of these people are afraid they will be considered mentally ill and don’t talk about it again for many years. This results in people having great difficulty integrating the experience into their lives, often resulting in depression, feelings of alienation and broken relationships.”
Smith, who also is a licensed professional counselor, is developing a series of workshops for counselors and medical health professionals about near-death experiences and other death-related issues.
“My hope is that such workshops and classes will help educate people about compassionate ways to respond to clients and patients who report some of these experiences,” Smith said.
Drake, who is doing well in a supported-living apartment and working two part-time jobs, said he was happy to share his story with the class to better their understanding from his experiences.
“I’m here because I need to help people,” he said. “If I can be an inspiration to anyone, I am helping them.”