Despite our advancements in science and medicine, death remains one of human civilization’s most glorious mysteries. A handful of doctors have written books on phenomena such as near-death experiences, but research and data is scarce on pre-death experiences. Because of this lack of information, Dr. John Lerma has devoted his career to compiling anecdotal and scientific research on pre-death hallucinations from the countless terminally-ill patients he lovingly cares for as a doctor and director at The Medical Center of Houston, Texas.
Dr. Johnson was a fascinating man. He was highly intelligent; a dedicated doctor, lawyer, and judge; and a noted atheist. I knew of him prior to his arrival at hospice, as is illustrious reputation preceded him. At age 68 and dying of lymphoma, he was transferred to our hospice inpatient unit for pain control and terminal care. He was a gentle and selfless man who was born as an only child and became an orphan at age 8 when his parents perished in a car accident. I was honored to have spent one wonderful week becoming acquainted with him and learning a great deal about his beliefs, life choices, and experiences at the end of life.
He began his career as an emergency room physician in a Lutheran hospital. He was raised Lutheran, and he grew up loving the church and wanted to be of service. That’s why he became a doctor. He also liked the high level of intensity of the emergency room, as working there challenged both his medical skill and fast-thinking mind. However, after a couple of years, he began to question his choice, as he had seen so many horrible things, among them two children who had been so brutally abused by their parents that they died from the injuries, several young children who were innocent bystanders killed
by drive-by gunshots, and a child whose hand was cut off by his father for knocking over his beer.
Dr. Johnson could not believe the terrible things that people were doing to each other—and especially to their children. His own parents were killed by a drunk driver, and it hurt him so deeply that all he could think about was how to stop the seemingly unnecessary acts of violence through stricter laws and increased social awareness. As a result of watching so much suffering, pain, and violence, Dr. Johnson declared that there could be no God, because a benevolent God would never allow such atrocities to occur. He decided that, if there were no God to intervene in the chaos, he would have to do something himself. First, because of his parents’ death, he got involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and then he helped found Teens Against Drunk Driving. Still he felt it was not enough.
After a great deal of soul-searching regarding what he could do to help prevent family violence, instead of just patching up the harm that had already been done, Dr. Johnson decided to run for city council. He did not win, but he developed many powerful friends, and his passion to stop the violence grew even stronger. He went back to school, earned his law degree, and became a family practice attorney. Driven by his anger and personal grief, he exceedingly strove to make a difference. During his career, he introduced a variety of legislation that has resulted in more watchfulness of abusers, more significant levels of punishment, and more available and mandated family counseling. Dr. Johnson said that, since he decided there was no God, his personal sense of responsibility had increased. It was up to him and to each of us to make a difference in our world. No one else is going to do it for us.
I asked him if he really didn’t believe in God. He said that, as he lay on his deathbed, he wondered about that, too. He said, “We all take out insurance polices, and I had one in place for the afterlife as a child, but then I gave it up because of the horrible things I saw: man’s inhumanity to man. But,” he continued, “in the last few days, I’ve been seeing and experiencing things that seem beyond my control and outside my belief system. I am looking at life from a new perspective.”
He asked me if he was hallucinating and if people really see things when they’re dying. I told him, “People see things similar to what you’re seeing all the time. All kinds of people—murderers, child molesters, probably even that guy who chopped off his child’s hand—claim to see comforting apparitions. What do yours look like?”
He confided, “They are bright white and very comforting. They entice me to see myself for who I truly am. I don’t feel deserving of their comfort because I abandoned my faith and denied God.”
Trying to comfort him, I continued to share stories of other patients who felt the way he did and ultimately found peace: “I feel that the angels come for everyone no matter what their life has been. The love that comes from the angels restores us, no matter what our beliefs are.”
He asked, “How does that happen?” I advised him to ask the angels, but he said, “They don’t talk to me.” I told him to just about think his questions, and that the answers would come to him in sort of extrasensory phenomenon (
form. He laughed and said that he would try that as an experiment, although he
didn’t really believe in ESP.
He was truly a wonderful man, even though, as an atheist, people judged him and
told him he was going to hell. He hated hypocrisy, and he hated that people
went to church, declared their faith, and then really didn’t care about all the
terrible things happening around them.
I asked if he was spiritual. He said, “Yes. I think so. It is my spirit that
detests what I see here. That spirit has led me to try and make a difference.”
I told him, “God loves you, and you’ve done a great job, and there’s nothing to feel bad about.” I told him that I’ve cared for a few atheists and they are usually highly intelligent,caring people, and they all see the angels at the end of their lives. I presume that, because of the life they led, belief wasn’t really necessary. Although, when they see the angels, their belief usually shifts toward the acceptance of a higher power.
Dr. Johnson still had a hard time accepting as true the mystical experiences surrounding him, especially with his extreme adherence to logic. Taking his logic into consideration,I began to converse in terms of physics. Because he was a doctor, I was speaking his language. He asked, “Do you think I’m going anywhere after I die, or do we just cease?”
I told him, “All I know is what physics say: Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it only changes form.” Humans are highly electromagnetic beings, one of the strongest self-contained and intelligent forms of energy on the plant. We have enough electricity to power certain equipment in our homes. I told Dr. Johnson, “You or your spirit will never die. Only your body will change form.” He understood that concept, and he started thinking about it and coming to a greater understanding as we discussed it further.
Dr. Johnson cocked his head and asked, “Have you ever seen anything?”
“No, but there have been reports of spheres of light radiating from patients’ solar plexus.”
“Are they always spherical?”
“Sometimes they’re wavy or slightly distorted, sort of globular, but usually they are round.”
“That’s funny. Why do you think they exude light?”
I thought about it and remembered, “If you let energy follow its natural flow, it will almost always form a sphere because of gravitational forces. It naturally becomes spherical in shape, like the planets.”
“That’s right. Why does it have to be different? Why do we have to make it something so different? Probably it’s all perfect as it is and not as strange as we think it is.”
I told him that some people have said that, when we leave, heaven is the same as earth, but it is a perfected place. As we continued to talk over the next few days, Dr. Johnson looked a lot more peaceful, and resolved his own beliefs and came to grips with his strange experiences.
He saw that his mom and dad had entered his room one evening, and he just couldn’t believe it. He questioned the amount of morphine being administered. (It was not a dosage that would cause hallucinations.) He went on to describe what his eyes and brain envisioned. “When my parents entered my room, they had a stranger with them. They introduced him as the drunk driver who had killed them. They wanted me to know that it all worked out the way it was supposed to. I asked my parents, ‘If it worked out to perfection, then why did it pull me away from God?’ They told me that it needed to be as it was to make me follow my path.
“I asked them, ‘Don’t you think I would have done these things anyway?’ and they said, ‘No. You were getting depressed and jaded and close to quitting before you embarked on your mission.’”
Although Dr. Johnson still felt it could have been done in an easier fashion, he understood what they were telling him and accepted that there was some truth in it. He said he understood it all at that point, but he couldn’t really explain it to me. “You would have to see the thoughts the way the angels showed it to me. It was light years ahead, pre-events, past, present, and future—all intermingled—and it’s so massive, it’s impossible to understand unless they show it to you.”
He said that it resonated through him and took over every cell in his body. Knowing that God is always with us, and the comprehension of His part in the drama, kept growing and growing and growing. He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, and don’t let anyone pull you away from your passion. Every soul can help the world if it’s done in pure passion and with unconditional love for others. And, what you do for them is wonderful as well. It’s all mutually rewarding. It’s for your own heart, too.” I was really moved by what he said and have never forgotten the words and the feeling behind them.
The next day Dr. Johnson said, “My time has come, and I’m ready.” Within hours, he died peacefully, holding my hand and saying, “Thank you.”
Doctor’s Notes and More Dialogue With Dr. Johnson
People always ask me if atheists have horrific deaths. I tell them that, from my experience, they have easier deaths than most. Dr. Johnson said that Paul came to him and explained who he was and what a great passion he had for what he believed.
Paul wrote much of the New Testament with the same passion. Paul said, “Look at who I am, what I did, and how I became a vessel for God’s glorious plan. He used you in the same way. He worked through your anger and passion.”
Desiring to know more about his spiritual experiences, I asked Dr. Johnson to expand on happiness, suffering, and diseases. He said that, in terms of joy, when we die and we finally move beyond the angels, we come face to face with our Creator. By that point, we’ve been reviewing our lives constantly with the angels and our deceased loved ones. When God steps in, all angels help you focus on our Creator. “Our thoughts and wrongdoing are not a big part of the conversation with God. Our conscience takes care of that. However, during the review process, we never ask ourselves what we did to have fun. God asks us what we did to make ourselves happy on earth, because it’s through true joy fueled by truth and love that we can make more changes than through anything else.”
I asked, “If happiness is that important to God, how can we be joyous when people are suffering and hurting, including ourselves?”
He said, “To understand this, one must understand the creation of free will. God’s most important gift to us was free will. Through our free will, we can choose happiness instead of suffering. Joy is at the core of everything. It is the final outcome of everything we do. For some it might be working with orphans or abused children—or for you, Dr. Lerma,it is working with dying patients. Although it may be difficult to do some of this work, the key element is your joy and passion. All our passion is converted into joy. Joy is God’s currency.” Dr. Johnson understood that he sought his passion even though it was activated by anger. He recognized that he had his joy all along, through his passion to help others.
Some of us deny our passion, even though it’s set in the beginning of our life. That happened to me. I had an incredible conflict within. Of course, healing occurred when I finally accepted and loved my entire being; a being filled with weaknesses and strengths.
Dr. Johnson reminded me, “Helping others is what drives you and me. It’s not the money or the place you live, but what’s stored inside your heart and soul. Everything stored there carries into the afterlife.” He told me that he saw all the children he had helped in the emergency room, even the ones who had died, and that they were grateful to him for his efforts and his compassion. He said, “You can change things through joy and happiness. This is the time to move away from suffering and to embrace our joy and passion.”
He also told me, “If you choose to follow your passion in life, you do get to share your gifts with the world. Don’t be concerned about other people’s suffering so much that you take away their opportunity for growth.” He understood that, as we gain further education and understanding, there comes a point where you don’t have to go through lessons anymore.
He said, “Dr. Lerma, someone can just tell you about his or her experience or outline the consequence of taking an action, and you can get it and choose not to go through the
pain. But that only happens as we evolve.”
He cautioned me, “You have to be very careful who you take pain from. Be careful about what you let into your life. Not everyone has the ultimate truth and understanding.” He said, “There is no doubt that darkness exists, so don’t get drawn in. Let other people learn their lessons, and you learn your own lessons. If you fall down, get up and go again. Suffering teaches you when to trust other people as they share their lessons. It develops your discernment.”
It was a lot to take in, but the message was very similar to other messages the angels have brought through Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and now an atheist. In the end, Dr. Johnson was one of the truest believers I’ve ever met. His acceptance of God’s very existence as well as that of the angels was truly profound. Love is the truth of God for everyone, no matter what you believe, and no matter how you live your life.John Lerma, M.D., is the inpatient medical director for the internationally renowned TMC Hospice, part of the largest medical center in the world, The Medical Center of Houston. After graduating with honors from The University of Texas in Austin with a pharmacy degree, he entered The University of Texas San Antonio medical school and received his board certification in both Internal Medicine as well as Hospice and Palliative Medicine. He has spent the last 10 years caring for the terminally ill and is widely recognized for his compassionate care and for his teaching of end-of-life care to nurses, medical students, and resident physicians. He is currently involved in a research project in palliative medicine with MD Anderson Hospital, the leading cancer institute in the world.Dr. Lerma is a frequent guest on local, national, and international radio and TV.