Barbara Bartolome was a young mother when she realized the man she married was not the same man she had dated. What she thought was a normal relationship turned violent, and having a young 1-month-old daughter and 5-year-old son, their safety was on the top of her mind. Her husband repeatedly rejected her help, and eventually Bartolome knew she had to leave her marriage, but was plagued with fear. Her then-husband had taken out a life insurance policy on her, and she felt her very life would be in danger if he found out she was trying to take her children and leave him.
Her concern for her children’s safety was so strong that even in her moment of death due to medical error, she pled to go back to them.
‘I Think I Just Died’
It was 1987, a month after the birth of her daughter, and Bartolome injured her back lifting something too heavy. She saw doctors for months, the first of which said they couldn’t help and she would never walk again. Eventually, a neurosurgeon was confident about her case, and she checked in for some tests.
Dye had been injected into the back of her neck, and she was warned that if she moved at all, the dye could move and result in terrible headaches for months. Unfortunately, someone hit the wrong button and tipped the x-ray table she was on backward, allowing the dye to flow into her brain, and Bartolome lost consciousness.
“I went up on the ceiling,” she said. But suddenly, all the fear she had been holding was gone. She felt nothing but calm, almost like being wrapped in a soft blanket of love, and assurance that everything would be fine. Then she looked down, and saw her own body lying there as a technician called out “code blue.”
She thought, if she was up on the ceiling, and her body was down there, “I think I just died.”
The scene below was chaotic as medical staff flooded in, but Bartolome said she felt nothing but love and calm and assurance.
She was having a near-death experience, which has been defined as “a profound psychological event that may occur to a person close to death or, if not near death, in a situation of physical or emotional crisis,” often involving transcendental or mystical elements, and entire separate from mental illness.
She was not alone. Bartolome also felt the presence of a being that had been with her “for eternity.”
“It felt like it was God,” she said, and the being felt so familiar and comforting that she never tried to look upon his face.
“This was the being I had always felt connected to, and I just felt this beautiful, beautiful relationship between us,” she said. “I ended up telling him that I wanted to back, really. I said it four or five times. I said, I want to go back to protect my children, because I was afraid of what they would be left with if I was gone and not protecting them.”
She felt a response that if she returned, she would still be in that bad marriage. She was shown many parts throughout her life, including several incidents in that marriage. She felt that being ask, “What will you do?”
“It was amazing, because the second I said I would get strong enough to leave him … that was when the doctor did the second pericardial thump on my chest and restarted my heart,” Bartolome said. “That promise that I made carried me through to get away from him.”
Help From God
Bartolome said it took three years, but she moved out while her then-husband was on a business trip and was able to file a restraining order. Her daughter was 3-and-a-half, and her son was 11-and-a-half.
“That was the beginning of a new life for all of us,” she said. She spoke with God often, and knew her life was on a different trajectory, for the better.
For instance, she said, she was afraid of dating again, because her husband had hid all of his abusive tendencies when they were dating. She ended up writing a list of character traits she needed in someone if she were ever to trust again—kind, honest, patient—and ended up listing 116 traits.
“I would say, God, I don’t know who this person is, but I know you do. And if you could bring him to me in the safe way that I could end up looking at him and finding out that he is that person, I would just really appreciate it,” she said.
It was about two years after she left her first marriage that this happened. Her son had befriended a girl in his new junior high school, and the two of them set their parents up on a date at the movies without letting them know.
“They made us sit next to each other, and I was just so embarrassed,” she recalled with a laugh. He ended up being someone who matched her list exactly, and became a wonderful father to their children. “It turned out that we got married six months later.”
Bartolome told her husband, Victor, about her near-death experience, but she had told almost no one else.
After Bartolome was resuscitated, she told some medical staff and her ex-husband about what she experienced, she had received largely dismissive responses, and suggestions that she had only hallucinated. People did not want to hear about her experience.
Due to that, she ended up bottling up her experience for 12 years.
“I just internalized it, kept it in a happy little box inside my heart, and I would look it from time to time. And I realized immediately after I came back down from the ceiling that it had been given to me to help guide me through what was a really tough time in my life,” she said.
But once Bartolome started talking about her experience, she realized it was not only meant as a gift for her, but a gift for many others.
What Do Near-Death Experiences Mean?
Today, Bartolome leads the Santa Barbara International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) group, where she invites experiencers to share their stories as guest speakers every month, typically drawing between 100 to 200 attendees, once even 900 people to hear neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander talk about his unusually detailed experience and medically unexplainable healing.
The path that led to this was punctuated by messages—sometimes very literal ones—from the other side, Bartolome said.
One day, she felt as if two big hands grabbed the back of her head, and a booming voice told her to open a scrapbook store. Certainly not, she thought. She had a job she loved in fundraising at the local university, two children in college, and a third about to start college. She wasn’t about to do something as financially risky as start her own business in something she knew nothing about.
But when she turned to ask her husband about it, expecting him to be a voice of reason, that booming voice came out of her husband’s mouth, saying “Barbara, you’re the one that received the message.”
“I know this sounds completely bizzarre,” Bartolome said. “I ended up … driving downtown and being told by another different voice in my car that I needed to ask about the business loan.”
She walked into her bank and was given a $250,000 loan with no paperwork, no collateral, and everything approved in under 15 minutes.
“I opened that scrapbook store three months later, and six months after I opened it I was named Businesswoman of the Year for Santa Barbara, California, which is crazy stuff because this is a hugely expensive, popular place—Oprah lives here, Henry and Meghan live here—it’s a lot to be named that,” she said.
She realized, in retrospect, that the other side had arranged many things over the years with accolades, and nudges in her life path, to “build me up” so she would have the confidence and credibility to start IANDS Santa Barbara. She closed the scrapbook store in July 2009 and that August started the IANDS group.
“I know that they want us to do this. I know that the other side wants us, wants the world to have this information. I really feel like that’s why they’re putting all of these people into these situations where we’re coming back and we’re all saying the same things,” she said.
Though near-death experiences are different and highly individualized, one of the most-recurring features is that experiencers return with a lesson that to be human is to learn to love.
Twelve years after the medical error that led to her near-death experience, Bartolome was at her daughter’s gymnastics meet when she spoke with a woman who was very distressed because her mother was in her last weeks.
“This woman just kind of brought it out of me,” Bartolome said. She felt she needed to share her own experience, to provide hope, and perhaps help this woman view death a little differently.
The woman, a nurse at the local hospital, just looked at Bartolome and said she knew what Bartolome was saying was real. She recognized the medical procedures Bartolome described as accurate, because she had witnessed many resuscitations herself.
“And she said, ‘do you know that’s called a near-death experience?'”
For the next three days, Bartolome was glued to her computer, reading everything she could about near-death experiences. She had no idea until then that others had experienced what she had, much less that it was a natural phenomenon.
An estimated 5 percent of adult Americans—1 in 20—have had a near-death experience, and as high as 17 or 18 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report these, according to various surveys.
In her search, Bartolome found the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF), sent in her story, and read many others. She became friends with Dr. Jeffrey Long, who founded NDERF, and he invited her to an IANDS conference that was soon taking place in San Diego. There, Bartolome met 50 others who had near-death experiences and sat with them for hours, listening to everyone’s stories.
She also left with questions.
The conference theme that year was “after effects.” Research was showing that most near-death experiencers went on to have lasting effects including anything from losing their fear of death and becoming more charitable and compassionate, to being able to know things before they happen, being able to leave the body, having chronic diseases or major injuries heal rapidly, and perceiving those who had passed away.
There was a long list of possible after effects, and Bartolome recognized many of them in herself, only they hadn’t began after her code blue in the hospital, but all the way back to early childhood.
Bartolome was an intuitive, sensitive, compassionate child, who enjoyed spending her time with the elderly. There were times when Bartolome had told her mother of an impending tragedy right before it happened, and when her grandfather passed away she could feel his soul’s euphoric joy and light as he “returned home.” Then Bartolome remembered how, over and over, she was told “don’t tell anyone about that,” “never tell anyone you can do that.” An author at the IANDS conference suggested kindly that Bartolome ask her family if she had experienced a brush with death when she was too young to remember it.
More than 20 years after her near-death experience in 1987, her older brother told Bartolome at dinner that when she was a baby, she had nearly died; he saw her tiny body turn “soft purple” and still, and their mother crying as Bartolome self-resuscitated and started to breathe again. She had been in the hospital four days after than, and their mother told him never to speak of it.
Learning this was like finding a missing puzzle piece that made a perfect fit. Bartolome could see the way she was led and loved by God all her life.
“I feel that the other side wants us to know more. I think we’re kind of on bad path in the world, and I think the other side wants us to know more,” she said. “I think if we understand that we’re here multiple times, I think if we understand we’re here to grow our souls, if we understand that there’s existence past the point of death, I think that would change the way people live their lives, and how things go, out in the world. Money’s not as important as it is to be supportive and helpful and kind to others.”
Research done by Dr. Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies has shown that, overwhelmingly, near-death experiencers gain changes in values after their experience (pdf), generally becoming more spiritual, compassionate, charitable, and that these changes not only persist but grow over time. He has also done research that found that people need not have these experiences themselves to experience similar changes—in fact, people who hear others’ near-death experience stories gain similar beneficial changes as well.
For example, many who come to IANDS Santa Barbara are people with a great fear of death, and after hearing the stories, they lose that fear and gain a sense of relief in their lives, Bartolome said.
“It’s literally the other side planting this into our lives so we can change the world,” she said. “I’m happy to have been chosen to get to do this.”