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Mark - "Breathless"

December 17, 1979 brought snow to Lake Tahoe. It was a school day, the kind of school day where we would listen to the radio, or maybe call the bus garage to see if they would cancel school in favor of a snow day. This sort of thing is quite normal during the winter school months on the North shore. Of course, as a teenager, there was nothing finer than having a day off from school, like an unexpected gift we accepted without question.
Usually, such days were too stormy for good skiing, and the roads were bad in the mornings at least. But Placer County and the State of California always stepped up to the task, and they would soon have the main roads cleared enough to drive school buses. One of their mandates, it seemed to me, was to clear the main school bus routes first. This, they nearly always achieved, to their cursed credit and on this December 17, they had done their job.
I was a 17-year-old senior at North Tahoe High School. I had been driving myself to school for about a year by then, either in my parents cars or later, in my own car equipped with studded snow tires. Without a four-wheel drive I learned, any self-respecting local would run studded snow tires, like the ones on my car. To me, the use of tire chains was a sign of weakness and inexperience. For at Tahoe, you either drove in the snow, or you hitch hiked. I drove to school that morning. Driving in the snow was fun for most of my friends and I, it was easy to slide and spin the wheels for fun, and we got plenty of practice recovering from unplanned slips as well. The roads were in pretty good shape considering the rate of snowfall. I had no problems with the drive but remember thinking there sure was a lot of snow coming down.
When they didn't call a snow day in the morning, students of North Tahoe High, and a great many other schools I suppose, would watch out the window or in between classes step outside, to see the snow pile up. Sometimes, what the Tahoe Truckee Unified school district would do on days such as these was let school out early. The idea was that the snow and road conditions were going to worsen and they wanted to get the buses on the road before it became unsafe.
Even though our morning gift hadn't come, we would hope that at any minute the Vice Principal's voice would come over the intercom announcing our reward of early departure. These half days were in some ways better than snow days, because we wouldn't have to make them up at the end of the year, and we had the added benefit of being with our friends and knowing each others plans for the rest of the day. I would never know whether or not they let school out early that day.
In November of 1979, the band Pink Floyd, had released one of the most popular albums of the decade, The Wall. I was the first kid on my block, or even the whole school it seemed, to have this album on cassette. I had been listening and playing it for my friends for a few days, and asked a friend of mine if we could go "crank a couple songs up" at his house during lunch. Tim, whose father was a real estate developer or some such professional, was one of my many friends with wealthy parents. Friends with wealthy parents were as common at Tahoe as friends with pets in other places I had lived. Their condo was a lakefront with a very expensive stereo in the living room. Tim's parents were hardly ever around; I supposed they were off making more money somewhere else, thus the nice house and stereo. Many of my 'rich kid' friends had absentee parents.
Tim also had a brand new Jeep CJ. This jeep had great tires and four wheel drive, the ultimate snow toy for young drivers. So the lunch bell rang and off we went across the school parking lot to the jeep. I was quite comfortable with the walk to the jeep in my new down jacket. Having a down jacket was like having four wheel drive or studded snow tires on one's car, part of the Tahoe survival kit for locals. Some of the more local types were fond of patching their big down jackets with duct tape, my jacket had no duct tape as it was new.
The snow had intensified; in fact it had become a blizzard. The storm had reached that magic moment which Sierra storms sometimes do, when the plows could not keep up with the snowfall. During the day when this happens, the local traffic of moms on errands, and business people going to and fro, suffices to replace plowing by packing the snow hard on the surface streets. Where the plows remove snow from the roads, this packing process hardens and compacts the snow to near concrete hardness over the pavement.
Music from The Wall accompanied the windshield wipers all the way to Tim's house over just such a surface. He lived only two miles or so from the High school, and while we slipped a few times, the jeep had no problems with the conditions once Tim adjusted his speed to coexist with the lethal surface. Once at the lakefront condo, we listened to Pink Floyd from Sansui speakers with oversized woofers as we ate sandwiches and drank sodas. The time had come to take the cassette back to the jeep and drive back to school.
Next door to the condo was Star Harbor, home of the North Lake Tahoe Coast Guard station and boat ramp with a large parking lot. With over two feet of fresh powder in this parking lot, few young jeep drivers can resist such a playground and Tim was no exception. Tim zipped into the parking lot and showed me his trick. This stunt consisted of gaining speed as quickly as possible, then cranking the wheel one way or the other while slamming on the parking brake. Known among us Tahonians as the "E-Brake" turn, Tim and I enjoyed the parking lot until the very last second we had to avoid being late back from lunch. Tim eased out of Star Harbor onto Lake Forest road back to the high school.
While we were lunching at the condo, another winter road condition had emerged. A plow had visited Lake Forest road. When a snowplow equipped with a normal straight blade encounters this rock hard, white packed snow condition, it doesn't remove much snow. It simply peels the rough layer from the top of the packed surface like a razor blade removes paint from glass. This pealing action leaves a clean scraped surface resembling polished white marble. This type of road surface is so slippery; one can barely stand or walk on it. Adding to that perhaps a quarter inch of snow and we may as well have been driving on an ice rink. This was Lake Forest road.
I never asked, but I assume Tim saw what he thought was a good place for an E-Brake turn about a quarter mile down Lake Forest Road. I don't think either of us expected what happened next though, on the deadly slick ice once the slide began, the jeep actually seemed to accelerate. The jeep slid completely out of control. It was a familiar feeling, to slide out of control in the snow; I had done this many times before, usually for fun, sometimes accidentally. We slid to the right, driver's side first towards a driveway. The speed was probably around 35 MPH but we were not slowing at all.
As I looked in the direction of the slide I saw we were headed for a telephone pole. In my mind I saw the pole snapping insignificantly like one of the wooden snow poles I had run over before. I then envisioned us being stuck in the deep snow bank afterward, having to dig out. In my mind I thought, "great, we're going to get stuck and have to dig out, then we'll be late back from lunch break". The jeep continued to slide, as time seemed to slow. As we slid, I continued to look at the pole, and it seemed we might miss it. What did happen was very different indeed. My last memory of this was perhaps a loud sound, more of a rustling disturbance really than a loud crash, accompanied by a brief flash of light, then dark.
The next sound I heard was Pink Floyd, The Wall playing from the Jeep's stereo. I awoke slowly, and was almost numb. My whole body was tingling, like the way it felt when my leg would fall asleep from sitting cross-legged too long. There seemed to be a ringing or hissing sound in my ears as well. As my vision faded in though, I was lying on my back directly under the rear differential of the jeep, staring up at the rear axle. I don't know how long I had been there. I was very confused by this; I really didn't know what to think. In my mind somehow I thought I had crawled under Tim's jeep but didn't remember doing it or why. I don't remember whether I was dragged out, or got out from under the jeep on my own, though it does seem I somehow pulled myself out. I do remember being in the street behind the jeep, and standing up only to immediately fall down unconscious again.
When I awoke again, Tim and some stranger had me by the arms and were dragging me out of the street. There were knives and daggers inside my left arm, I could feel grinding and something very loose and sharp inside my arm or my shoulder or my chest, I couldn't tell what was happening, but somehow I knew my arm was broken. I had to tell Tim to let go, my arm was broken and he was hurting me. He released my arm, and grabbed around my waist, while I leaned more of my balance into the lady on my right. I began to realize I could not breath. It felt as though the arm around my waist or the weight of my body in the arms of these two dragging me had somehow knocked the wind out of me. They took me into the house of the lady under my right arm and laid me on the living room sofa. I passed out again, though at the time I would have said I fell asleep.
I was awake and heard voices. Tim was there, the stranger lady and some other man were in the room too. I must have been moaning or crying because they were talking about what to do to help me with the pain. Somehow I heard that they had called for an ambulance and that the Highway patrol was on the way. Either the memories are lost or I never had a very clear picture of what was going on. By this time I new I had been in a car accident. I knew we had hit the telephone pole and that it did not break. I heard the man and woman talking to each other, and they had decided to light a marijuana joint for me, it would help ease the pain. When the man handed it to me, I had to tell him I couldn't smoke, I was having too much trouble breathing. In fact, my breathing seemed to get more difficult with each breath. I was to later learn that my lung was collapsing.
I was frantic to get Tim's attention. I had some drugs in my pocket in a baggie. I wanted to hide them before the Police arrived, but could not move my arm to get it into my pocket. I finally got Tim's attention and he had to kneel beside the sofa and put his ear next to my mouth to hear me. He slipped his hand into my pocket, removed the baggie and stuffed it under the sofa. Talking was becoming more difficult with every breath. But I was relieved to know that the dope was no longer in my possession. I didn't want to get in trouble with the police over this little accident. Little did I know how much trouble I was already in.
When the Highway Patrolman arrived he started asking me questions. By this time I could not draw enough breath to speak above a quiet whisper. I know he asked me my name several times, each time I would answer him, he would repeat, "Do you know what happened? Can you tell me your name?". I would tell him "I'm Mark Jacoby, and we crashed in the jeep", but apparently he could not hear me. I may have slept again, but I heard Tim and the Highway Patrolman talking about the accident, and Tim told him who I was. I honestly cannot say how long I lay there, it seemed about 45 minutes, but could have been 10 minutes or an hour, everything was quite distorted. I remember drifting in and out of sleep. Then there was more commotion, and I heard the paramedics arrive.
Two Tahoe City Fire Department paramedics were kneeling beside me, and I thought it odd they asked me the same questions as the Patrolman, "Can you tell me your name? Do you know where you are? Do you know what happened? Where does it hurt?" I gave them the same answers I gave the Patrolman but since they kept repeating their questions, I assumed they were playing some kind of game or something. It didn't really occur to me right away that they could not hear me. I grew frustrated trying to talk to them. They fussed with one of the bags they brought in and produced a pair of scissors with which they began to cut off my new jacket. I was desperately trying to get them to stop, as I had just bought this jacket. It seems that I was successful, getting them to pull it off but I honestly can't remember.
Next they cut my shirt off. I remember this shirt as a striped knit type of shirt. When they removed the scraps of cut fabric for the first time I began to understand what had happened to me. As I looked down at my chest, I saw that my left shoulder was grotesquely dislocated to near the center of my chest, my shoulder was under my nipple. Every movement had become painful. Everything the paramedics did to me hurt badly, I tried to scream but could not draw enough breath to scream.
As I looked at my deformed body, I began to feel as though I were not looking at my body at all. This may have been due to shock, or something else, but this is where things began to get very strange. I remember concentrating all my energy on breathing, as I simply could not breathe enough. My vision was strange as well; the air seemed kind of fuzzy, like I could see the air. I looked at my twisted body and realized that my perspective had changed. For one, I was beginning to realize that I was hurt very badly, more than just a broken bone. I seemed to be looking at the paramedics and at my shoulder from just above where my shoulder should be, to the left of and just above my left ear. This increased my confusion. I remember talking to the paramedics, and looking at them eye to eye, but this could not be; they were standing over me and I was lying flat on my back. The sight of my body, and all the confusion seemed to be too much and I tried to go back to sleep. This time though, the breathing was harder than ever.
I liked the sleep; it was the only way to make the pain go away. To be awake meant to feel pain and pain seemed to have replaced every sensation. It hurt to breathe, it hurt to try to talk, my mind hurt from the inability to communicate with the paramedics, and my shoulders hurt, my chest hurt, my neck hurt, my back hurt and my stomach muscles hurt from trying to suck air into a crushed chest, all these parts had extreme damage.
This was not like any pain I had felt before. It was dry, a sharp, stinging pain, like a cut that kept cutting, or a burn from the inside which did not feel better when the heat went away. This pain was getting worse, and this pain was here to stay. There was no lying still to make it go away. The paramedics were moving me too, running their hands over my body, looking for injuries. There was no waking relief from this pain.
I had put so much energy into breathing, it was wearing me out and it hurt to breathe. I just couldn't breathe no matter how hard I tried, and it was becoming too hard. I really didn't know why, it was so very confusing. I was exhausted, not the way a hard day at work or play exhausted me, but this was the exhaustion of a lifetime. In sleep this body stopped hurting. And, there was something else in the sleep. It started quietly, from a far away place deep inside, but moved closer and closer the longer I slept. The rhythm of my breathing seemed to be the only awareness I had by now.
I say I was sleeping, but was actually passing out due to a combination of pain, lack of oxygen, shock, or likely from all of the above. But I was aware somehow. I could feel the labored breath coming in and going out, slowing now, the breaths seemed to take a long, long time. One breath in particular I remember. I don't so much remember it coming in, but I do vividly recall it leaving.
This breath seemed to exhale too much. I don't know where that much air came from, but it seemed I exhaled slowly and completely, more completely than any breath I had ever experienced before. In fact I kept exhaling after all the air seemed to have left my one remaining lung. I felt a sensation of movement with this exhale. It was as though somehow I could feel the air once it left my body. In fact, I was the air, which left my body. I could feel myself peeling away from the body. This is difficult to describe, and was quite disorienting at the time, I rode out of my body inside this last breath. Somehow, I could feel whatever self I was, leaving the body on the sofa in a kind of whoosh sensation. This new feeling was concentrated in my head, like I had been sucked out of my face by some sort of vacuum like force attracting this last breath.
The pain had left me, but I was not asleep. I could see. I could still see the paramedics talking to me. They knew I had stopped breathing, and they were talking to each other and one of them was telling me to stay with him. By now I was looking eye to eye with them. Slowly I saw their faces seem to sink below me, soon I was facing downward toward the paramedic who was doing most of the talking. This was very confusing; I was becoming aware that something very strange was happening, strange indeed, though somewhat familiar. I knew that this scene was very wrong, because I knew I was lying on the sofa. I knew this because I knew I had not stood up. I also knew this because I had tried to sit up before and that I realized things had progressively gotten worse since that attempt. I also knew that I was no longer asleep. I willed myself to turn my field of vision toward the sofa. What I find strange to this day is that I was not surprised to see my body below me.
This "awareness" changed things. I don't believe I knew I was dying just yet, but I did know that this was serious. At first, once I realized that I was not in my body anymore, there was a moment of panic. Not a panic of fear, more of disorientation. I felt disorientation as though I were standing on ice, having slipped unexpectedly, arms flapping for balance, just regaining my feet, afraid to move for fear of slipping again. There was a certain sense of weightlessness, like the top of the arc of a high dive into the water, or when an elevator starts to descend unexpectedly. These strange sensations seemed to linger for a moment, just long enough to be noticed when the scene continued to change yet again.
I had a sense of movement, not necessarily my movement, but the room began to distort around me. I could see the paramedics, myself, my field of vision growing to include the whole room, I could see the others, the Officer, but it was distorted. It seemed like the room was elongating, as though I were on the ceiling, but the ceiling was rising. It was just a normal room with an eight or nine foot ceiling but my view was of this room as though the ceiling had risen to maybe 30 feet. At this point the sensation changed from my field of vision distorting to one of movement. I felt as though I were being drawn away. Not necessarily that I was gaining in altitude, but that I was separating from this scene. It was as if the world was moving away from me and I was becoming a part of something else, which was reclaiming me.
I looked down on the people in the room. They looked somehow different as well. It was as if their outlines had been traced with a crayon of light producing some kind of glow around the lines of their bodies. The air had become a purple hued fuzz, like the air molecules were a translucent purple. I could see the air, and then I sensed some kind of hissing sound, and a strange sensation of darkness as I floated through what would have been the ceiling. I was in the storm now, I could sense the snow falling as I continued to merge upward with something to which I was connected. There came a sensation of great attraction. I would not call it speed exactly, more like the world was rapidly moving away from me than I from it. The scene below me seemed to stretch away in an infinite distortion.
Though difficult to describe, it seemed as if the room, building and snowstorm were projected onto a cloth sphere. I ascended to the top of this sphere which distorted, like lifting a sheet from a bed between pinched fingers, the scene draped and distorted as my point ascended, as I was lifted high, the sheet of the world dangling around me distorting further and further as the point lifted higher.
I was returning from whence I came. I cannot describe this feeling adequately, but I knew of this place, it was familiar, and I had been there before. Not that my body and the world were unfamiliar or a place that I didn't belong, they were familiar as well. But this place I was moving toward felt like home, not like my home today, but like a childhood memory of home, when mom would take care of me. I felt as though I was expected, and there were open arms awaiting me.
At this point I was aware of a great journey. A journey I had just begun, of a great distance to be traveled, only a portion of which had I traversed. My senses changed in this motion as well. I no longer had a sense of sight, nor of temperature, or of movement. I could not feel pain nor do I recall hearing. The only sense I do recall at this point was a deep sense of love. Deeper than I had ever experienced before, though it was a familiar feeling, I recognized it as love, it seemed to emanate from all points toward me, and from me outward. It was a warm feeling, a comforting feeling, a sense of perfect well-being.
There was also the sense of a great burden having been lifted from me. I had been here before. I knew where I was by now, though I cannot name this place. I had returned from whence I came, and I don't know what it is called. Though I have heard many labels applied, this could have been heaven, purgatory, some kind of samadhi, a collective of souls, I personally do not know what to call it. I will only try to describe it as I remember, as I believe to label the place is to call it something it is only partially. I had been here before.
I was no longer alone, could feel the presence of another. It was as if somehow our feelings, emotions and knowledge had merged. Then came a voice. The use of the word voice is interesting, as I had no sense of hearing, and I suspect no ears though I do not have a good memory of what my "body" in this place might have been like. This was more of a thought in my mind, which was not a thought of my own. It was the thought of another. This was a sort of telepathy, but quite natural to me as it was quite familiar. Not only was the telepathic style of communication familiar but I also recognized the particular other whose thoughts I was sharing.
It is unclear how we started, only that the result of this first message was for me to begin a series of feelings about my life. It was the proverbial "life flashing before my eyes" or life review as I have since heard it called. I would describe this as a long series of feelings based on numerous actions in my life. The difference was that not only did I experience the feelings again, but I had some sort of empathetic sense of the feelings of those around me who were effected by my actions. In other words, I also felt what others felt about my life. The most overwhelming of these feelings came from my mother.
I was adopted as an infant. I had been somewhat of a troublemaker. I sometimes hurt other children when smaller, and had taken to drug and alcohol abuse, stealing, crazy driving, bad grades, vandalism, cruelty to my sister, cruelty to animals, the list goes on and on. All of these actions were relived in a nutshell, with the associated feelings of both myself and the parties involved. But the most profound was a strange sense coming from my mother. I could feel how she felt to hear of my death. She was heartbroken, and in great pain, but it was all mixed up with feelings of how much trouble I had been in. I got a sense that it was such a tragedy to have had this life end so soon, having never really done much good.
This feeling left me with a sense for having unfinished business in life. The grief that I felt from my mother and friends was intense. In spite of my troubled life, I had many friends, some of which were close. I was well known if not popular, and I could sense many things said about my life and death. The sense of my mother's grief was overwhelming.
There were other feelings as well, from school friends, in fact nearly the whole student body reacted to the news of my death. I could feel a great many thoughts, sorrow, grief and prayers. I could feel the thoughts of extended family members as well. Even people I didn't even know were affected, community members, people who read the news or heard it on the radio. Somehow, I could feel all the repercussions of my death at once. Each thought as an individual feeling, but more significantly summed up as one overall feeling. Not so much a judgment of what my life meant, but more in the way I, and others, felt about my actions in life. The other did not judge these feelings either, we experienced them together.
I became aware of the thoughts of the other again. This other had experienced these feelings at the same time and in the same way I had just done. It was like we had just watched a movie together and we were discussing our feelings about the movie. Rather than a movie we would only see, this was a movie we could feel. I cannot say whether this was God, my spirit guide, Jesus or some relative of mine. My sense of it is that they are so similar that it is not an entirely relevant label to apply to this other. The other actually felt more like a very close friend at the time. I can say with certainty that this voice and I were together in some profound way then, and have been and forever shall be together. In that sense it does fit with some of the things I have read about God in the Bible. I have also read similar things about guardian angels, spirit guides and the higher self. During this exchange I was not concerned with labels.
I must try to explain that which cannot be put into words. This place was a part of me and I a part of it. We are not and were not separate, even as I write these words, years after the experience; we are still one this place and I. The experience of being there is to exist as love, inside love knowing only love. It was as if the emotion of love is what in the end and in the beginning I have always been. Love is what I have only been. And, to extrapolate that to human existence, we are all connected in this way, inside this place, which is all things, and all people, life is love and love is life. Every atom in the universe is connected in this way.
As I floated away from my body I was somehow aware of the air molecules, not in a scientific way, but such that there was a connection between the air molecules and what I had become, or rather, what I had always been. In this frame of mind I am always connected to all things. I have also said in conversations about my experience, and continue to assert, that what is really going is so much bigger than anything I had ever experienced in church or in literature through any medium. It transcends the human capacity for expression. In my awareness, I became or returned to being a part of this.
After summing up the feelings of a short lifetime, the thought exchange continued. The question was put in my mind, "Do you want to stay?" The voice seemed to actually ask many questions at once. In the question, I sensed a great many different meanings, "Are you done with this life? Do you want to finish the work you were to do in this life? Do you want your loved ones to experience this grief?" All of this was asked in an instant, a single thought. It is my recollection that the choice was mine, totally of my own free will, but I also have a sense that within the question the repercussions and results of either decision were also known. For each version of the question, the feelings and repercussions of my decision were felt. The feeling of grief my mother felt at the news of my death dominated my feelings. Somewhere beneath this overwhelming feeling of grief however, was a sense of duty and work to do.
While the dialog and images of this exchange seem to have been difficult in some ways, I must emphasize the context of overwhelming compassion and love in which the exchange took place. This was in fact the most peaceful and tranquil moment of my life. I cannot adequately express how natural and good this experience was. In this place, with this being, everything was more than OK. Acceptance and understanding of all my feelings was shared instantly with this being who loved me unconditionally.
The specifics of whatever else was asked is lost on me now, but my response to the question was, "If I go back will I be able to come here later? Will it always be like this?" The answer was immediate, apparently I had decided and the result was instant. There was an oxygen mask on my face, and I was struggling to wake up. I knew they were planning to start CPR on me and I did not want them to do this as my chest was in extreme pain again. I awoke and a paramedic was holding an ammonia inhalant under my nose, having slipped the oxygen mask up, slightly covering my eyes. I awoke to such pain that it defies description. I screamed a weak and dreadful groan. This time the paramedic could hear me; he stopped asking me the same question over and over again. This time, the paramedic was actually talking to me. I remember his new mantra as clear as day, and the rest of my experience is very clear to me. He said, "Don't go back to sleep Mark." He was to repeat this mantra in a well-practiced tone, all the way to the hospital.
The oxygen was apparently just enough. In spite of the trauma to my chest cavity, I still had one good lung. I believe the working lung was not enough to sustain me due to the pressure of my shoulder joint, and associated hemorrhaging on top of this "good" lung and ribs. The oxygen however, had given my desperately starved brain and blood the boost it needed to remain alive. The paramedic had saved me from death, though I would live to regret both his actions and my decision in the coming months. The pain had returned, with a vengeance.
I remember trying to escape the pain of them putting me on the gurney; I tried sleep but could not, rather just hover between mind numbing pain and the desire to leave my body again, rocking back and forth between the two. The next thing I recall was snow falling on my face as they wheeled, dragged and carried me from the house through the snow to the ambulance. At one point I felt a hard jolt when they either dropped me or the wheels on the gurney hit a large bump.
I cursed loud at this new pain, and I vividly recall by the reaction of the paramedics it was probably the first time they heard my voice. They stopped and one of the men bent down close and put his ear to my mouth. I don't think he heard anything else because he said "What" a couple of times. The purple fuzz returned, I looked into the storm and could feel myself leaving again. I think what I was trying to tell him was that I would die if they kept dropping me. In a way I wanted him to know that I was pissed and would leave if he kept hurting me. No sound came from my lips though; I was busy leaving my body again while he put his ear to my mouth.
They started moving again. The pain was incredible. A few more bumps and I was in the ambulance. Normally, it is a half hour or less ride from Lake Forest to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee, but today the ride was very long and rough. It went on for an eternity. I wanted to sleep so badly. The roads were horrible, it was a blizzard, and the ambulance had snow chains on which shook and rattled my fragile twisted body beyond torment. All the while my paramedic friend repeated his mantra, "How you doing Mark? I need you to stay awake for me OK buddy, we're almost there." About a hundred more "Don't go back to sleep Marks" even the other paramedic started to join in when the oxygen gave me the strength to put up a protest. I think I managed to get out "It doesn't hurt when I sleep" to which the chorus chimed, "we need to stay awake OK buddy". I wanted to take the chains off the ambulance and strangle the medics with them, I wanted to just lay outside in the snow. I wanted to sleep.
NDE Cases