FROM: Crossing the line
AUTHOR: Alex Burke
SOURCE: The Melbourne Sunday Age
DATE: January 25, 1998
It was midnight and Joanne Calman, heavily pregnant with her third child, lay in the labour ward of a suburban Sydney hospital in excruciating pain. It was 15 hours since the medical staff had decided to induce the baby and now it had turned and was pushing on her side. Joanne was in agony. Already the mother of two boys, Joanne was secretly hoping her third child would be a girl. She sighed with relief when the anaesthetist was called to administer an epidural.
The doctor attempted to inject the needle into Joanne's spine four times. On her fifth attempt the metal tip sunk deep into Joanne's flesh. Within seconds Joanne was slumped over the side of the bed. The soft pink flesh around her mouth turned grey and her eyes glazed over in pain. A nearby nurse began screaming. Joanne Calman was dead. The epidural had caused a seizure. The staff worked hard to revive Joanne and over the next 12 hours she drifted in and out of consciousness. At the end of the ordeal Joanne's husband Ross left his wife and stepped out into the cool morning air. Tears sprang to his eyes and he began to shake with heavy, uncontrollable sobs: he had seen his wife die three times.
Today, five years later, the fans are working overtime at the Calmans's brick veneer home. It's stifling hot and the sprinklers are doing their best to maintain the neat lush lawn. Joanne sits sunken on a large brown couch in the living room, her walking frame is within arm's reach and a wheelchair pokes out from the next room. The house is immaculately neat and the mantle and shelves are covered in family photos and porcelain trinkets. A slightly worn photograph shows Joanne on her wedding day, her wavy brown hair crowned in a satin trimmed hat and her curvy figure clad in a strapless gown.
This afternoon Joanne looks a little older than the pretty young girl in the photograph. Her doughy brown eyes are obscured by prescription rose-tinted glasses and a heavy fringe attempts to disguise a face delicately creased with pain. She is worn out. Her body has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former self. Her ivory feet are twisted - she can barely walk. Her hands are soft and childlike and she has problems gripping things. Her body carries the scars of broken bones, the consequences of a balance disorder. Ever since that horrific epidural five years ago her health has deteriorated to the point where she needs care 24 hours a day. The medical profession cannot diagnose her condition and she is still awaiting compensation.
Today she has agreed to sit for the long period necessary for this interview to talk about what happened that night she gave birth. She is not concerned with the actions of the medical staff or her present physical condition. She wants to talk about what happened during those 12 hours when she passed from this life to a state we call death.
For most of us death is a chilling thought we keep firmly planted in the dark recesses of our minds. It's something that only reaches our consciousness when it has to. When someone we love dies, or when a hearse passes by in the street, interrupting our lives for a moment. Death is something often mixed up with uneasy or unresolved feelings of religion, of heaven, of hell. Perhaps that's why it's a subject we don't talk about. For those who have had a near-death experience, death is even harder to discuss without sounding New-Age at best and stark raving mad at worst.
Joanne Calman knows what death is all about. When she died she believes she saw a world beyond the physical. She knows there are some that will view her experience with scepticism. Others will think she's mad. It's something that worries her and she has spent the past couple of days fretting over the consequences of telling her story. She has two teenage sons to consider who may be subject to name-calling and the like at school, a handful of neighbours dear to her who have no idea of what she terms her NDE (near-death experience) and of course, her husband, Ross, the man who hates to recall any of the details of that pain-drenched night. Despite all this she begins.
Waking up in intensive care, Joanne had no idea who she was, why she was there or who her family were. She remembered nothing of the night before - except a vivid journey. As soon as she could, Joanne wrote down everything she could remember and today she talks about her near-death experience as sharply as if it were yesterday.
"I remember being in darkness and having massive head and chest pains. I couldn't breathe. But I didn't panic, I just let go, that's when I floated up off my body. I faced a wall. Behind me was my physical body. I knew if I looked back all I would see was pain. I decided to walk through the wall and into the corridor. I passed a patient and the nurses' station. I could hear their thoughts as well as their speech. They were talking about a stolen bracelet. I knew which of the nurses had taken it through her thoughts.
"I moved on and entered a great tunnel. It was very soft and warm and I seemed to be travelling faster. I became aware of a very bright light. It was so bright that I should have turned away from it, but I couldn't. I stood on the edge of this light and decided to go into it. It was then that I was met by all these relatives. They introduced themselves to me. I had never heard of some of them, especially the ones from my husband's family.
"Three grandmothers greeted me. One was mine and the other two were my husband's. We walked together. It wasn't like floating clouds but it was a beautiful landscape. Every now and then there would be a bridge over a stream.
"I had a lot of conversations about my life with these grandmothers. They said I had to go back and that it wasn't my time. I travelled back and had this massive pain again. I decided I couldn't go through the pain anymore and went back to my grandmothers. We went for a walk again and discussed things that had happened in my life. One of the things we discussed was something that happened when I was three. I had no memory of it, but I know that I fell off a wharf in Woy Woy.
"I had always assumed my father had saved me. I found out it was my aunt who had dived in and that it was my sister who had pushed me. When I came back to life I was able to go and check a lot of things with people. Everything I was told was confirmed.
"I had three journeys to this light and on the third one I could see what my future would be like, that I would have so much pain, that my body wouldn't work, that my husband would have to give up his job to look after me, that we would lose our home. I didn't want to go back. I wanted to stay where there was this incredible love and peace. But the grandmothers said I must return. This time they gave me an incentive. They introduced me to five people who were still alive and that I had never met before. They told me I had to meet these people when I got back to my body. And of course I had to give birth to my daughter, Mariah. If I didn't live I think she would have died."
Mariah has just returned from dancing lessons. She has a wide tanned face with chubby cheeks and dimples. In her sparkly black leotard and with her hair pulled back in a plait she looks like a Young Talent Time performer. Now five, her little belly protrudes over two spindly legs while her arms are plump with a layer of Cabbage Patch flesh. She is the spitting image of her mother; a vibrant, cuddly cherub filled with all the wonder and shyness of a five-year-old. But unlike most little girls her age she doesn't instinctively climb into her mother's lap. She has seen that wince of pain flash across Joanne's face too many times. Instead, Mariah hovers nearby. Joanne reaches out and gently touches her daughter's hair.
Joanne has been in constant pain since she gave birth to Mariah. She is matter-of-fact when she says she doesn't believe she has much longer to live. But she is not afraid and talks of death as a transition. Yet there is a sadness, a quiet anguish that hovers on the edge of her serenity. It's the children that cause her the unrest.
"I know I won't see them grow up," she says, her voice falling away. She pauses; a soft, deep pause. "That's hard. Very hard." The chatty, carefree exterior crumples; tears slip down Joanne's cheeks and her voice quivers. But only for a moment. Then she's chatting again, saying if she had to go through the whole thing again, she would. "It's made us the family we are today. I have three pretty fantastic kids and a wonderful husband who is my best friend."
She also has her friends. Shortly after her return from hospital, when she was completely wheelchair bound, friends and neighbours would stop by with a feather. "To help me fly," explains Joanne. In most corners of the house a pot of feathers, some brightly dyed, others straight from a bird, can be found. On Joanne's lapel sits a gold brooch in the shape of an eagle, another symbolic gift she treasures.
Above her hangs a modern painting, swirls and patterns in shades of blue and green. It was a gift from one of the five people Joanne was introduced to during her near-death experience. "Each of the five people introduced themselves and told me significant things about themselves; their names, where they lived, what they did, enough so that I could identify them," says Joanne. So far, she has tracked down four of them.
It wasn't easy, to get on the phone, explain who she was and describe intricate details of these people's lives to try to prove her story. All have embraced her, even though they are unsure why they have been singled out. The artist whose work adorns the Calmans's living room is one of Joanne's closest friends but she is wary of talking about the others as she hasn't asked their permission. She knows who the fifth person is but, for now, is loath to take it further. "I don't want to contact them yet because I think it may mean the end of my time. It's just a feeling ... it's also a confidence thing. I'm so afraid they will say 'get nicked'. Sometimes I think the whole thing is unbelievable. It's my only saving grace that I can produce these people - that I can know things about them that only they themselves can know. That's how I know I'm not mad.
"I grew up thinking that religion didn't exist. I didn't believe in clairvoyancy. Six years ago you could have signed me up for the Sceptic's Society. But something happened to me. I know I can't prove it and that's very frustrating."
When she talks of her near-death experience Joanne uses the unpretentious words she has always used. She doesn't talk about astral travel or guardian angels or crystals. She's the kind of woman you'd expect to see helping out at a cake stall at the local school. An ordinary woman who has had an extraordinary experience.