Fifteen years ago, David Ditchfield was bidding farewell to a friend at a train station near Cambridge, England, when his coat got stuck between the train's doors. Unable to break free, he was pulled into the space between the train and the platform and tossed around relentlessly as the train accelerated to a terrifying speed.
Ditchfield survived the incident, but his life would never be the same. After being thrown to the ground between the rail tracks, he was ultimately rescued by paramedics and brought to the hospital for emergency surgery. It was at that time that Ditchfield experienced a stunning near-death experience, or "NDE," that changed him forever.
While Ditchfield says that his life was on a downward spiral before the dramatic accident, he awoke from surgery with a renewed sense of purpose and a sudden, unexplained ability to paint and compose classical music. Though he never received any classical music training and cannot read or write musical notation, he has since composed numerous remarkable symphonies and performed in front of sell-out audiences.
Ditchfield is just one of the recently featured guest speakers at Williamsburg Friends of IANDS (International Association for Near-Death Studies), a group started in 2018 by local resident and Licensed Professional Counselor Helen Hope Dillard.
"People come back from these experiences and their lives are pretty much turned around, and they don't want to do the same things anymore,” said Dillard. “They want to do something that's more positive and helpful for others.”
Williamsburg Friends of IANDS is a local chapter of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a nonprofit educational organization that pours its resources into providing high-quality information about NDEs. IANDS was originally founded in 1978 by a small group of physicians and researchers in Charlottesville, Virginia and was later headquartered at the University of Connecticut.
Today, IANDS groups exist all over the world. The organization now publishes a peer-reviewed scholarly journal and works to promote understanding about the effects of near-death experiences on people who encounter them, including the implications for their faith and beliefs about life, death and human purpose.
Dr. Chuck Webb is a regular attendee of Williamsburg Friends of IANDS and has recently taken on a leadership role in the group, helping to organize and run the meetings. As a physician with a master's in divinity and extensive experience working in hospice environments, Webb has personally witnessed people fundamentally transform after experiencing NDEs. They often no longer fear death, Webb says, and they usually come back with more love for others and an intense desire to make the world a better place.
"I've listened to upwards of five or six hundred people present their cases," said Webb. "Physicians are the ones that seem to know and understand the fact that people rise out of their bodies and the brain is not working. And yet the people are there and reliably describe what’s happening. They can tell you what's said, they can tell you what's going on, they can read the serial number on the defibrillator and they can hear conversations in the next room.”
According to IANDS, a near-death experience can be 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."
While no two experiences are the same, there are often striking similarities between the accounts: feelings of intense peace and joy and, in many cases, an encounter with divine light. Individuals who face NDEs also commonly report a perception of seeing and hearing from the physical body, passing through a tunnel, reuniting with deceased loved ones and being given a choice to return to their life on earth.
About 17 percent of individuals who come close to death report NDEs, according to research conducted by the Missouri Medicine medical journal. The experiences have been described by individuals across all ages, demographics, professions and religious faiths in countries throughout the world.
For Michael J. Millam, the Williamsburg Friends of IANDS group has been a source of comfort during dark times. While Millam has not personally had an NDE, death is all too familiar to him. Five years ago, his wife passed away unexpectedly. He describes that profound loss as akin to feeling "a sledgehammer upside my head."
"The first three, four months, I did everything I was supposed to do, just kind of going through the motions. I think I was in shock more than anything else, and I was in a pretty dark place," said Millam. "And then I heard about IANDS."
Millam says that since he began attending the group several years ago, he has only missed one or two meetings because he finds the experience to be so beneficial.
"So many of the speakers I've felt connected to, and they bring a joy, a calmness about everything," Millam said.
During the meetings, attendees listen to the speakers and then have the opportunity to ask questions, engage in discussion and share their own experiences, if desired. There is no pressure to participate.
The group previously met at the James City Library on Croaker Road in Williamsburg, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meetings are now held on Zoom on the last Saturday of the month from 11 am to 1 pm. While the transition to Zoom was not necessarily ideal, the virtual format makes it easier for the group to host speakers from all over the world, such as Ditchfield from the United Kingdom.
According to Dillard, the group also draws participants with a wide variety of backgrounds, including those who hail from other countries.
“We have people from England; we've had people from the Netherlands. We have a person from India,” Dillard said. “Some doctors are also in the group who come on a fairly regular basis.”
Dillard and Millam both emphasized that the group is open to everyone in the general public and can benefit any person, particularly if they attend with an open mind and a willingness to learn from other individuals’ spiritually transformative experiences.
"I think anybody would benefit from [the IANDS meetings], especially if they can go in with a non-judgmental mindset and see what this is all about," said Millam. "Just start poking around at all the thousands - and I mean, they've done thousands - of case studies, and look at the similarities between so many of them."
Millam also finds that those who have been through difficult or traumatic life experiences tend to find the IANDS meetings particularly inspiring.
"You can come on out and meet some really cool people," Millam said. "Hopefully, on some level, it starts to ease whatever pain you might be going through and give you a sense of comfort that, 'Well, when my time comes, I'm not fearful of it.'"