IUP Home | A–Z Index | Apply Now | Support IUP | News and Events | Find People |

There for Life’s End: Bob Anderson ’67 helps people who are dying, whether it’s at the bedside or disaster site

By Chauncey Ross
March 26, 2013
Appeared in the
Spring 2013 issue of IUP Magazine

In his work for the U.S. military and hospitals, Anderson is witness to one of the most personal moments in people’s lives – the time of their death. He shares his observations.

A Curiosity about Dying Unfolds

Bob Anderson '67

Bob Anderson ‘67 outside the Utah Valley Family Medicine Residency in Provo, Utah. Behind him is the Wasatch Range, an offshoot of the Rocky Mountains. [Judy Simmons Newman/Intermountain Urban South Region]

Everyone has heard them. Tales of people with the most personal confrontations with death: folks with out-of-body experiences, who see the bright light and return to tell about it.

Bob Anderson has heard stories like that. Hundreds, actually, in his more than 40 years in health care.

Anderson, a 1967 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has been in the roles of social worker, mental health clinic chief, and behavioral medicine and bioethics director in Air Force and private sector hospitals. And, his work has earned acclaim from academic and professional organizations to the Department of Defense and the White House.

But above the honors, Anderson talks about what he cherishes more, what his profession has brought him as a privilege—the trust of patients who have confided in him what they experienced on the edge of their deaths.

His fascination with near-death experiences began when Anderson was not quite school age, when his mother was almost lost to pneumonia. She spoke of having a near-death experience, and no one was sure what to make of it, he said.

“From a very early age, I got to thinking that, if a philosophy or psychology or theology doesn’t include this type of phenomenon or experience, then I wasn’t going to be interested.”

He went on to earn degrees in liberal arts with a concentration in sociology at IUP, social service administration at the University of Chicago, divinity at McCormick Theological Seminary, and health care education at Nova Southeastern University.

A 20-year hitch in the Air Force took Anderson to military medical centers around the world, and he retired as a lieutenant colonel in the mid-1990s. Wrapped around the service, Anderson was trained and trained others at hospitals from Pittsburgh to Provo, Utah, where he has headed the behavioral medicine and bioethics program at the Utah Valley Family Medicine Residency since 1994.

At the University of Chicago, Anderson worked under psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in studies of the dying. “I just kind of hung out with her, and that’s where I started running into folks who were having these near-death experiences,” he said. After graduate school, he decided to weave together what he’d learned from those people and use it to help others.


Keep Reading»

More from the Spring 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine

On Top of Marcellus Shale

On Top of Marcellus Shale

IUP expertise is tapped in shale gas boom

Performance Has Its Rewards

Performance Has Its Rewards

IUP has always embraced the challenge of performance-based rewards from Harrisburg

 

Message from the President

IUP operates with accountability and efficiency—and we continually strive to improve our performance.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

Just Like Old Times

Coach Curt Cignetti has fast returned IUP football to a tradition of success--one he knows well

Alumni on the Admissions Beat

Putting a face on IUP for prospective students around the country

The Johnson and Johnson of Art

Professor George Johnson and his wife, Julie, leave a beautiful campus legacy

 |  Next

Time to Be with People

A man in an auto accident and believed dead on arrival at the hospital later told Anderson about his experience. “He said there was a momentary flash of pain when he hit the tree. Next thing he knew, he was floating above the wreck looking down and feeling really peaceful. He said, ‘I got the sense that I was dead, but I had never been dead before, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I  just followed the ambulance to the hospital and that’s when you guys worked on me.’”

Not all physicians care for patients across levels of consciousness, Anderson explained. It takes buying into a “non-local” frame of reference.

“My residents are becoming family physicians, meaning they are going into a specialty seeing patients not just as bodies or organ systems or disease processes, but as people who have a psyche, a soul, who have a context.” That means they take life events, including death, into account in their treatment.

A local perspective is the idea that the body is what’s real, and consciousness is basically the firing of synapses in the brain, he said. “So when the body dies and the brain ceases to function, then of course there is nothing after that. The problem with that is that there is an awful lot of evidence to show that something is happening even if your cortex isn’t functioning real well.”

In contrast, the non-local perspective is that “bodies are really important and brains are really important, but that’s not the end all and be all,” he said. “Consciousness exists before you got into that body, it certainly exists while you’re in that body, and it will exist separate from the body when you’re getting ready to transition.”

In essence, it’s the time when treating patients based on book knowledge ends. “If you’re one of my young physicians, you know there’s a time to do things to people, but there’s also a time when you be with people, and we teach them how to differentiate.”

Having a rapport with patients is critical, in Anderson’s thinking. Applicants for residencies at his center in Provo are gauged not only on medical school grades and board scores, but emotional intelligence and sense of humor.

Anderson breaks the ice with one-liners. He closes his e-mail messages with them, subtly drops one in his otherwise stolid biographical outline, and peppers his lectures to industry colleagues with quips. In conversation, Anderson exudes a warm, inviting tone.

He carefully measures the style of his relationship with his patients.

“I use the language of the person I’m working with,” he said. “If I’m with a 21st century empiricist, we might talk about the dying process as going from matter to energy. If I’m sitting with a person whose Christian religious faith is central to their being, we’ll draw on biblical passages and their particular tradition to inform the process.”

Making a connection with patients and, in some cases, their families, grows the trust that Anderson treasures.

There was Ruth, a woman from Germany, a cancer patient, who shared with Anderson her fondness for brown beer that she enjoyed back home and talked with him about death. He helped to ease her through bouts of nausea that came with her treatment and continued to work with her late in her illness, when she went into congestive heart failure.

When he checked in with her one Friday, she told him, “It’s getting close.’”

His experiences with death, Anderson said, give him no special vision about it. His patients know better when it’s their time to go.

“Early in my career, people would say, ‘Well, Bob, today is the day we say goodbye.’ And I would say, ‘Oh, no, I’ve seen your labs, I’ve seen your blood work.’ And, of course, they would go because they knew more about this stuff than I did. They have an intuitive sense about what’s going on.”


Keep Reading»

More from the Spring 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine

On Top of Marcellus Shale

On Top of Marcellus Shale

IUP expertise is tapped in shale gas boom

Performance Has Its Rewards

Performance Has Its Rewards

IUP has always embraced the challenge of performance-based rewards from Harrisburg

 

Message from the President

IUP operates with accountability and efficiency—and we continually strive to improve our performance.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

Just Like Old Times

Coach Curt Cignetti has fast returned IUP football to a tradition of success--one he knows well

Alumni on the Admissions Beat

Putting a face on IUP for prospective students around the country

The Johnson and Johnson of Art

Professor George Johnson and his wife, Julie, leave a beautiful campus legacy

Previous  |  Next

Winging It in a Disaster

A Vietnam veteran told Anderson of being out of his body when he was shot. “The guy was running across a rice paddy, and he didn’t feel the bullet hit him,” Anderson said. He figured it out as he was running, noticing that he felt “different.”

“He stopped and looked around, and he saw his body lying in the rice paddy. So he did not realize he had just left his body.”

For the military, Anderson became one of the go-to guys for leading teams in emotional crises—helping victims of disasters, survivors of bombings and terrorist attacks, and those who lost loved ones in jet crashes. A superior told him he was repeatedly tapped for these jobs because of his reputation.

“I seemed to have visited hell on a number of occasions and knew my way around there,” he said. “So, rather than them taking a chance on somebody who hadn’t, they just grabbed me.”

Anderson on the beach

Anderson on the beach in Mogadishu in the early 1990s, when Air Combat Command sent him to bases in Somalia and Kenya to check on morale [Courtesy of Bob Anderson]

He conceded that he seldom took assignments with a plan in hand, and he understood what to do only after landing at his destinations. Anderson was winging it when he joined the rescued tourists of the hijacked cruise ship Achille Lauro. Terrorizing the passengers, the hijackers had shot and thrown overboard a wheelchair-bound hostage, Leon Klinghoffer. Anderson found himself assisting Klinghoffer’s wife.

“After a while, she said,‘Bob, are you with mental health?’ And I said, ‘Well, Mrs. Klinghoffer, that’s what I do around the base. But today you don’t need mental health, you need friends.’

“I try to work kindred spirit to kindred spirit. I’m not technique-driven because I don’t know necessarily what I’m going to do. I don’t throw a bag of clinical tricks in the room. When I go in, I just sit and hang out and see what will happen.”

Anderson’s work in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the attack on the USS Stark, and the bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut brought him accolades, but also a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.


Keep Reading»

More from the Spring 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine

On Top of Marcellus Shale

On Top of Marcellus Shale

IUP expertise is tapped in shale gas boom

Performance Has Its Rewards

Performance Has Its Rewards

IUP has always embraced the challenge of performance-based rewards from Harrisburg

 

Message from the President

IUP operates with accountability and efficiency—and we continually strive to improve our performance.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

Just Like Old Times

Coach Curt Cignetti has fast returned IUP football to a tradition of success--one he knows well

Alumni on the Admissions Beat

Putting a face on IUP for prospective students around the country

The Johnson and Johnson of Art

Professor George Johnson and his wife, Julie, leave a beautiful campus legacy

Previous  |  Next

Common Threads in Near-Death Experiences

A professor in Ohio, a staunch atheist, told Anderson about what he figured to be his death after his appendix ruptured some time ago. “He saw himself on the bed, but he wasn’t sure what to do. So, he went toward the door and he opened it, and there were these dark beings inviting him to come with them, saying that they would take care of him.” But he said they assailed him, kicking, scratching, and beating him.

“He knew he needed help, and he knew that he probably should say a prayer, but he didn’t know any,” Anderson said. “So, he recited the Pledge of Allegiance. And, damn, it worked. These folks are backing off, and he yelled for help, and on came a light.”

Anderson points to an indisputable statistic as grounds that his effort is of substance. The human mortality rate is 100 percent. And while there’s no standard for what makes a near-death experience, he said he has gleaned signs that a transition is taking place.

“When you have a patient, for example, with no pulse or respiration, and they can tell you the joke that you cracked to try to relieve the tension during the code, or they tell you, ‘Would you mind getting a hold of that doctor who didn’t give up on me?’ that’s probably a good indication that your consciousness is around.”

Anderson in his office

A 2005 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, Bob Anderson plans to retire this summer as director of behavioral medicine and bioethics with the Utah Valley Family Medicine Residency, a program he cofounded in 1994. [Photo by Judy Simmons Newman]

Among those who live to tell about near-death experiences, there are a few common threads.

“What you often find is that these are profound, life-changing experiences,” Anderson said. People return less frightened of physical death and often with the belief that they have a reason for being here.

Sometimes they come across beings of light they describe as “absolutely loving,” he said. “But oftentimes the light will ask, ‘So, what do you have to show me what you’ve done with your life?’ And it’s probably not talking about your stock portfolio or your academic background.”

Near-deathers, as some researchers call them, sometimes assume their second chance is a grandiose mission, “like they have to change the world,” Anderson said. “And I tell them, no, every time you walk down the hall and smile at somebody, you make their day better. …If you pay close attention, you’ll find out what you need to be doing.”


Keep Reading»

More from the Spring 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine

On Top of Marcellus Shale

On Top of Marcellus Shale

IUP expertise is tapped in shale gas boom

Performance Has Its Rewards

Performance Has Its Rewards

IUP has always embraced the challenge of performance-based rewards from Harrisburg

 

Message from the President

IUP operates with accountability and efficiency—and we continually strive to improve our performance.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

Just Like Old Times

Coach Curt Cignetti has fast returned IUP football to a tradition of success--one he knows well

Alumni on the Admissions Beat

Putting a face on IUP for prospective students around the country

The Johnson and Johnson of Art

Professor George Johnson and his wife, Julie, leave a beautiful campus legacy

Previous  |  Next

Work That’s a Privilege

Thoughts of the near-dead are often far from profound, as they were for a man who opened up after Anderson helped to comfort him on a turbulent flight. “He told me about being hit by a car a few years back. He ran out, he could see the grill, and the next thing he knew, he was slowly cartwheeling up in the air and over the car.

“I said, ‘That must have been scary.’ He said, ‘No, I was feeling peaceful. But I was really honked off because I had this brand new jacket and I noticed it had been ripped.’

“But then he went over the car and then, when he hit the ground, that’s when he came back to whatever dimension we are in and could really feel his bones.”

Anderson hasn’t held his degree in divinity as a ticket to a job as a pastor or minister, but he hasn’t let it get dusty. During the Gulf War, when Central Command sent him to check on morale at the bases, he would often do the Sunday services to give the chaplains a break.

To give himself support, Anderson said, he relies on a quick prayer in the face of a turbulent situation. He repeats it three or four times: “I’m here only to be truly helpful. I’m here to represent you who sent me. I don’t have to worry about what to say or what to do, because you who sent me will direct me. I will go anywhere you wish, knowing that you go there with me. I will be healed just as you teach me to heal.”

With his theological background, Anderson said, he has come to expect answers rather than feel the need to provide them. “There’s something beyond me that has allowed me to be in these situations, and if I can just shut up and ask for help and listen, interesting stuff happens.

“Just as when people ask what I will do when I retire, I say I will know when I get there.”

In the hundreds of times patients have relied on him to hear them out, Anderson believes he has not been thrust into those circumstances. Rather, he has been allowed to share in them.

“I think it’s a privilege and a responsibility,” he said.

Anderson snapped up from a sound sleep at 7:00 a.m. one Saturday, his intuition telling him that Ruth, the cancer patient, needed him. Hurrying to her room, he found her in a coma.

“After a couple of hours of being with her and the family, reading the stuff she enjoyed, playing the music she enjoyed, I got the feeling it was time to help the process,” he said.

“I told her, ‘Look, Ruthie, you’re not going to get any brown beer around here. What I’m going to do now is count you down your hill, and when you get down there, you’ll run into the people that you’ve run into before. You go with them, and we’ll take care of your family, and I’ll catch up with you when it’s my turn.’

“And that’s what we did, and 10 minutes later, her respiration stopped.”

Anderson is planning retirement later this year but calls it a “change of venue.” He and his wife of 45 years, Bonnie, figure to move to Greenville, South Carolina, near their sons, Ken and Adam, and their respective families. Anderson said he’s considering volunteering at an area hospital.

But this work? And passing on what he has learned? Those, he said, are hardly done.

“If people want to talk to me about this stuff, I’m happy to do it. And I will basically tell them I have not died, that I can remember, but I have hung around with a lot of people who have. And if you like, I would be happy to teach you what they shared with me about it. But this is always by invitation only. I don’t go in unless I’m invited.”

More from the Spring 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine

On Top of Marcellus Shale

On Top of Marcellus Shale

IUP expertise is tapped in shale gas boom

Performance Has Its Rewards

Performance Has Its Rewards

IUP has always embraced the challenge of performance-based rewards from Harrisburg

 

Message from the President

IUP operates with accountability and efficiency—and we continually strive to improve our performance.

Namedroppers | Achievements | Mentors

Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

Just Like Old Times

Coach Curt Cignetti has fast returned IUP football to a tradition of success--one he knows well

Alumni on the Admissions Beat

Putting a face on IUP for prospective students around the country

The Johnson and Johnson of Art

Professor George Johnson and his wife, Julie, leave a beautiful campus legacy

Previous  |