Toronto resident Yvonne Kason has had multiple near-death experiences in her life — experiences so powerful that they dramatically changed her view of reality.
Kason, a retired family physician who was also on the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine for many years, has since started two organizations — one of which is based in Toronto — where people can listen, discuss, and gain insight into similar experiences.
Near-death experiences, referred to as NDEs, are often so powerful, extraordinary, and difficult to put into words that those who experience them commonly don’t know where to turn, Kason says.
The internet is full of NDE accounts and while each one is often unique, there are similarities.
The International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS) lists a number of characteristics that may be experienced during an NDE, which it says can happen to a person close to death or in a situation of physical or emotional crisis.
They include: intense emotions of peace and love, out-of-body experiences, rapid movement through darkness towards light, a sense of being “somewhere else” like a spiritual realm, encounters with deceased loved ones and / or sacred figures, incredibly rapid thinking, sometimes a flood of universal knowledge, and a life review.
NDE accounts also often include a sense of timelessness, as if what they experienced occurred without time as a factor, and a sense of oneness with the universe.
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While most NDE accounts are pleasant, sometimes they can be disturbing.
“Whether the NDE was beautiful or terrifying, near-death experiencers commonly say it was unlike a dream, ‘more real than real,’ the most powerful event in their lives,” IANDS says.
There have been numerous scientific studies on the phenomenon, though — like with consciousness in general — there is no consensus as to what causes it. Experiencers often point to it as being evidence of an afterlife, or of a different aspect of reality not accessible through daily life.
For Kason, first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to have an NDE came to her on March 27, 1979.
“The impact of the experience was so powerful, it made me lose my fear of death,” Kason told Global News.
She was almost finished her medical residency with the University of Toronto and had been assigned that month to go to Sioux Lookout, Ont., where there was a hospital that served a lot of Indigenous communities.
The day of her NDE, she was assigned to accompany a critically ill woman on a MedEvac flight from Sioux Lookout to Winnipeg.
She was on a small plane and during the flight, they flew into a bad storm and the plane developed engine issues.
Both engines failed and the pilot guided the plane onto a frozen lake, but the plane then began to sink into the cold water, Kason said.
She said the NDE actually began as the plane was crashing, when “intense fear and panic” was replaced with a feeling of peace as she heard an inner voice telling her to be still.
Once the plane landed on the frozen lake, Kason and the nurse she was with tried to get the patient out, but the pilot screamed to them to get away, warning that the plane was going to sink.
The plane then sunk into the water and they unfortunately lost the patient, Kason said.
She then heard the inner voice again, which told her to swim to shore. Initially she hesitated, tried to get on top of the ice, but eventually made her way to the shore.
Wearing heavy winter clothes and boots, Kason struggled, going under the water several times, but was determined to make it to the shore.
That’s when her NDE “deepened,” she said.
“I heard this rushing sound like the roar of a waterfall,” Kason said.
“And then all of a sudden, I found my point of perception maybe 20 or 30 feet above my body. But I was still swimming to shore….
“It was actually like my consciousness was two places at the same time, but like a split screen TV where you have one big image and then a tiny small image in the corner. The tiny, small bit of my consciousness was still in my body that was still struggling to swim to shore. But the vast majority of my consciousness, like the big image, was now above my body looking down, and then I rose higher. And then I rose into that realm of light.”
She said she then felt an “incredible love.”
“I just absolutely knew then that I would live on, whether my body below lived or died and that I was incredibly loved by this higher power, loving force behind the universe …. I felt home.”
Kason ended up making it to shore and they were eventually rescued.
She was brought to hospital and was hypothermic. When her body warmed up, she said she “heard that rushing noise again” and “it felt like a genie being sucked into a bottle,” as she moved from expanded consciousness back to being in her body.
Kason was off work for a while but when she eventually returned, her colleagues wanted to know what her experience was like.
“And… I didn’t even have an accurate vocabulary,” she said, noting that NDEs weren’t really widely discussed at the time.
When she did tell some of her medical colleagues about the experience, everyone told her it was some sort of hallucination.
“All these hallucination theories felt totally wrong to me. And so I learned not to talk about it because it was like invalidating what I had experienced,” she said.
“This was not some hallucination.”
She eventually spoke to a medical colleague who was a devout Christian and found some comfort in his suggestion of what may have happened.
He listened to her story and suggested that she might have had a mystical experience.
“As soon as he said that it was ‘ding, ding, ding,’ the lights came on,” she said.
“This is finally at least a word that validates what happened to me….
“As a human being and as a medical doctor, I basically went into the closet for almost 12 years and didn’t talk about what had happened to me because people didn’t understand it and they were trivializing it.”
Kason said what happened to her after the experience — a feeling of isolation — is what many people still encounter today after having an NDE, leading to them staying silent and afraid to discuss it.
She said sometimes people who’ve had an NDE also experience “after-effects … where they find themselves more open to very frequently various types of psychic phenomena or more near-death experiences in the future,” which she said she has had.
That, in part, is why she and two other women decided to launch Toronto Awakenings, where individuals who have had similar experiences can come together.
The Toronto Awakenings sharing group was launched in 2019.
“We thought it would be nice to have a place in Toronto where people who are having near-death experiences and other spiritually transformative experiences could actually meet each other, get together, share their stories, learn from each other, learn more,” Kason said.
At their first meeting, Kason said she was “blown away” at how many people showed up, noting there were around 40 or 50. The next meeting saw around 80 people.
“There clearly are many people in the Toronto area who are interested or having these types of experiences,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, they had physical meetings, but have since switched to online-only meetings.
Kason also co-founded Spiritual Awakenings International, with a broader, global reach aimed at raising awareness of these types of experiences, which Toronto Awakenings is affiliated with.
Currently, Toronto Awakenings co-hosts, with Spiritual Awakenings International, a sharing event on the first Saturday of every month.
On the fourth Saturday every two months, Toronto Awakenings has had live or online featured speaker events.
The sharing circles are confidential, Kason noted.
And Kason said the events still get plenty of attendance.
“We have sort of our regulars and because they’re online now, it’s not just Toronto people that show up, we actually have people from all across Canada show up,” she said.
Videos of some past events are also available on the Toronto Awakenings website.
Marina Quattrocchi, of Smith Falls, Ont., is one of those who regularly attends and has spoke at the Toronto Awakenings sessions.
She had her own NDE on Dec. 23, 1985 when she suffered severe burns in a house fire — burns so bad that there were serious concerns about whether or not she would survive her first night in hospital.
Quattrocchi was in an intensive care unit in excruciating pain.
It was when a nurse left her hospital room and closed the door that Quattrocchi says she began to have an NDE and the excruciating pain she had been experiencing soon lifted.
“As soon as the door closed, up above me, just on the ceiling, I started to see probably like 20 to 30 faces and it was all white light,” she said, adding that she later came to believe they were “higher beings.”
“And then immediately to my right, I saw my mother and my mother had been dead at this point for about four years. And I always had a very close relationship with my mother. And you cannot describe in words how beautiful she was — she was just glowing.”
Quattrocchi said her mother then communicated to her, repeating that everything was going to be OK.
“I had absolutely no pain,” Quattrocchi said.
“I just remember feeling so enveloped with love. And it was it was blissful. I mean, that sounds hokey, but … you cannot describe these experiences with words….
“When I write about this, I say the feeling was better, like a million times better than any alcohol, any drug that you can ever ingest.”
Quattrocchi then fell asleep, survived the night, and would go on to recover for five years — eventually making a complete recovery.
Like many who have NDEs, Quattrocchi didn’t discuss her experience for many years.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in your mind that this is real. In fact, I now believe it’s more real than anything physical…. And you know that a lot of people aren’t going to believe you or think that you’re crazy. So you don’t talk about it for that reason,” she said.
Quattrocchi says she no longer has a fear of death, and says no one else should either, believing that human life is just a temporary period to learn lessons.
But being a part of Toronto Awakenings, she said, validated for her that what she experienced was “real and true,” adding that she doesn’t think she has missed one webinar.
“It’s a wonderful venue because it’s brought like-minded people together who can talk about their experiences in a place where they’re honored and validated,” she said.
“It’s open to everyone. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn, it’s free. And it was started by a woman who really, really wanted to help other people to grow and evolve and to learn.”
Toronto Awakenings is not affiliated with any religion and doesn’t endorse any particular interpretation of NDEs, its website notes.
“We welcome participants with diverse views and perspectives and ask all participants to respectfully engage as listeners to others’ experiences, without offering judgment, challenge, comment or advice,” the organization says.
Kason has written four books about what she refers to as “spiritually transformative experiences” — a broader range of extraordinary experiences which include NDEs.
She has also had four other NDEs, the most recent happening on Nov. 8, 2003, when she slipped on ice while at Niagara Falls and hit her head.
In that experience, she found herself “entering this realm that was filled with love and filled with light.”
“And I knew what the realm was because I’d been there before when I had my near-death experience in the plane crash in 1979,” she said, adding that she was met by two beings of light who told her she had died.
In that experience, she said she has a knowledge download that was more of a “re-remembering,” and a sense of timelessness.
“It was like it was all happening at the same time, and it was only a matter of where I would focus my attention,” she said.
“It was just very difficult to put into words that we can understand.”
In that case, eventually she made the decision to return to her body, she said, but faced a number of years struggling with a brain injury, until a sudden recovery in 2016, and then continued writing about “spiritually transformative experiences,” including NDEs.
“Now that I’ve had this healing … I felt compelled not only to write, but to start getting back to raising awareness both locally and internationally, not only about near-death experiences, but also about all types of spiritual awakenings that people have because they near-death experiences are like the tip of the iceberg,” Kason said.
“It’s really about consciousness and that we’re learning that human consciousness is capable of much more than what we think of in the 9 to 5.”
Kason’s latest book, Soul Lessons from the Light, was just recently released.
To learn more about the Toronto Awakenings group and see upcoming events, visit the organization’s website.