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`KILLED’ BY LIGHTNING, SAVED BY `LIGHT’

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Dannion Brinkley had just told his friend he had to get off the phone - his mother had always warned him about using a telephone during an electrical storm. The next thing he knew, a lightning bolt surged into his body through the phone, fused his shoes to the floor and threw him into the air.

Brinkley, in Salt Lake City while promoting his book "Saved by the Light" (written with Paul Perry, published by Villard), recalled the horrifying moment when lightning struck him in September 1975. "Being hit by lightning is like drinking battery acid. It's as if you're burning from the inside out."Brinkley says in his book that somewhere near the ceiling his body and spirit separated. His wife, and then emergency room doctors, frantically attempted CPR for 28 long minutes. While doctors declared him dead, Brinkley believes his spirit was alive in another world.

What he found there was what we now expect from near-death experiences: the trip down the tunnel, the being of light, the life review. But Brinkley says he also experienced something else: 13 detailed visions of the future. It is these visions - along with a knowledge of his future role back on Earth - that make Brinkley's account unique.

As attendants came to take his sheet-shrouded body to the morgue, Brinkley's spirit returned to his body. He couldn't move to let them know. The best he could do was to puff at the sheet, raising it enough that someone shouted, "Look! He's still alive!" But as doctors resumed work on him in the emergency room, none expected him to live.

For eight days Brinkley lay paralyzed on his back while doctors waited for his damaged heart to give out. His eyes were so light-sensitive, the lights were kept off in his room and the curtains remained drawn. Then Brinkley managed to move a finger. He asked that a copy of "Gray's Anatomy" be brought to him so he could learn where each muscle was and try to make them function again. Brinkley's brother made a head-mounted page-turner from a coat hanger and a pencil. Brinkley turned the pages with the eraser on the pencil as he moved his head.

Several weeks later, he was released from the hospital. The doctors told his wife he might as well die at home. They still expected his heart to give out at any moment.

Brinkley could barely make it from his bed to the couch in the living room and then back to bed at night. He was often too weak even to make bathroom trips. Sometimes he fainted while trying to walk or crawl, once breaking his nose.

Brinkley found it richly ironic that the being of light expected him to accomplish so much in a physically devastated body. "I had a vision - I had a mission and they were telling me to do this. But they tricked me! They sent me back into a dead body! Shows you what a sense of humor they've got."

Over 6 feet tall, Brinkley lost 70 pounds and wore welding goggles to protect his eyes when he ventured outside. He staggered along haltingly with the aid of two walking sticks. "I looked like a half-dead crab with big pincers dragging itself across dry land."

Brinkley says it's a miracle he wasn't confined to a mental asylum for his constant talk of beings of light and visions and his "mission": the center he was to build to help people deal with stress and fear. In 1975, near-death experiences weren't talked about - most Americans didn't even know the term yet.

What saved him, he says, was a tiny article that said, "Dr. Raymond Moody will be speaking at the University of South Carolina on `What Happens to People Who Have Been Declared Clinically Dead but Survive.' " Moody is a respected physician who began collecting near-death experience stories in 1969 and published 150 of them in "Life After Life."

For the first time since the lightning strike, Brinkley knew he wasn't the only one who had had a near-death experience. Moody interviewed Brinkley and the two became close friends.

Moody transcribed the 13 visions Brinkley related to him in 1975. Since then, Brinkley says, 96 of 117 specific predictions have come true, including the fall of communism, the Chernobyl nuclear accident and the Persian Gulf War.

Rather than dwelling on the allure of remaining predictions or the fact that he thinks he gained psychic abilities from his near-death experiences (in May 1989, a second experience occurred when a staph infection settled in his aortic valve and he "died" again during heart surgery), Brinkley is much more interested in talking about the "centers" he was directed to create. His goal, he says, is to help dying patients come to grips with their mortality - to know that death is not the end.

If it were in Brinkley's power, he would have every person sign a living will that would prohibit the prolongation of life beyond its natural duration. "We should die of old age. Our last days should be spent with family. Seventy cents of every dollar in health care is spent in the last six months of life to extend life an average of 14 days," Brinkley says.

Yet Brinkley does not agree with assisted suicide. "We take something like 500 million breaths in our lifetime. When you realize there is beauty, marvel, magic and wonder in each of those breaths, you know we don't have the right to stop even one of them."

Brinkley hopes his book will help people understand death. "I am at the age that my parents and my grandparents are facing death. And I'm able to face it. I'm able to look at it and deal with it and be able to help people deal with it. I know what it's like to be afraid. I know what it's like to be dead. I know what it's like to go to the other side and see its wondrous glory. And then I know what it's like to come back and live in this world of abysmal foolishness where we all hide from love."