The 70-year-old man lay silent as hospital monitors beeped and the respirator breathed "life" into his prone body. Moment by moment indicators informed medical staff that their patient in a specialized intensive care unit subsisted only because of life support.
"Every day they asked if we should unhook him," daughter Shelley Wood remembers of the grim days and nights in 2013 as she stood watch at her father's bedside. "I'd lay my head on his chest and pray," recalling her unexplainable peace.
Five days. No brain activity. A case that appeared hopeless.
Nevertheless, Shelley kept praying in partnership with family, a multitude of Facebook friends and numerous religious prayer chains. The attractive "40-something" real estate agent from California's Central Coast had a broad reach — and a profound faith in God.
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Then on the fifth day of vigilance and prayer, a miracle happened.
"All of a sudden his eyes opened and they were crystal blue," says Shelley as she cried, "'Dad, you've seen the Lord!'" in awe of the look on his face. "He kept trying to talk, trying to write gibberish and kept trying to breathe on his own," while alerted hospital personnel rushed to remove his respirator.
For an ordinary guy, retired insurance agent Ernie French of Atascadero, Calif., had an extraordinary story to tell. According to him, he had been to heaven and back.
This extraordinary journey started on March 25 in Santa Maria, an hour south of his hometown. Ernie, who had been attending a friend's barbeque, began to feel sick.
"My wife, Barbara, saw my color wasn't good and she said I needed to go to the doctor," remembers Ernie. "I thought I could just tough it through, but I was sweating profusely and having trouble breathing."
Rushing by car, Barbara at the wheel, the couple hoped to reach San Luis Obispo because of his medical records on file. That hospital was still almost an hour away. As they raced north on Highway 101, Ernie's situation deteriorated just as a local hospital sign appeared.
"I said, 'No! We’re going to stop here!'" Barbara recalls her insistence above Ernie’s protests. That decision likely helped save her husband's life initially.
But the true beginning of this astounding story began earlier in the wee morning hours of that same day. Shelley had awakened from a troubling dream that forewarned of her father's death.
"My dad was in a hospital bed and he was dying," the slender blonde says of the vivid vision. "The nurses and doctors turned around and said, 'He’s drowning in his fluids.'"
She also recalls her directive from God.
"The Lord said to me, 'Your dad is going to die today. Cancel your real estate appointments and stay close to him.'"
Immediately Shelley began to pray fervently for her father, keeping the disquieting revelation to herself. By sunrise a text to her cell phone rang out; her dad didn’t feel well, but still planned to push through the day. Before nightfall, the former Selah, Wash., resident and one-time Kennewick property owner, would be on his deathbed.
Shelley remembers the emergency room, how her dad struggled to breathe.
“I kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with my dad?’” as doctors and nurses worked to stabilize him while he agonizingly gasped for air.
Shelley, her mom and Ernie Jr. watched and waited. Then their father and husband took a life-threatening turn.
A “code blue” button – a bedside critical emergency alarm – activated bringing multiple staff rushing to Ernie’s room. But pneumonia, kidney failure and congestive heart failure had taken their toll on the more than 300-pound senior. The prophetic dream became reality as a doctor turned to Shelley and said, “He’s drowning in his own fluids.”
“I’d left my body and I was at the top of room,” Ernie now reflects on his perspective of the scene. “I was observing all kinds of people trying to resuscitate me, force a tube down my throat. I heard my doctor say, ‘Oh no, I think we’ve lost him!’ That’s when I was transported to heaven.” What Ernie experienced there is difficult for him to describe — the brilliance, the pervading love, the communication between he and God, all without words. Yet, he feels compelled to tell the multi-dimensional story in language that seems to him, flat.
“The gate looked like the Eiffel tower, without the tower,” Ernie says about his entry into heaven. “It was filled with emeralds, rubies, diamonds and precious stones that were reflecting the tremendous light — so mind-blowing and breathtaking.”
As the new arrival took steps beyond the gate, he became aware of the transparency of the golden multi-tiered street where other beings moved below, clothed in white gowns.
“As I look,” Ernie says with awe in his voice, “I see people walking and moving who were around 25-years of age — perfect 10s.”
He had the distinct impression these were souls whose heavenly bodies were now flawless and ageless. And although Ernie didn’t see anyone he knew in the brief moment, his attention was drawn to an immediate hand reaching for his. Suddenly, he was face to face with Jesus Christ — and then his Savior called him by name.
“His eyes were a beautiful blue, eyes of such compassion,” Ernie says with conviction. “And right then I knew I was forgiven,” he pauses with emotion, “ the feeling and the euphoria of knowing that love.”
It wasn’t that Ernie hadn’t believed as a young boy, asked Jesus into his heart, and then continued in his faith through adulthood. But the realization that everything during his lifetime had been pardoned — all thoughts and actions — was joyous.
Ernie looks back on the walk with Jesus and the mental discourse between them as a period without boundaries of time. Out of his earthly body and with no limitations, Ernie came across images spoken of in the Bible.
“Then he (Jesus) took me to a veranda, like an observation deck,” Ernie remembers the scene with clarity. “He told me this was Hebrews 12:1-2, the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who can pray for you, but can’t make a decision for you. They’re encouragers and when you lose a loved one, you’ve increased your prayer power in heaven.”
But would Ernie soon join others on that veranda, encouraging family and friends on earth? Or did the aging father of four have work still to do on earth?
The Army veteran believes God gave him several directives during his journey; one was to return and begin a healing ministry as a visiting church preacher. Another part of his mission was to alert everyone that Jesus is coming back in Ernie’s lifetime.
“The Lord said to me, ‘You will be there when I return. You are to take my message back,’” said Ernie, recalling the celestial music and people worshipping and praising God.
It was alluring to stay forever, to bask in the “liquid love” he felt from Jesus in the depths of his being. But as quickly as Ernie had been transported to heaven five days earlier, he was about to experience a transition once again.
“The Lord says, ‘Your visit is over.’ And suddenly I’m slipping back into my body and can’t believe I can’t talk because of the tube in my mouth!” Ernie says of how he was surrounded by family and desperately wanting to communicate, even signaling for pen and paper.
Before long the news spread that a patient had made a phenomenal recovery.
“There were people all over the hospital that knew something big had happened,” the retiree says. “They had given me up for dead; wanted to pull the plug. But Shelley fought with them. ‘No, my daddy wouldn’t want that. Give God a chance to heal him.’”
Nowadays it’s Ernie’s mission to heal others, physically and, or, emotionally in the name of Jesus. The vigorous senior citizen spreads the word of his experience through church services or one-on-one with people he meets on the street, in the supermarket, or wherever he finds a listening ear.
“When I experienced the love of God so marvelously, you can’t help but want to give it away,” says Ernie about the experience that changed him into a gentler, more loving person. “Heaven is such a beautiful place and heaven is for real.”
Ernie French spent five days there, but for him it wasn’t nearly long enough.