Sakuda brought a few pictures of loved ones, which, Grob recalled, she clutched in her hands as she lay back on the bed. By her side were Grob and one of his research assistants, both of whom stayed with the subjects for the six-to-seven-hour treatment session. Sakuda knew that there would be time set aside in the days and weeks following when she would meet with Grob and his team to process what would happen in that room. Black eyeshades were draped over Sakuda’s face, encouraging her to look inward. She was given headphones. Music was piped in: the sounds of rivers rushing, sweet staccatos, deep drumming. Each hour, Grob and his staff checked in with Sakuda, as they did with every subject, asking if all was O.K. and taking her blood pressure. At one point, Grob observed that Sakuda, with the eyeshades draped over her face, began to cry. Later on, Sakuda would reveal to Grob that the source of her tears was a keen empathetic understanding of what her spouse Norbert would feel when she died.
Grob’s setup — the eyeshades, the objects, the mystical music, the floral aromas and flowing fabrics — was drawn from the work of Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist born in Prague and a father of the study of psychedelic medicine for the dying. In the mid-’60s — before words like “acid” and “bong” and “Deadhead” transformed the American landscape, at a time when psychedelics were not illegal because most people didn’t know what they were and thus had no urge to ingest them — Grof began giving the drug to cancer patients at the Spring Grove State Hospital near Baltimore and documenting their effects.
Grof kept careful notes of his many psychedelic sessions, and in his various papers and books derived from those sessions, he described cancer patients clenched with fear who, under the influence of LSD or DPT, experienced relief from the terror of dying — and not just during their psychedelic sessions but for weeks and months afterward. Grof continued his investigations into psychedelics for the dying until the culture caught up with him — the recreational use of drugs and the reaction against them leading to harsh antidrug laws. (Richard Nixon famously called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.”) Financing for psychedelic studies dried up, and Grof turned his attention to developing alternative methods of accessing higher states of consciousness. It is only now, decades later, that Grob and a handful of his fellow scientists feel they can re-examine Grof’s methods and outcomes without risking their reputations.