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A Sneak Peek of Heaven

A woman of science is given a glimpse of the afterlife through her near-death experience.

By Mary C. Neal, M.D., Jackson Hole, Wyoming

As appeared in

I am a doctor, well versed in medical science and accustomed to fact-based explanations. Perhaps that’s why, on one level at least, it made me a bit uneasy when patients shared their faith despite my own strong Christian belief.

Maybe it was because I wondered if science and spirituality were truly compatible. I’d try to be open to what my patients said, although I confess I didn’t always understand.

I remember, early in my medical training, treating a 14-year-old girl who was dying. Death, after all, is a definitive medical fact. There’s nothing more scientific than death.

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“Don’t be sad,” she told me. “My angels are with me. My parents need to let me go. Please be happy.” I desperately tried to believe her, but I still couldn’t understand the loss of this beautiful child.

Not until one day in the high mountains of Chile when I died myself, not until then did I finally see the light.

My husband, Bill, and I had gone to Chile for a white-water kayaking vacation. Bill, like me, is an orthopedic surgeon and we share a practice, along with a love of outdoor adventure.

We had paddled on some of the roughest rivers in the United States and this was a chance to try our stuff on the wild, untamed waters of the Chilean Andes. We left our four young children at home with our longtime babysitter and traveled to one of the remotest corners of the globe.

Snow-fed rivers tumbled down volcanic slopes, with challenging 10- and 20- foot drops, perfect for us. Our guides were our good friends, Tom and Debbi Long, along with their sons. They’d been hosting white-water trips to Chile for years and knew exactly where to go and what we’d face.

Still, that morning, I had an uneasy feeling. Maybe it was because Bill was going to take the day off—he had some back pain that was bothering him. (You’d think that with both of us in the business we could avoid that!)

Or maybe it was because a new, less-experienced group of boaters was joining us that day. I just had this strange, shadowy feeling.

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“Sure I can’t convince you?” I asked Bill one last time. “I can fix whatever’s ailing you.”

Bill chuckled. “I’ll take the truck and meet you at the takeout,” he said. “I’ll find a nice place to read and enjoy the scenery.” The views of thick subtropical forests and snow-covered peaks were breathtaking. Civilization was far away. I almost envied him his peace and quiet.

“Okay,” I said. “Give me your paddling jacket.” His was bright red, unlike my drab one. At least he could spot me easily from shore, and I’d have a part of him with me.

He drove us to the put-in. I slipped on his jacket and kissed him goodbye. Then I joined the rest of the group and we stepped into our boats. “We’ll stop before we hit our first big drop,” Tom said.

I put my feet against the foot braces and tightened the spray skirt around my waist. It would keep water out of the boat and my lower half dry. If a kayaker gets into trouble she can pull the loop, or “pull the chute” as we say, to release the spray skirt and escape the boat quickly.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched the new kayakers. One in particular wasn’t so sure of herself. I steered around her. We paddled downriver, stopping at the eddy above the falls. There was a narrow channel to the right and a larger main channel to the left.

“We’ll take the smaller channel,” Tom called over the water’s roar. “It’s more predictable.”

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Good move, I thought, remembering the inexperienced kayaker. The left channel looked pretty hairy.

The first boater paddled down the channel on the right. I followed. The current moved swiftly. We headed forward. Suddenly her boat turned at an angle. She was being whipped sideways by the current. Then her boat got lodged between two boulders.

She jumped out and waded to shore, leaving her kayak on the rocks.

I’m going to have to go left. There was no stopping my momentum. I took a deep breath and plunged 15, 20 feet down the falls. My boat dove straight down. The force of the water was crushing. It ripped the paddle from my hands.