A woman of science is given a glimpse of the afterlife through her near-death experience.
Jun 4, 2012
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
I smashed into some submerged rocks. My crazy dive stopped. Still upright, I was pinned. Trapped underwater. I couldn’t paddle. Couldn’t move. The waterfall was so strong it held me down.
My arms flopped in the vicious current. No one would ever see me in the turbulence, even with Bill’s blazing red jacket.
Pull the chute! I screamed silently. I grasped for the loop. Couldn’t reach it. The force against my arms was too strong. I pushed against the foot braces. Nothing. I tried to jiggle the boat. I desperately raised my head. Fresh air was only a couple of feet above me but I couldn’t reach it.
It was no use. I was stuck. My kayak, my coffin. You’re not in control, I told myself. Just let go.
I thought of Bill and our four kids, our family, our orthopedic practice. God, I prayed, I know you love me and have a plan for me. Thy will be done.
It was precisely at that instant something shifted in me, like a spiritual jolt. A great calm took me. It was like being a baby rocked and caressed in a mother’s arms. I had this absolutely certain sense that everything would be okay, no matter what happened.
I was overwhelmed by this peace. It completely transcended my panic and dread. I felt myself stop struggling. What about Bill and the children? Would they be all right? Could they survive without me? But that profound reassurance eased all my doubts.
“Okay, God,” I said. “Hurry up.”
At once the wild current grabbed me, jerking me out of my kayak. My knees folded back under me. I was dragged and battered by the river. I observed it clinically, dispassionately, as though I was my own patient: “Your knee bones just broke... You just tore your ligaments...”
And then the strangest thing yet— with something I can only describe as a pop my soul separated from my body.
I shot above the river into another realm. Fifteen or 20 human spirits rushed forward to welcome me. We hugged and danced. I could not identify them but I knew that I knew them, even with their outlines blurred. They were sent by God to guide me.
We began to glide along a path. We were going home. My eternal home. My companions could barely contain their joy. Joy at the instant of death. A feeling of absolute love pierced me, a feeling greater and so different from anything I’d ever known.
We were bathed in a light brighter than I had ever seen. I turned and looked down. Below me I glimpsed my body on the riverbank, the shell of an old friend.
Tom and his sons were beside my body. “Breathe, Mary, breathe!” they screamed, giving me CPR. I loved them and didn’t want them to be sad. You could go back for just one breath, I thought. At that, I flew down and took a breath, then instantly went back to my companions.
We traveled a path that led to a great hall, larger and more beautiful than anything I could conceive of, with an immense dome and a central arch built with shimmering gold blocks. I felt my soul gravitate toward the entrance, absorbed by the ever-present radiance.
Heaven. Irresistible paradise. Eternal home. I was flooded with an intense longing to be reunited with God.
Still Tom and his sons kept beckoning. Each time they begged me to take a breath I felt obligated to return quickly to my body and take another breath before continuing my journey. I grew impatient. I need to keep traveling. Let me go.
I understood everything my spiritual companions told me, even though they didn’t speak. All our thoughts simply merged. We were right at the archway with the golden bricks. Suddenly they turned to me.
“Not yet,” they said. “It’s not your time to enter. You have more to do on earth.” Sorrow filled me, as powerful as the great joy had been. I knew I had to go back, back to life. Yet I knew I would also return. Someday. Just not now.
I opened my eyes to see the faces of the Longs staring at me. They were amazed to see me conscious. I’d been “dead” for over 11 minutes. I couldn’t move my legs and assumed I’d broken my back.
The trip up the hillside and my reunion with Bill was filled with one miracle after another: like the mysterious ambulance that appeared out of nowhere in this remote wilderness and the helpers who assisted us, then disappeared.
Our trip back to the States was an incredible journey, an odyssey. There, I recovered slowly from my injuries (fortunately I diagnosed myself wrong; I did not break my back, thank God). But it’s taken even more time to absorb my experience.
In the 13 years since, I have seen how my work as a mom, a wife and a doctor has not been over. My most important job is to tell this story.
Perhaps it was entrusted to me because I am a doctor and I think in terms of facts and objective knowledge. But there is another world to which we’re called and it is the most true and beautiful we will ever experience. Our eternal home awaits us.
Watch as Mary C. Neal describes her near-death experience.
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