Wyoming surgeon reflects on visit with spiritual beings and her life after her death

Published: Saturday, May 19 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Mary C. Neal, a Wyoming surgeon, has a more spiritual view of life after a near-death experience following an accident while kayaking in 1999.

Family photo, Credit

JACKSON, WYO. — The way Mary C. Neal sees it, she has essentially lived two different lives: one before her "accident," as she describes it, and one after.

"I would say that I have been profoundly changed in all aspects of my life," said Neal, a respected orthopedic spinal surgeon in western Wyoming. "The details of my life, before and after, are similar. But the essence of my life — who I am, what I value, what drives me — is completely different."

Which isn't an unusual thing, especially when you consider that her "accident" included death by drowning, an all-too-brief visit with spiritual beings in the life after death, and a remarkable resuscitation after 14 minutes under water, bringing her back to life whole and complete.

But forever changed.

"Since then I've spoken to others who have had similar experiences," she said during a recent telephone interview from her home in Jackson, Wyo. "Everyone comes back a profoundly changed person."

She pauses, then adds softly: "I know I did." Which is not to say that her life before her accident was in tremendous need of change.

"I think I was pretty typical," she said as she outlined a life that included faithful church attendance as a child and "some spiritual experiences during my high school and college years."

"I should have been more committed to my Christian faith," she said, reflecting on adult years that were largely consumed by her work as a surgeon. "I was very busy, and like most people I experienced life on a daily basis. The details of my daily responsibilities sort of crowded out my responsibilities to my spiritual self."

She was a believer, a person who believed in God and in the inspired words of the Bible. "But other than just trying to be a good person," she said, "I don't think I was particularly religious."

That all changed in January 1999, when she and her husband, Bill, traveled to Chile for what was intended to be a fun, restful kayaking adventure with friends in the rivers and lakes of Chile's southern Lake District.

As she explains in her new book, "To Heaven and Back: The True Story of a Doctor's Extraordinary Walk With God," she was going over a waterfall on their last day of boating on the Fuy River when her kayak became pinned in the rocks, trapping her under the deep surging water.

Despite her best efforts to free herself from the boat, she "quickly realized that I was not in control of my future."

At this realization, she says she reached out to God and asked for his divine intervention.

"At the very moment I turned to him," she writes, "I was overcome with an absolute feeling of calm, peace, and of the very physical sensation of being held in someone's arms while being stroked and comforted. I felt like I imagine a baby must feel when being lovingly caressed and rocked in his mother's bosom. I also experienced an absolute certainty that everything would be OK, regardless of the outcome."

Although she felt "God was present and holding me," she was still very much aware of her predicament. She could not see or hear anything, but she could feel the pressure of the current pushing and pulling her body.

"It sounds rather morbid, but from an orthopedist's perspective I was intrigued as I felt my knee bones break and my ligaments tear," she said. "I tried to analyze the sensations and consider which structures were likely involved. I seemed to feel no pain, but wondered if I was actually screaming without knowing it. I actually did a quick self-assessment and decided that no, I was not screaming. I felt curiously blissful, which is remarkable because I had always been terrified of drowning."

As her body was slowly being sucked out of her kayak, she says she felt "as though my soul was slowly peeling itself away from my body."

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