You may know of Dr. Eben Alexander, the UNC/Duke-trained brain surgeon who claims to have seen God while he was in a coma, nearly brain-dead, then lived to write about it.
Alexander is the author of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.” The book, written in 2012, was a New York Times bestseller, and its author has since told his story to audiences worldwide, including on Oprah and network news shows.
The book sparked renewed interest in “Near-Death Experiences,” the phenomenon of people having out-of-body sensations while in critical medical condition. There is a large body of literature on the subject, including serious scientific and medical research, and I know friends who have had such experiences. You may too.
Alexander’s excursion into an afterlife is particularly compelling because he went there from a background in medicine and science. His story also has attracted attention from investigative journalists who dug up inconsistencies in Alexander’s account.
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I became acquainted with the book recently through a study group led by the Rev. Stephen Elkins-Williams, a priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham. I felt a personal connection with Alexander, because I grew up in Lynchburg, Va., where Alexander had his experience, and know the hospital and church at the center of his story.
Raised in Winston-Salem, the son of a neurosurgeon, Alexander studied chemistry at UNC, got his medical degree from Duke and was a brain surgeon at Harvard Medical School for 15 years. At the time of his Near Death Experience (NDE), he was associated with the University of Virginia.
On Nov. 10, 2008, Alexander suffered a massive seizure and lapsed into a coma that lasted seven days. His brain was shut down by a rare attack of meningitis brought on by E. coli bacteria.
The book is a recounting of his memory of an alternative consciousness that he discovered while in the coma. In his telling, Alexander descends into a dark landscape of primordial ooze, then gradually ascends toward a higher world of color, light and celestial music. Lifted by butterfly wings, he encounters an angelic young woman and finally finds himself in the presence of a divine being that he calls “Om,” for the sound he hears in this presence.
“So I was communicating directly with God? Absolutely.” Alexander writes. “Expressed that way, it sounds grandiose. But when it was happening, it didn’t feel that way. Instead, I felt like I was doing what every soul is able to do when they leave their bodies.”
Alexander did ultimately recover, defying doctors’ predictions, and he has spent his life since spreading his message to very receptive audiences. He will make appearances in Durham April 27 and 28 to discuss his experiences.
But Alexander’s story also has raised doubts, even skepticism. A writer for Esquire Magazine found inconsistencies in the story – that the coma was not caused by E. coli but medically induced and other questions about the medical treatment. He also discovered that Alexander, at the time of his coma, was being sued for malpractice and had lost his surgical privileges at more than one hospital.
The Esquire article, published in 2013, was rebutted in a lengthy article in a journal of Near Death Experiences. Nevertheless, the disclosures of his professional problems raised doubts for me. In our study group, there was a sense that, dubious as Alexander’s claims might be, his assertion of a consciousness that transcends death seems credible and, at the least, is spiritually comforting.
It is common in medicine to encounter patients who relate near-death experiences. So common, that research has identified typical elements of an NDE, including moving through a tunnel, communication with light, observations of colors and a celestial landscape.
Recently, two friends – one a doctor, the other a PhD scientist - related to me personal experiences.
My friend David Warner, a Duke anesthesiologist, says he had such an experience when he had cardiac arrest years ago. Before he was resuscitated, he saw lights that reminded him of “2001 A Space Odyssey.”
“The lights weren’t really the element that leaves me to this day feeling (while not hoping for) not afraid of death,” he told me. “It was the warm serene feeling that accompanied the lights. Peace, is really the best word for it.”
Thankfully, Warner survived his experience and has gone on to be a pioneering medical researcher.
I have my doubts about details of Alexander’s story. But I find truth in his conclusion that there is a consciousness unique to humans that binds us to one another and, maybe, to a broader universe.
On the question of miracles, I fall back on an insight shared by my current favorite author, Jim Harrison, in his book “Returning to Earth,” about the impending death of his friend Donald: “To care for Donald in his present state is to finally understand that there are no miracles, except that we exist.”
Ted Vaden, a retired newspaper editor, lives in Chapel Hill and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.