Neurosurgeon's near-death experience changes his opinion
After more than 20 years as an academic neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander held a very scientific — and very dim — view of near-death experiences.
“To me, they were brain-based illusions,” says Alexander, a Winston-Salem native and a graduate of the Duke University School of Medicine.
“When patients told me about their near-death experiences, I didn’t pay much attention to them. I would pat them on the shoulder, reassure them, and tell them the dying brain does all kinds of crazy things. I didn’t encourage them to take their experiences too seriously.”
Five years ago, though, an ironic twist of fate radically changed Alexander’s way of thinking — he had a near-death experience of his own — and suddenly he was able to reconcile his strictly scientific point of view with a spiritual perspective.
“My coma journey showed me something very different,” says Alexander, who will share his story during a May 2 fundraiser in Winston-Salem for Heartstrings, a local support group for families that have experienced pregnancy and infant loss. “I learned there is an infinitely powerful God who loves us far more than we could ever love ourselves.”
Alexander grew up in a Methodist church and considered himself a believer. As he aged, though, and as his fascination with science grew deeper and deeper, his belief in any sort of afterlife dimmed to the point of agnosticism, if not atheism.
The journey that changed him began on Nov. 10, 2008, when he contracted bacterial meningitis, a deadly infection that attacked his brain and sent him into a deep coma. Doctors blasted his body with powerful antibiotics, but Alexander remained comatose, his chances for survival growing slimmer by the day.
“My neurologic exam showed only minimal function — I had been losing brain-stem function from the beginning,” Alexander says. “From a doctor’s perspective, by day two or three of a coma, your patient is either starting to wake up or they’re dead, but I kept hanging in there.”
Day seven arrived.
“You have a 2-percent chance of survival at that point,” he says, “and no chance of significant neurological return of function.”
That’s the science in Alexander speaking, but the science proved wrong in this case. He awoke on the seventh day — apparently with full neurological return of function, but also with a strange, fantastic story to tell.
“When I first came back, I knew the whole odyssey and wrote it down — it was about 20,000 words describing this rich, extended odyssey,” Alexander says.
Those written recollections became the basis of Alexander’s New York Times bestseller, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.”
In a phone interview, Alexander relates his near-death experience, during which he says he initially found himself in a dark, murky sort of netherworld that he compares to being underground.
“I was rescued from that view by this beautiful, clear, perfect light,” he says. “I remember it having a very coarse surface, like this brown glass with tendrils of white and gold coming off it, and it was slowly spinning as it came toward me. I also remember it was associated with this perfect musical melody.”
The light transported him to a beautiful, lush valley of flowers, trees and waterfalls.
“I had no body image — I was a speck of awareness on a butterfly wing,” Alexander says.
Months later, he says, he learned butterflies are a common theme among people who have near-death experiences.
“Beside me on the wing was this absolutely gorgeous girl,” he continues. “I can remember her face perfectly — high cheekbones, sparkling blue eyes. She was dressed in peasant garb of very vivid colors. She never said a word to me, but her thoughts to me were, ‘You are loved, you are cherished dearly forever, and you will be taken care of forever.’”
The experience spoke to Alexander of an unconditional love from an all-powerful deith.
“It felt like a divine breeze, like the breath of God,” he says.
From that realm, Alexander was escorted into a higher realm, which he refers to as “the realm of our eternal souls.” There, he says, he experienced a brilliant light he associates with being in the presence of God.
“I was told, ‘You’re not here to stay — you’ll be going back, but we will teach you many things while you’re here,’” he recalls. “One thing was that love is the fabric of the universe. Another is that evil exists as a necessary trace of impurity — it allows us to have free will.”
Alexander claims — much as his patients once claimed to him — that the experience seemed too real not to be real.
“These are not simply mind tricks, or tricks of the dying brain,” he says.
So how does Alexander know this to be true?
“My brain was very badly damaged by the meningitis, to the point where I had no neocortex working,” he explains. “Skeptics say, ‘What proof do you have of that?’ Well, skeptics don’t know anything about severe bacterial meningitis. The fact is, I should’ve had no experience at all, but I did.”
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Want to go?
“Raising Hope With Heartstrings,” a fundraiser for the Triad-based nonprofit Heartstrings, will be held May 2 at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts, 251 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem.
The program will feature Dr. Eben Alexander, author of “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.”
The evening will begin with a reception with Alexander at 6 p.m., followed at 7:30 p.m. with Alexander’s address, “A Message of Hope,” about his near-death experience in 2008.
Tickets for the reception (including the program) are available through Monday. They cost $100 apiece if you purchase a package of 10, or $125 apiece if you purchase two or four.
General admission tickets, which do not include the reception, cost $50 apiece. There will also be a special seating section for book clubs, who will watch the program through a live camera feed and have a facilitator-led discussion about the book; those tickets cost $25 apiece.
A book-signing will follow Alexander’s address.
To purchase tickets or for further information, call Heartstrings at (336) 335-9931 or visit www.heartstringssupport.org.