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."
"I felt a pop and it was as if I had finally shaken off my heavy outer layer, freeing my soul," she wrote. "I rose up and out of the river, and when my soul broke through the surface of the water I encountered a group of 15 or 20 souls who greeted me with the most overwhelming joy I have ever experienced and could ever imagine."
She describes the feeling she felt at the moment as "joy at an unadulterated core level." Although she could not identify these souls by name, she felt that she knew them well, "and knew that I had known them for an eternity."
According to her published account, these souls "appeared as formed shapes, but not with the absolute and distinct edges of the formed physical bodies we have on Earth. Their edges were blurred, as each spiritual being was dazzling and radiant. Their presence engulfed all of my senses, as though I could see, hear, feel, smell and taste them all at once. "
While she says she was aware of the anxious efforts to revive her physical body, she felt herself being drawn with her new companions down a path that led to a "great and brilliant hall, larger and more beautiful than anything I can conceive of seeing on Earth." She sensed that this was "the gate through which each human must pass" to "review our lives and our choices" and to "choose God or turn away."
"I felt ready to enter the hall and was filled with an intense longing to be reunited with God," she writes.
But her companions explained that it was not her time to enter — that she still had work to do on Earth.
"I was not happy about coming back — to be honest, I fought it a little," she said during the interview, chuckling at the memory. But eventually her companions convinced her to return to her body and to begin the long process of recovering from her physical injuries and completing the work she knows she was sent back to complete.
Today, more than 13 years later, she is fully recovered — she didn't suffer any brain injury despite being under water for 14 minutes — and dealing with the ups and downs of life, including the tragic death of her son, Willie, a bright and promising Olympic skiing hopeful, in 1999.
But she is dealing with life differently than she did prior to her kayaking accident.
"How I view life, every moment of every day, has changed," she said. "How I view myself and others has profoundly changed. How I do my work as a physician has changed. I think I'm a better doctor now, in that I try to treat the whole person, not just the injury. Physical challenges can be opportunities for growth — I think that's a valuable perspective to maintain. I wouldn't have been able to do that before."
And so she continues her life with new perspective. She says she now finds it much easier to balance her work with service to her family, her church and her community. She has served as an elder in her Presbyterian congregation, on the board of directors of several nonprofit organizations and helped to found the Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund.
And, oh yes, she still finds time for kayaking.
"Based on my experience, I know that God has a plan for me and for everyone," she said. "Our job is to listen and try to hear what God is saying to us as he tells us what he needs us to do. The real challenge for us is to give up control and be obedient to what God is asking of us."
If we can figure out how to do that, she says, we will be ready when the time finally comes for us to enter that "great and brilliant hall" she encountered during her brief foray into life after death.
"I look forward to the day that I get to go back," she says now, almost wistfully. "That's our real home."