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Stephanie Becker
Mary Neal, author of “To Heaven and Back,” with her kayak along the Payette River in Idaho. Neal was kayaking in Chile when she was trapped underwater and stopped breathing for 15 minutes before being revived.
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NBC News
updated 7/19/2012 8:23:48 AM ET 2012-07-19T12:23:48
Producer’s Notebook

Do you believe in heaven? Mary Neal says she knows there is one: She’s been there. And back.

Her experience made her the reluctant author of the New York Times best-seller “To Heaven and Back.” It recounts her life, her death and her life-changing trip to heaven, and tells why she was sent back: So she told us on the TODAY show this morning. Since getting assigned her story, I’ve been bombarded by friends asking me: Do you believe her?

Here’s the quick recap: Dr. Mary Neal, a spinal surgeon from Jackson Hole, Wyo., was kayaking in Chile when, although very experienced, she got trapped underwater. Through a series of what I would call incredible circumstances, she was revived and returned home.

No one with her doubts she drowned; she hadn’t had a breath of air for at least 15 minutes. Mary says that’s when she went to heaven — and didn’t want to come back.

As she told NBC correspondent Kristen Dahlgren: “I could feel my spirit peeling away from my body, sort of like peeling apart two pieces of tape. And then, when I felt my body released from the boat, I could feel my spirit released from my body.”

Meet the boy who says he visited heaven and saw Jesus

Mary says she was greeted by angels — beings she felt she knew. Mary (she’s so friendly you are compelled to call her by her first name) talked about a brilliance that enveloped her. Eventually, she was told by these angels she had to go back to her body.

Do I believe her?

Story: ‘To Heaven and Back’: Cynic finds God in near-death experience

Typically, this kind of story would earn a very dramatic eye-roll from me. I describe myself as a Jew-nostic: I’m not sure I believe in God, but I fast on Yom Kippur just to hedge my bets (not to lose weight, mind you — breakfast is one of my favorite meals!)

But Mary’s so matter-of-fact about what happened; there’s no drama to her story, no breathless recantation of her miraculous return to her body. She sounds like she’s recalling a really fun vacation... and then she left her body and met with the locals and visited the cool amusement park. Except in her retelling, the natives are angels and the best ride is to heaven.

Video: ‘Pops’ had ‘huge wings’ in heaven, boy says (on this page)

Do I believe her? Here’s what I do believe:

Jeff Hoein
From left, producer Stephanie Becker, cameraman Geoff Nelson, and correspondent Kristen Dahlgren work on TODAY’s report on “To Heaven and Back” author Mary Neal.

Mary talked about a calm that came over her. I get that. Once, while rafting down the roaring Zambezi River in Zimbabwe with some gal pals, I was catapulted out and swept under the boat. I distinctly remember pushing the bottom of the raft, as if I would have some superhuman strength to move it and the 20 people in it out of my way. No such luck. While I wasn’t down there long enough for my life to flash before me, it was long enough to realize I couldn’t breathe and I would die. And I felt peaceful.

Video: Is heaven real? Author says yes (on this page)

Suddenly I popped up and my friend Dotty snagged me by my shorts, giving me the most welcome wedgie ever. In celebration I threw up half the Zambezi. Perhaps, as with Mary’s account, it just wasn’t my time as judged by God. Or it was simply the fabulous flotational quality of the aptly named life preserver.

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Do I believe her? Like Mary, I am a cynic, although I have always wanted to know if there’s something after. I want a place where you can eat a whole box of Mallomars and not have to spend a week on the StairMaster in penance. I want to believe that I can hang out with Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and Cary Grant and scat-sing a little with Ella Fitzgerald. Mostly, I want to believe that I’m going to see my Mom again and she can tell me I’m still too old to be biting my nails.

Do you believe in near-death experiences? Take our poll

Do I believe Mary? This is clearly no delusional woman ranting about the afterlife. Mary’s calm and methodical and precise recollections, plus her background as a surgeon, convey the gravitas to make me take her at face value. So, if a supreme being has chosen Mary to make me into a believer, there couldn’t be a better choice.

But before I decide, can she find out if Cary Grant can serve me some non-caloric Mallomars while I am being serenaded by Ella? That might be the clincher.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Is heaven real? Author says yes

  1. Closed captioning of: Is heaven real? Author says yes

    >>> 13 years ago dr. mary neal was kayaking when she said she went on a spiritual journey. she write house she drown, went to heaven, talked to angels but was sent back to her family with a very powerful message. we'll talk to her in a moment. first kristen dahlgren.

    >> reporter: it was a day of kayaking. dr. neal said she never imagined where it would take her.

    >> i had children, hi a full-time job. i was too busy to be thinking about my spirituality.

    >> reporter: the spine surgeon who was an admitted cynic said she died. her bolt was pinned under the rapids and she became trapped by the rushing current.

    >> i was out of air and i was too far from shore for anyone to see me, let alone come and save me.

    >> reporter: neal was with her good friend, experienced white water rescuers chad and tom long. when they noticed mary was missing in the rapids, they followed safety protocol, they started a watch. more than 15 minutes later, they saw her take a breath. did you think she was dead?

    >> absolutely.

    >> reporter: she saw her peel away from her body.

    >> i was overcome when w this physical sensation of being held, comforted and reassured.

    >> reporter: she said a group of spirits were there to greet her.

    >> they took me down this exceptionally beautiful path toward this great domed structure of sorts.

    >> reporter: but she was told it wasn't her time.

    >> i was sent back to share my story.

    >> reporter: she was told her family would need her because her oldest son willie would die.

    >> i knew that would happen at some point. i didn't know the details.

    >> reporter: ten years later, willie did die after being hit bay car.

    >> i'm not going to pretend like i don't wish he were here but i'll see him at some point.

    >> reporter: after willie 's death, neal published her best selling book "to heaven and back." a a doctor who thought near death experiences could be explained by science, until it happened to her.

    >> i know that there is life after death and i absolutely know that, no doubt.

    >> and dr. mary neal is with us this morning. doctor, it good to see pup.

    >> good morning.

    >> good morning to you, matt.

    >> we have all thought about this. anybody who says they haven't thought about what happens after we die is probably lying. the thing that kept coming to me as i was reading your story is why mary neal ? why was she saved when so many people are not saved? how do you explain that?

    >> i've asked that same question many, many times because i have loved one who is have died and i did not want to return. and almost everyone i've talked to who have had a near death experience does not want to return. and i think that --

    >> because it's beautiful? it's comforting? it's soothing? why don't you want to return and why didn't you want to return?

    >> because i felt absolutely like i was home. i --

    >> at peace?

    >> not just at peace. i had returned to god's kingdom and i was home. it was my absolute true home.

    >> are you a deeply religious person? were you to begin with?

    >> no. i would never claim to have been particularly religious beforehand. i certainly believed in god and i think i was very typical. i sort of hoped there was something more and there was a reason that we were here but i was very busy. i didn't put spirituality in the forefront of my life.

    >> let me just ask you the question everybody would want to ask you if they were sitting across from you. this encounter with the angels, what did they look like, what did they say? what was the experience look?

    >> they were exploding with an absolute love. they looked like compassion, even though that's not an adjective. and i'm embarrassed to say it now and i wish i took notes but i didn't really note what they looked like or what i looked like because it didn't matter. i wanted to get to this entrance to god's kingdom.

    >> you met jesus?

    >> i feel very presumptuous saying that but i feel jesus was holding me when i was in my boat, comforting me.

    >> did he look like the image we've come to know?

    >> he didn't look like the image in my sunday school books , no. but i didn't look at him critically saying okay, what color is that hair? i looked at him and what i saw was infinite kindness and compassion.

    >> you say that in an encounter with an angels you were told you needed to come back, your family was going to need you, your son was going to die. i say a lot of people die and their families experience tragedy afterward. again, why did they think you needed to be here for your families and others are taken, even though their family is about to experience tragedy -- another tragedy. sf.

    >> i don't know all the answers. one of my kids would say i was kicked out of heaven. my primary mandate was not being here for my son's death, which indeed was something we talked about. my primary mandate was to return and share my story because my story is comforting, reassuring and inspires other people to really look at their own lives and find god working in their own lives.

    >> oo u say you're a cynic, you're a doctor and will say there's a explanation for everything, seeing angels, it's a drifting in and out of consciousness because you were drowning. do you share some of those thoughts that some of those experiences could be purely biological?

    >> i absolutely would share those and would accept those because i am an absolute cynic and skeptic. if my experience had been four, five, six minutes long. but my experience timed was a minimum of 15 minutes and that didn't include the five plus minutes of figuring out that i wasn't there, where was i, et cetera . i don't believe when you look at a minimum 15, maximum experience 25 minutes, j i don't believe that can be explained by a dying brain. a brain does not survive that long.

    >> 89% surveyed said they believed in a near death experience . only 7% said no.

    >> we're back after your local news.

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