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Video: Is heaven real? Author says yes

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    >>> 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.

By
TODAY books
updated 7/19/2012 11:13:56 AM ET 2012-07-19T15:13:56

A self-described cynic, Dr. Mary Neal had her view on spirituality radically altered during a near-death experience on a kayaking trip on a remote Chilean river in 1999.

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With her capsized kayak pinning her under the surging water, Neal was believed to have not been breathing for anything between 15 and 25 minutes, according to the kayaking guides with her on the trip. During the time of what she terms her “drowning,” she claims to have had a heavenly experience in which she returned to God and was in the presence of Jesus and angels.

It was a life-changing event for a person who was not fervently religious. The incident also prompted Neal to write her best-selling book, "To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels and Life Again," which spent several weeks atop The New York Times’ “Paperback Advice & Misc.” best-seller list.

Read an excerpt from Dr. Mary C. Neal's 'To Heaven and Back'

“I would never claim to have been particularly religious beforehand,’’ Neal told Matt Lauer during an in-studio appearance on TODAY Thursday. “I certainly believed in God. 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.’’

A spinal surgeon from Wyoming, Neal suffered two broken legs and lung problems as a result of the incident, spending a month in the hospital and missing six months of work while in a wheelchair. As a doctor, she is used to having a biological explanation for near-death phenomena like bright lights and warm feelings, but believes this was a different situation.

Story: Did author really visit heaven? A producer ponders

“I absolutely would share those and would accept those because I am an absolute cynic and skeptic,’’ she said. “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, etc. When you look at a minimum 15, maximum about 25-minute experience, I don’t believe that can just be the chemical reaction of a dying brain. A brain can’t survive that long.’’

Neal claimed that she survived because she was told by God that her family would need her in the face of an impending tragedy and that the world needed to hear her story. She was told her son, Willie, who was 9 years old at the time, was going to die, but was not given specific details. In 2009, Willie was killed in a car accident at 19 years old in Maine by a male driver who was on his cell phone.

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers,’’ Neal said. “One of my kids would say I was kicked out of heaven. My primary mandate was not being here for my son’s death. My primary mandate was to return and share my story because my story is comforting and reassuring and inspires other people to really look at their own lives and find God working in their own lives.’’

She also is comforted by the notion that she will see her son again in the afterlife.

“I’m not going to pretend like I don’t wish he were here, but I’ll see him at some point,’’ she told NBC News. “I know that there is life after death, and I absolutely know that the promises of God are true.’’

Lauer raised the question of why Neal was able to return to life when many others die in similar situations, and she admitted that in the moment she did not want to return to life.

“I asked that same question many, many times because I have loved ones who’ve died, and I did not want to return,’’ Neal said. “Almost everyone I’ve talked to who’s had a near-death experience does not want to return. I felt absolutely like I was home. Not just at peace – I had returned to God’s kingdom and I was home.’’

Neal describes being in the presence of angels and Jesus as more of a feeling than actually seeing images of their faces, although she told NBC News she recalled seeing a large, domed structure.

Vote: Do you believe in near-death experiences?

“They were exploding with an absolute love,’’ she said about the angels. “They looked like compassion, even though that’s not an adjective. 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.”

She believes Jesus helped guide her through the near-death situation before rescue workers were able to revive her.

“I feel very presumptuous saying that, but I believe that Jesus was holding me when I was still in my boat and reassuring me and comforting me,’’ she said. “He didn’t look like the image in my Sunday school books. I would say that I didn’t look at him critically in terms of saying, ‘What color is that hair?’ I looked at him and what I saw was infinite kindness and compassion.’’

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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