by Ron Petrou
What to think about a highly respected neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven during a seven-day coma when his brain was no longer functioning? According to him, he entered the spiritual realm not with the aid of his physical brain but with his mind and soul separate and distinct from his brain. Thus, he countered the conviction of most brain scientists that “near-death experiences” of visiting the spiritual world are mere hallucinations from an oxygen-starved brain.
Eben Alexander is the neurosurgeon who spoke to approximately 500 people at St. Paul’s Church in Chestnut Hill on Sunday, Oct. 20. His book, “Proof of Heaven,” has sold over two million copies, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a year and will be published in 42 languages. A movie is also planned based on the book.
When he entered this heavenly domain during his coma in November, 2008, according to his book, he heard “a new sound, like the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music you have ever heard … Someone was next to me: a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes … She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for a few moments, would make your whole life up to that point worth living.”
This beautiful girl communicated to him a message with three parts: “You are loved and cherished dearly, forever; You have nothing to fear; and There is nothing you can do wrong.”
I heard him tell this story in the church. He is a tall, handsome man in his 50s with a smile and a bow tie. He reminded me of Steve Reeves playing Clark Kent in one of his Superman movies. I and my two friends sitting next to me were impressed. The audience in rapt attention seemed to believe his account. He confirmed the dreams and hopes that so many people have that there is a source of love we will encounter after we die. He said that reincarnation is a reality, that God, Christ and multitudes of angels, friends and loved ones live in joyous harmony in the spiritual world.
As a former Waldorf teacher and student of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy for more than 40 years, I have nourished my life with these and other spiritual realities. Since modern materialistic science can only refer to physical realities of what scientists can see, measure and count, near-death experiences are beyond its ken, its range of knowledge.
The question is: Should we have faith in Eben Alexander’s words? Can we trust him to accurately report a truthful account of his near-death experience? Soon after I attended Dr. Alexander’s presentation, I read online an article by an investigative journalist, Luke Dittrich, in the August, 2013, issue of Esquire magazine.
What gives Dr. Alexander’s account credibility is that he was for many years a neurological surgeon in Boston’s prestigious Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, and then, “… in 2005 Holly (his wife) and I agreed it was time to move back to the south. We wanted to be closer to our families, and I saw it as an opportunity to have a bit more autonomy then I’d had at Harvard.”
However, according to Dittrich’s article, “After a series of mistakes and errors in surgery, Dr. Alexander failed to warn a woman patient that the operation he and his colleagues were about to perform might have the effect of paralyzing a portion of the woman’s face … When the woman’s lawyer asked to see the two-page informed consent form that laid out the risks, Alexander could only find the first page, the page without the woman’s signature. Further, he said, additional documents also had gone missing, including a letter that the patient’s primary neurosurgeon had sent to Alexander, notifying him of her postoperative facial paralysis. The woman’s attorney argued that ‘it is reasonable to infer that this pattern of disappearance of probative evidence was not coincidental, but was in fact deliberate.’” Alexander settled.
Then, several years later, on April 13, 2001, Dr Alexander’s employment as a surgeon at the Brigham was terminated. He then found employment at UMass Memorial Center, in Worcester. According to Dittrich, “He’d run its deep-brain-stimulation program, implanting electrodes into patients, helping alleviate their Parkinsonian tremors by means of corrective shocks. But there had been more lawsuits; in one case a bit of plastic was left behind in a woman’s neck …. In August, 2003, UMass Memorial suspended Alexander’s surgical privileges ‘on the basis of allegation of improper performance of surgery.’”
Then he moved with his family to North Carolina and found a position at Lynchburg General Hospital. A familiar patterned recurred. In 2007 he made a serious surgical mistake, fusing the fourth and fifth vertebrae instead of the fifth and sixth vertebrae of a patient who was a tobacco farmer. Then to hide his mistakes, he allegedly rewrote all of the reports indicating that the fourth and fifth vertebrae were the intended object of the surgery. The patient sued Dr. Alexander for $3 million. At a hearing, according to Dittrich, “Alexander finally confessed and told the patient that if he wanted another operation, he could have it for free … by the end of October 2007 he no longer had surgical privileges at the hospital.”
After he survived his near-death experience, he found a way to reestablish himself. He stated in his book that his coma arose as a result of an E. coli infection and that the coma lasted for seven days uninterrupted by any conscious moments. It was during this time that he claimed to have his experiences in the land of mind, soul and spirit, independent of any brain activity.
However, the doctor overseeing his care, Dr. Laura Potter, stated, according to the Esquire article, that Dr. Alexander was suffering from convulsions and that she chemically induced the coma with anesthesia and that various times during his coma she woke him up. Dittrich said, “I asked Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious. ‘Yes,’ she says.” It should be noted that Dr. Alexander has never released his hospital medical records to public scrutiny.
Dr. Alexander required a payment of $20,000 for his visit to Chestnut Hill. I called Simon and Schuster, who oversee his speaking engagements, and verified the payment. Dr. Alexander has become wealthy and world-famous because of his book and his many public appearances.
Oliver Sacks, the world-famous neurologist, psychologist and author, whose book “Awakening” was made into a movie in 1990, said in an article, “Seeing God in the Third Millennium” in the Dec. 12, 2012, issue of the Atlantic Monthly, “To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDA, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific – it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.”
Ron Petrou, a resident of Mt. Airy, has a BA in English from Hamilton College and an MA from the Waldorf Institute of Adelphi University. In 1974 he co-founded with his wife, Martha, a nurse and union organizer, the Chicago Waldorf School. From 1977 until 1986 he was an English teacher at Kimberton Waldorf School in Kimberton, PA. His daughter, Catherine Scott, a graduate of Kimberton Waldorf School, Harvard and Columbia Medical School, is now a psychiatrist and co-author of the book, studied in many schools of social work throughout the U.S., “The Fundamentals of Trauma Therapy.” More information at 267-421-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org