AS water gushed into her lungs, and she felt her bones breaking against the shell of her kayak, Doctor Mary Neal knew she was dying.
But instead of fear and panic, she was filled with a sense of calm – and felt her spirit being led towards a heavenly dimension filled with flowers.
The mum-of-four, from Jackson Hole, New York, was underwater for over 30 minutes and was clinically dead when she was pulled out of the river after a kayaking accident.
In the documentary series Surviving Death, now available on Netflix, Mary claims her near death experience changed her outlook on death forever.
“Twenty years ago I was not only physically dead, but dead for a long time,” she says. “That experience changed everything about what I am and who I am.”
Mary is not alone in believing she left her body during a near death experience (NDE), with between 10 and 20 percent of people whose heart has stopped reporting similar.
Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, from Cambridge University, says science is no closer to explaining the phenomenon.
“How can people be conscious when they are unconscious?” he says.
“It’s ridiculous. But that’s what the data is proving more and more. And that is going to have some significance for our ideas about death.
“Is it possible that there is an expansion of consciousness when we die?”
Spirit 'peeled away from body' and rose up
As a keen kayaker, Dr Mary Neal was thrilled at the opportunity to test her mettle in the white water rapids of Chile, in 1999.
The route she and her fellow kayaker took included several big waterfalls and, after negotiating a couple of small drops, Mary was propelled towards one of the larger falls.
As another boat was obstructing the safest route down, Mary was forced to divert and plunged over the most dangerous part of the torrent before becoming wedged in rocks 10ft under the water’s surface.
“I was not breathing. My torso was absolutely plastered to the front deck of the boat and I could feel my bones breaking,” she recalls.
“I thought, ‘I should be screaming’ but I wasn’t. I felt no pain, no fear, no panic. I felt more alive than I’ve ever felt.
“I could feel my spirit peeling away from my body, and my spirit went up towards the heavens. I was immediately greeted by a group of … somethings. I don’t know what to call them. People? Spirits? Beings?
“I didn’t recognise any of them but they had been important in my life somehow, like a grandparent who died before I was born.
I thought, ‘I should be screaming’ but I wasn’t. I felt no pain, no fear, no panic. I felt more alive than I’ve ever felt.
“They were so overjoyed to welcome me and greet me and love me.”
Mary claims the ‘beings’ led her down a pathway which was covered with hundreds of thousands of flowers, “exploding with every colour of the universe.”
“It was an absolute shift in time and dimension, I experienced all of eternity in every second and every second expanded into all of eternity,” she says.
“The pathway went to this great dome structure and I believe I was in heaven. I had an overwhelming sense of being home.
“At the same time, I could look back at the river where my body was still submerged in the water.”
Bloated purple body and catastrophic injuries
Mary’s kayaking group spent 15 minutes desperately trying to rescue her before “shifting over into a body recovery mode.”
“One of the guys saw my life jacket pop up downstream and thought that maybe my husband would want it,” she says.
“As he got that he felt my body touch his leg and was able to reach under the water and grab my wrist.
“My body was bloated and purple and I had fixed eyes. There’s no doubt in my own mind that I was physically dead but I watched from the entrance to the dome structure as they started CPR and I could still hear them.”
As the kayakers battled to save her, they pleaded with her to take a breath.
“I had been without oxygen for 30 minutes and the statistical likelihood of my survival should have been zero,” she says.
“I did not want to go back down to my body. I had a very physical sensation of being held and comforted and reassured that everything was fine, but the beings told me that it wasn’t my time, that I had more work to do on Earth and that I had to go back to my body.
“When I opened my eyes the guys who resuscitated me were stunned.”
Mary had suffered catastrophic injuries, including multiple broken bones, torn ligaments and saturated lungs, and the group were miles from anywhere.
Using a boat as a stretcher, they carried her up a steep slope to a dirt road where they hoped to flag down a car or tractor to take her to hospital.
In an incredible coincidence, they found an ambulance parked at the top of the slope which Mary says is “unheard of in 1999 in Chile” and remains “inexplicable.”
Mary was in hospital for more than a month, had several operations and many months of rehab before she could walk again but, miraculously, she made a full recovery despite her brain having been deprived of oxygen for around half an hour.
Statistically, I had zero chance of surviving without significant brain damage.
“Statistically, I had zero chance of surviving without significant brain damage,” she says. “But I never had any brain damage.”
As a doctor, she says, she is surrounded by people who don't believe in near death experiences, but she says her outlook has changed.
“People in science tend to think you can’t believe in anything supernatural,” she says.
“When I went off to medical school, I would have defined death as death, physical death. But my near death experience changed my definition of death significantly
“I don’t believe that we know everything.”
Near death experiences 'profoundly change' lives
One man of science who does believe there is more to the experiences than we understand is James Tucker, a professor from the University of Virginia who has studied the phenomena for 40 years.
The university’s Department of Perceptual Studies, where he is director, studies “the possibility that something survives after death.”
“The general mainstream view of reality is that the physical atom is all that exists and that when the brain stops working consciousness ends,” he says.
“The idea that a piece of consciousness continues on conflicts with that basic principle. The question of what happens after we die has intrigued humans for as long as we’ve been around.”
The department studies mediums, people who think they can communicate with the deceased, deathbed visions and hundreds of experiences of “those on the border between life and death” for evidence that part of us lives on.
Typical reports include leaving the body and watching what is going on below, being led through a tunnel and the presence of a bright light, which one contributor describes as “a warm energy hug to the brain.”
The University's NDE expert Bruce Greyson says the similarities between accounts of NDEs are as striking as the differences.
“There are consistent patterns in how close you come to death and how it affects people,” he explains.
“For example, people all over the world report that their sense of time was distorted.
“Then there’s the paranormal or other worldly, like your ordinary sense becoming much more vivid.
“In every case, in every culture, you see lies are profoundly changed by the experience.”
'Hug from dead dad saved my life'
At a counselling group in Seattle, set up for those who have lived through near death experiences, a man named as Jose broke down as he recalled his own.
After breaking his ribs in a truck accident, he suffered an allergic reaction to painkillers in hospital and his heart stopped.
“There was a tunnel but not like it’s usually described,” he says.
“I fell into it and what I saw was colour wrapped all around me, like I was integrated into it.
“I could hear the colour talking to me, millions of voices.
"I looked down and saw the ocean and noticed a man in the water, about knee deep and he turned around suddenly. The biggest surprise of my ‘death’ is that it was my father
“Me and my dad had a very difficult relationship in life. We couldn’t even hug. So when he died, I felt very bitter and regretful of the fact that he never told me he loved me.
“I’m looking at his face and saying ‘this is my opportunity, my second chance to make peace with my dad, which I could never do in life'. We hugged and we said we loved each other.
“That has changed my life in so many ways, just knowing that he did love me and he did care.”
He claims his dad told him he had to return, and promised he would come and fetch Jose when it was “his time,” and then he “transitioned back.”
But Jose says the experience had a profound effect.
“It truly healed my spirit,” he says. “Before I was moving through life, I wasn’t living. I wasn’t alive.”
Despite four decades of research, Bruce Greyson says the NDEs are still largely a mystery and he dismisses theories that they are caused by drugs given to dying patients or by a lack of oxygen in the brain.
“The more drugs people are given the less likely they are to have a NDE, so drugs inhibit rather than enhance the experience,” he says.
“And we know from decades of research that when they suffer from lack of oxygen people become frightened, belligerent, terrified of what's happening to them. It’s very unlike the blissful, peaceful experience reported.”
Surviving Death is available on Netflix from today
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