Here's a news story I came upon today in a free newspaper, one of those circulars distributed through the mail. The headline, "Heaven Can Wait," naturally got my attention.
The story concerns Noelle McNeil, a 24-year-old senior at Monmouth University in New Jersey who, in 2005, suffered grievous brain injuries in a horseriding accident. "Unconscious and barely alive," she was helicoptered to a trauma center, where she developed pneumonia and sepsis. She was in a coma -- described by her doctors as a vegetative state -- for 11 days. Physicians saw little chance of recovery. According to the article:
McNeil was diagnosed with diffuse axonal injury in which many of the connections of the brain were severed. She said less than 3 percent of such patients make meaningful recoveries ...
[But] while her family and community and community prayed for a bedside miracle, the comatose McNeil was on an otherworldly journey. McNeil said she remembers leaving her body, gliding over brightly lit clouds into a brightly lit place where she encountered her Uncle Joe, her father's brother, who had died several years before.
"I asked Joe if this was heaven," McNeil explains in her book Heaven Exists. "He said yes. I asked if I could go back because I did not want to leave my life yet. I had so much more left I want to do."
Communicating telepathically, she said, Uncle Joe ultimately told her she could return to her body. He promised she would recover but told her it would take a long time.
"I had been to heaven and now I would have a glimpse of what hell is -- waking up to find myself totally debilitated in a hospital, unable to eat, walk or function in any real sense," she wrote.
An account I found online elaborates on this part of the story:
"I saw my Uncle Joe through the clouds. He told me that my father was upset -- that he didn't want me to be here too soon.
"I asked him if this was heaven and he said yes. Then I asked him if he could find out if I could go back because there was so much I still wanted to do.
"He walked away and when he came back he said, 'Your recovery will take a long time. You can go back, but you might be sorry. It's going to be hard,'" McNeil explained.
In fact, McNeil was sorry. She was stuck in a wheelchair for eight months, for much of that time unable to perform the simplest acts. She became despondent; at times she wanted to commit suicide. However, she persevered through an arduous rehabilitation, and against all odds, was able to make an almost complete recovery, though she still lacks full use of her right arm.
She says now:
"Yes, what happened was emotionally a very painful accident. But I prayed day in and day out for help from above, and I absolutely think I have been granted a second chance at life. No more unrealistic, shallow ideals. I am who I am (my hand may shake) but I am here." And: "I love my life and I would not want to die any time soon, but when it is my time, it is my time. I trust it."
Her mother adds:
"I came so close to losing her that there is very little in life that I now consider important enough to get stressed out over. I am thankful that Noelle is alive, that we get up every day and have coffee. I am thankful that when I watch her walk now, it is much smoother than it used to be. I am thankful that she can now hug me back, even with the ataxic right hand."
Although it is probably unnecessary, I guess I should point out the many features that Noelle McNeil's account has in common with other near-death experiences: leaving the body, flying or floating, bright light, beautiful imagery, reunion with a deceased relative, telepathic communication, the desire to return because there is much left to do, approval granted by (apparently) a higher authority, the warning of a difficult period of readjustment, the painful shock of waking up in a damaged body, and a radically changed outlook on life, which includes the rejection of "shallow" priorities, a more spiritual outlook, and the loss of any fear of death.
Noelle McNeil closes her book this way:
"Tragedy can happen to any one of us at any time. What you do with the tragedy determines who you are."
Something to keep in mind, perhaps, as we greet the New Year, and a new decade.