Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife

Nursing Book Club

Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife

The intersection of science and faith

By Eben Alexander, M.D. (Simon & Shuster, 2012)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

I really wanted to like Proof of Heaven because it seemed to have a lot of things in its favor: The cover says it’s a No. 1 New York Times bestseller; I have a lot of respect for that list. The author is a neurosurgeon; my first nursing job was on a neurosurgical unit and I found that most of the surgeons were brilliant and very down to earth.

As a comparative religious skeptic, I was hoping that this would point me in a realistic direction that would combine belief with the evidence-based teaching we are taught to look for as nurses. Finally, I love a good medical story and, since the cover blurb explains that the author spent seven days in a coma due to a rare illness, I was all set to curl up with this book for the weekend.

Neocortical Shutdown

Alexander, whose qualifications include stints at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, sounds like he’s probably a good family man, has both feet on the floor, works very hard, enjoys himself, treats his patients well, has a good medical practice and so on. Sadly, only part of his book really held my interest: the way Alexander was sent into a physical tailspin by an overwhelming E. coli meningitis infection.

That kind of infection in itself is uncommon and the illness story made for interesting reading. It was fascinating to learn how the doctors found the infection, how they treated it and how Alexander felt coming out of the coma. I would have liked to hear more about what his wife felt about it, how their kids reacted, how their lives were changed and maybe a little bit of the perspective of the medical and nursing staff treating him, to validate Alexander’s own account of his coma.

Interspersed with that medical drama is Alexander’s description of what he experienced while lying unconscious in the ICU. He says that what makes a lot of what he felt and saw so unusual is the fact that his neocortex was completely shut down.

According to the author, the neocortex is what makes us human and gives us our sense of consciousness. Without it, he tells us, there is no ability to experience visions, hallucinations, the “reboot phenomenon” or any of the other, much more technical explanations people have offered for what he saw, heard and felt during his coma.

A Neurosurgeon’s Perspective

Alexander maintains that the only possible explanation for his experience is that he was transported to the afterlife and therefore now knows what is waiting for us upon our deaths. He argues that what separates his experience from every other near-death experience you might have read about is his unique background and ability to grasp the neurological implications of his coma. In short, he wants readers to see his account as a scientific explanation.  

I won’t spoil the rest for you if you are intrigued, but it involves goodness, light and love and a transformational journey. Wound through it is a story about his birth family and relatives that he never met, but has now connected with. It’s uplifting, fascinating and just technical enough to keep you looking for more.

For the right person, I’m sure that this is a spectacular read. I wasn’t the right audience or it wasn’t the right weekend for me. I wish you better luck.  

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway. Photos above: Simon & Shuster, Eternea.

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