Esquire Challenges Dr. Eben Alexander's Credibility & Story
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By Luke Dittrich
July 3, 2013
Before "Proof of Heaven" made Dr. Eben Alexander rich and famous as a
"man of science" who'd experienced the afterlife, he was something else:
a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.
On December 18, 2012, the set of Fox & Friends was both festive and
somber. Festive because it was the Christmas season. The three hosts,
two men in dark suits flanking a woman in a blue dress, sat on a
mustard-colored couch in front of a cheery seasonal backdrop: a lit-up
tree, silver-painted twigs, mounds of tinsel, blue and red swatches of
fabric, and, here and there, multicolored towers of blown glass with
tapering points that made them look surprisingly like minarets. Somber
because a terrible thing had happened just four days earlier, in an
elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. All three hosts looked sad,
but the woman, Gretchen Carlson, looked the saddest.
The shot of the three hosts occupied most of the right three quarters of
the screen. A guest was joining them by satellite from another location,
and a shot of his head and shoulders occupied most of the rest of the
screen. This was his third appearance on the program in the last few
months. He wore a dark blazer and a button-down shirt with blue stripes.
He was middle-aged and handsome in an old-fashioned way, with tanned
skin and thick hair parted on the right. The banner below the video
feeds read, HOPE IS NOT LOST: NEUROSURGEON SAYS HEAVEN IS REAL.
"Dr. Alexander," Carlson said, "if people don't know your story, you,
you were ill, you were in a coma, you left this earth for a week, you
were in heaven, and then you wrote about your experiences there, and you
were told that you were supposed to come back to the earth."
She paused. She looked into the camera and then looked up toward the
studio ceiling and rocked slightly forward.
"As people are grappling with the horrible nature of this tragedy," she
said, her voice cracking, her lower lip trembling, "will these children
forget, when they are in heaven, what happened to them?"
It was, let's be clear, an unusual question. One imagines the host of a
national news program would feel comfortable posing this question to
only a very few guests. A priest? A bishop? The pope? But let's be clear
about something else: Dr. Eben Alexander was presented as more qualified
to answer this question than all of them. His authority on heaven hadn't
come from prayer or contemplation or a vote taken at some conclave. He
had been there. And although a lot of people might make similar claims
concerning visits to heaven and the receipt of personal revelations from
God and be roundly dismissed, Dr. Alexander was different. He was, as
the Fox News Web site declared, a "renowned neurosurgeon." A man of
science at the summit of the secular world. And when he answered the
unusual question, he did so without hesitation, without hedging, and
with the same fluency and authority he might exhibit when comforting a
patient about an upcoming operation.
"Well, they will know what happened," Alexander said, and a hint of
sadness swirled in his own eyes for a moment. "But they will not feel
the pain." His voice was southern and smooth, soft and warm. The shots
of the studio and of the satellite feed faded away, and a heartbreaking
tableau faded in, a grid of photographs. Fourteen children, each just
six or seven years old, each smiling, each now, the viewer knew, dead.
Alexander's voice, soothing, heartfelt, poured on. "They will feel the
love and cherishing of their being back there. And they will know that
they have changed this world."
Now the views of the studio and of Dr. Alexander faded back in, and the
host to the left of Carlson, Brian Kilmeade, a compact and gruff guy
with a sheaf of papers stacked on the table in front of him like a
prosecuting attorney, asked a question. It was another unusual question
and perhaps that's why Kilmeade prefaced it with a reiteration of what
made their guest uniquely qualified to answer it.
"So Dr. Alexander," he said, "your book, your book—and you're a
neurosurgeon, you never believed in this until it happened to you, and
you were brain-dead for a week, and your friends who work in your
business say that there's no way you could have possibly come back,
there was no activity there. Where is the shooter?"
Alexander nodded along as the man posed the question and again answered
without pausing. "The shooter is in a place of reviewing his own life,"
he said while the camera showed Gretchen Carlson wiping the tears from
her eyes. "It's a very real phenomenon, of reliving all of the events of
one's life and reliving the pain and suffering that we've handed out to
others. But from their point of view."
This is a story about points of view.
He meets me at the door of his home and invites me in. He and his wife
purchased the house in 2006, and it sits on a half acre of land in
Lynchburg, Virginia, near a hospital where he used to work. Its exterior
is red brick, and there are eleven windows along the front, each with
white trim and black shutters, making the house look sort of
Jeffersonian, sort of Monticelloesque, though it's actually only
forty-nine years old, which makes it ten years younger than Alexander
himself. He's wearing jeans and a button-down shirt and a sweater vest,
and he leads me through a wood-paneled study to the kitchen, where he
asks if I'd like a cup of coffee. While the coffee brews, he explains
how caffeine works. "It kind of affects the second transmitter system,
part of the fight-or-flight mode. And it gets you more into kind of an
active state. It bypasses some of the primary transmitters there, kind
of activates the whole system, so it revs you up. It works very
effectively. So, you do not take sugar?" Once the coffee's ready, we
return to the study. The room is homey and filled with family pictures
and some paintings by friends of his wife, Holley, who's an artist and
art teacher. Alexander met her in college when she was dating his
roommate, and now they have two sons. She comes into the study and sets
a plate of cookies and apple slices down on a coffee table for us to
"I'm starting to get a little more practice with these interviews,"
Alexander says. "It might not show, but I should be learning from it
all. It's been quite a journey."
We talk for hours. We talk about his past life and his present one, and
about the strange voyage that divided the two. We talk about some of the
stories he tells in Proof of Heaven, which has sold nearly two million
copies and remains near the top of the New York Times best-seller list
nearly a year after its release. We also talk about some of the stories
you won't find in the book, stories I've heard from current and former
friends and colleagues, and stories I've pulled from court documents and
medical-board complaints, stories that in some cases give an entirely
new context to the stories in the book, and in other cases simply
From one point of view, the point of view that Fox & Friends and
Newsweek and Oprah and Dr. Oz and Larry King and all of his other gentle
interrogators have helped perpetuate, Dr. Eben Alexander is a living
miracle, literally heaven sent, a man capable of finally bridging the
chasm between the world of spirituality and the world of science. From
this point of view, he is, let's not mince words, a prophet, because
after all, what else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh
revelations from God? This point of view has been massively profitable
for Dr. Eben Alexander, has spawned not just a book sold in thirty-five
countries around the globe but a whole cascade of ancillary products,
including a forthcoming major motion picture from Universal.
But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr.
Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a
true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to
escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.
By the end of our interview, there's a note of unease in Alexander's
voice. He pulls out his iPhone and puts on the voice recorder. He tells
me he is concerned that some of the stories I've brought up could be
taken the wrong way by readers.
"People could definitely go way off the deep end about irrelevant stuff
as opposed to focusing on what matters," he says.
Before he was Eben, he was, briefly, Richard.
His biological parents, young, unready, created him, named him, and then
gave him away. The Alexander family of Winston-Salem, North Carolina,
adopted him and gifted him with a new name, one with an illustrious
pedigree. The first Eben Alexander, his great-grandfather, was the U. S.
ambassador to Greece in the 1890s, helped create the modern Olympic
Games, carried on an occasional correspondence with Mark Twain. His
father, Eben Alexander Jr., a great neurosurgeon, was permanent
president of his class at Harvard Medical School.
Eben Alexander III attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where he read lots
of science fiction, grew a shaggy mop of hair, learned how to
pole-vault—he loved the feeling of propelling himself skyward with
physics and muscle. While his high school classmates saved up for cars,
he bought himself sailplane lessons.
He went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He studied chemistry. He contemplated astrophysics. He joined the Sport
Parachute Club and spent his weekends flying to great heights in
perfectly good Cessna 185's and jumping out of them. He felt drawn to
medicine but worried that if he became a doctor, he'd never escape his
father's shadow. He agonized.
He graduated from UNC in 1975 and enrolled in Duke medical school. He
was still worried about not living up to the standards set by his
father. Even after he began his neurosurgery residency, he almost jumped
ship, changed careers. He sent in a job application to NASA. He dreamt
of flying on the space shuttle, of helping to build the International
Space Station. But when he told his father, his father convinced him to
withdraw the application. Wait till you've finished your residency, he
told him. Then, if you're still interested in the whole NASA thing, by
all means. By the time he'd finished his residency, the Challenger had
exploded and the shuttle program was on hold. He chose not to reapply.
His path seemed set.
A headache. November 10, 2008.
He has a headache. Not a bad one at first, but it gets steadily, rapidly
worse. He tells Holley that he just needs to rest, that he'll be fine.
Escherichia coli bacteria have insinuated themselves into the lining of
his central nervous system, the membranes that protect his brain and
spinal cord, he writes in Proof of Heaven. It is unclear how they got
there. Spontaneous cases of bacterial meningitis are rare but not
unheard of, and the transmission vectors are the same as those of other
common infectious diseases: tainted water supplies, poor hygiene, dirty
cooking conditions. Regardless of where these particular E. coli came
from, now that they're here, they proliferate. E. coli populations are
incredibly fertile, and under ideal circumstances will grow
exponentially, doubling in size every twenty minutes. Theoretically,
given limitless food and zero resistance, a single
0.000000000000665-gram E. coli bacterium could in nineteen hours spawn a
megacolony weighing as much as a man. But our bodies are not
defenseless. Alexander's immune response kicks in immediately, deploying
fleets of white blood cells to kill the invaders. His cerebrospinal
fluid, the fluid that supports his brain in every sense, buoying it and
nourishing it, becomes a terrifying battlefield. While the invaders
consume his CSF's brain-sustaining sugars, the defensive onslaught of
white blood cells causes the volume of fluid to swell, raising the
pressure inside his skull.
By the time the EMTs wheel him into the ER at Lynchburg General
Hospital, his besieged brain, choked and starving, is severely
dysfunctional. He is raving, thrashing, incoherent.
Then he slips into a coma.
His path seemed set.
He finished his neurosurgical residency and, in 1988, was hired at one
of the most prestigious hospitals in the country, Brigham and Women's,
in Boston. While practicing there, he taught at his father's alma mater,
Harvard Medical School. The prestige of these institutions gave him
access to some of the most remarkable new medical technology in the
world. He became an expert at something called stereotactic
radiosurgery, a type of treatment that burned away the problems inside a
patient's brain, cauterizing aneurysms, cooking tumors, without the
skull even needing to be opened.
He was on the rise. His father's shadow no longer seemed so long. And he
was charming. Larger than life, that's how his residents viewed him. A
charismatic barrel of energy, with an endearing habit of always wearing
a bow tie. He would play rock music in the operating room: classics like
Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Doors, newer stuff like Massive
Attack, Five for Fighting, Goo Goo Dolls. And no, he'd never quite
gotten over his obsession with space, with flight. Sometimes, when he
wasn't around, the residents would even crack that he would have made a
better astronaut than a brain surgeon. They'd noticed that some of the
attending surgeons could completely lose themselves in an operation,
standing there for hours, peering into a tiny little hole and
meticulously extracting bits of tumor. But Dr. Alexander wasn't like
that. He'd come rushing into the OR, talking to the nurses and the
residents and anyone else who'd listen, rambling about near-earth
asteroids or dark matter or whatever other topic in astrophysics he'd
been reading about in his spare time. It would take him a while to get
down to business, to focus on the matter at hand.
It wasn't that he wasn't smart. Four different former residents of
Alexander's use the word brilliant to describe him.
But he often just seemed to be somewhere else.
He is somewhere else.
Where, he doesn't know. He doesn't know, really, anything. Not where he
is, not even who or what he is. He is pure awareness, pure present, no
past, no future. Just this little speck of consciousness adrift in a
vast and mysterious place. It is an unpleasant place, brown and rank and
suffocating, but he doesn't even know enough to define a term as
advanced as "unpleasant."
And then he sees the light.
A bright light, swirling above him, accompanied by the most beautiful
music. He is rising up toward it. Up through it. The unpleasant place is
gone, somewhere below him, and now he is in a place that even if he had
the power of vocabulary, of words, he would find almost indescribably
beautiful. It is a green and verdant place. A green, idyllic place
filled but not crowded with men and women in peasant garb. Here and
there a dog cavorts among them. And he, he is flying! He is on the wing
of a butterfly. Perhaps it is an enormous butterfly or perhaps he is
really tiny, but size and scale don't really mean anything. There are
other butterflies all around him, millions of them, perhaps an infinite
number of them, colorful and iridescent, all flying in loose formation
over this impossibly beautiful place.
And he is not alone. Beside him on the butterfly, a beautiful girl!
Like the green countryside, her beauty is so intense, so overpowering,
that the word beauty itself seems insufficient. He becomes aware that
she is speaking to him, saying something, though she doesn't even need
to move her lips to speak.
You are loved and cherished, she tells him.
You have nothing to fear.
There is nothing you can do wrong.
He didn't do anything wrong.
He destroyed the woman's acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor, burned
it to oblivion with focused beams of radiation. That's what he set out
to do, and that's what he did. And yes, there had been postoperative
inflammation, and yes, the surgery had left the woman with permanent
paralysis on the left side of her face, but remember we're talking about
brain surgery here, not splinter removal. Bad things can happen that are
completely out of your control.
The woman's lawsuit, however, didn't accuse him of doing something he
shouldn't have done. It accused him instead of not doing something he
should have done. Specifically, it accused him of not informing the
woman that permanent facial paralysis might result from the operation.
And so, because exactly what he had told her prior to the operation was
at the heart of the case, that's what the lawyers asked her about during
the deposition a few years later. She was an elderly woman from Arizona.
She had initially consulted with Dr. Alexander by telephone after seeing
an episode of a PBS television program called Scientific American
Frontiers that was narrated by Alan Alda and had highlighted Dr.
Alexander and his remarkable stereotactic radiosurgery operations. She
sent him her medical records, scheduled a time for the operation, and
then flew with her husband and her son to Boston.
Patient: I was in a wheelchair, and we went down to this room and
waited. At 8:30, approximately four or five men came into the room, and
they didn't say not one word to me. They just came over and started
sticking me with a needle for anesthesia. And then they started screwing
this thing in my head. And I was bleeding and I was scared and I was
shaking. I went into shock, and nobody said one word....
Lawyer: What happened next?
A: Then they put that bell on my—they tried to, and it was—they had to
get a different one, because the one they had went clear down on my
shoulder. I have a very short neck and they—maybe they had it with them.
I don't know. I don't remember that. All I remember is the excruciating
pain when they started screwing that into my head. I had four screws,
two in the back and two in the front.
A: And I suppose it was an aide came in, and she knew that I was in
shock, evidently, because she got a blanket and wrapped it around me,
and she kind of held me. I was still in the wheelchair....
Q: During that whole time, none of these four or five men said anything
to you, is that right?
A: Yes. When they started putting the novocaine or whatever it was in my
head, I said, "Is one of you Dr. Alexander?" and this voice in back of
me said, "Yes, I am." And I said, "Please come around so I can see you.
I would like to see what you look like." And so he did. And we might
have shaken hands. I don't remember that. And then he went back to doing
whatever they were doing, screwing this thing into my head.
But none of this, again, is an indication of wrongdoing. A cold or
distracted bedside manner is not criminal. The question was whether he
had ever warned her about the possible complications. When the woman's
lawyer asked to see the two-page informed-consent form that laid out the
risks, Alexander could find only the first page, the page without the
woman's signature. And that page, as the lawyer noted, had "multiple
punch holes and fray marks, indicating that it had been filed in [the
patient's] chart, extracted from the file, and later refiled." 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."
The attorney was arguing, in other words, that when Alexander found
things that didn't fit the story he wanted to tell, he changed them, or
made them disappear altogether.
He soars on the butterfly's wing for who knows how long.
Time is different. Space, time, self, everything: different. Above the
butterflies, sentient orbs of light float. Angels? Who knows.
But eventually he rises, even higher. Or deeper. Further.
He enters a new realm, one of infinite depth and infinite blackness. And
at the center of it all, a light. Bright, pulsating, warm, loving, wise.
The embodiment, the definition, the source of all of those things and
The all-knowing and all-loving creator at the center of all existence.
He approaches God. God approaches him. God is everywhere. Above. Below.
He and God are One.
And although he still doesn't know who he is or where he is, though he
still has no concept of language itself, of present, of past, none of
He knows. He knows...everything.
He knows the unknowable, the great mysteries, the answers to the
ultimate whys and wheres and whats.
Why are we here? Where did we come from? What do we do now?
He knows it all.
And then he falls away. Down through the valley of swirling butterflies.
Back into the ageless muck where his journey began.
So he settled that suit.
But these things happen. You're trying to fix people who would otherwise
be hopelessly broken, and sometimes you don't succeed, or things just go
a little awry. And too often there are lawyers waiting in the wings.
It didn't really affect him. He was still teaching at Harvard, still
practicing at the Brigham. He was still on the rise. There were some
tensions at work, though. He and the man he worked for, Dr. Peter Black,
the Brigham's chair of neurosurgery, weren't getting along. Why that is
depends on whom you ask. Alexander thinks it's because Black had
assigned him to head up the hospital's stereotactic-radiosurgery
program, and initially that technology was used only to treat aneurysms.
The technology had developed quickly, though, and soon Alexander was
using it on tumors, too. He'd also begun using the hospital's new
intraoperative MRI machine to do tumor work. Problem was, Black was
known worldwide as the tumor guy. For instance, when Ringo Starr's
daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, her doctors sent her across
the Atlantic, because only Black would do. Alexander thought Black was
maybe worried that Alexander was encroaching on his turf, and this was
straining their relationship. Black, for his part, has no comment.
But all in all, more than a decade into his career at the Brigham,
things were looking great. He coauthored a lot of journal articles and
two academic textbooks, one about stereotactic radiosurgery and the
other focusing on the intraoperative MRI machine. And then, in 2000, he
served as the inspiration for a best-selling novel.
His friend wrote it. The Patient, by Michael Palmer. A medical thriller,
the kind travelers snatch up in airports and devour on airplanes. A
French terrorist dying from a brain tumor takes a prestigious Boston
hospital hostage in order to force the staff to save his life.
Initially, the terrorist wants the operation performed by the chief of
the neurosurgery department, Carl Gilbride, but Gilbride soon reveals
himself to be a venal and incompetent blowhard whose "true forte was
self-promotion." The real star of the neurosurgery department, the
terrorist deduces, is a young firebrand named Jessie Copeland, who is
everything a patient could hope for: brilliant, selfless, compassionate,
fiercely devoted to her charges, and a wizard with a scalpel. When the
terrorist chooses Copeland to perform his operation, it rankles Gilbride
so much that he begins trying to thwart and sabotage her at every turn.
Palmer had learned everything he could about neurosurgery from Alexander
and channeled it into the book, into Copeland. Alexander had even passed
along to Palmer the idea for ARTIE, the robotic assistant that could
crawl straight up someone's nose and into their brain and, when combined
with an intraoperative MRI machine, resect even the most stubbornly
embedded tumors. When folks at the Brigham read The Patient, it took
them about a half second to realize that Copeland was a stand-in for
Eben Alexander (albeit under the diaphanous disguise of a sex change).
And it didn't take much longer than that for them to realize that the
vile, venal chief of neurosurgery, the fictional Carl Gilbride, was
supposed to be the Brigham's real-life chair of neurosurgery, Eben
Alexander's boss, Peter Black. As one former resident of Alexander's
puts it, the "animosity and dynamic is eerily identical." Alexander, he
says, "poured all his frustration in there through Palmer," though he
cautions the resulting portraits of Alexander and Black are "open to
interpretation and tinted with jealousy."
In the fictional world of the book, Carl Gilbride gets what's coming to
him. He is pistol-whipped and roundly humiliated, and by the end is so
entirely emasculated and subservient to Copeland that he seeks praise
from her "like a four-year-old announcing he had picked up all his toys."
In the real world, things turned out differently.
On April 13, 2001, almost exactly a year after the publication of The
Patient, Dr. Eben Alexander's employment as a surgeon at the Brigham was
terminated. Rumors flooded the hospital hallways and break areas—a
problem with a patient? simply too much ego in one place?—but none were
ever substantiated. The administrators, as is their bureaucratic wont,
stayed silent. Only one fact was indisputable: Dr. Eben Alexander III
was moving on.
He falls and rises and falls and rises.
Back in the muck and murk of the realm below the verdant place, below
God, he eventually, after seconds or hours or days or years or
millennia, discovers that he is in control. That he can ascend again.
All he needs to do is summon the melody, the one that accompanied the
initial portal, and then he'll float up and through it and be back on
the butterfly again, with the beautiful girl, ready for another
encounter with God. He repeats the pattern, falling down, rising up,
But eventually the melody stops working. Eventually the melody no longer
summons the glowing gateway. It doesn't bother him, really. Even there,
in the writhing brown and grime, he knows that he is loved, eternally,
that he can do nothing wrong, that nothing truly bad can ever happen to him.
Secure in this knowledge, and in all his other newfound wisdom as well,
he slowly becomes aware of another realm. Faces emerge from the murk and
present themselves to him, and although he doesn't recognize them,
although he doesn't know who they are, he senses their concern for him.
Their love. They come from where he comes from.
He begins to wake up.
It's time to go back.
It was time to go back, to head back home to the South. New England
hadn't quite worked out. After the Brigham, he'd taken a job at the
UMass Memorial Medical Center, in Worcester, thirty-five miles west of
Boston. 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—and there had
been another boss he didn't get along with.
In August 2003, UMass Memorial suspended Alexander's surgical privileges
"on the basis or allegation of improper performance of surgery." (The
specifics of the case leading to the suspension are confidential, though
Alexander claims it resulted from "a very complex repeat operation I did
around the brain stem of a patient in which the patient had more
difficulty recovering after the operation I would say than I anticipated
and than I led them to believe.") His suspension technically ended in
November of that same year, but he never went back to work at UMass
Memorial. He resigned. The following year he did a little freelance
consulting for the Gerson Lehrman Group, a company that matches
corporations with experts in various fields, and also filed an
unsuccessful lawsuit against the Brigham and Women's Hospital, claiming
it improperly withheld more than $400,000 of his retirement and
deferred-compensation plans. He had been more or less out of work for
fifteen months when, in March 2005, he received a letter from the
Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine asking him to respond to
a complaint form they'd received from a former patient who was upset
that Alexander had stopped responding to phone calls. Alexander wrote a
letter back, explaining that the complaint was invalid because he was no
longer practicing and that, furthermore, he would soon be leaving the
"I wanted to stay in Massachusetts, but [the UMass chair of surgery's]
campaign against me has made that impossible," he wrote. He added that
he was a very good neurosurgeon, and that "Massachusetts would be most
fortunate to have the benefit of my skills as a physician and surgeon
over the next fifteen years, but they won't have it, because I am
leaving this state for a more hospitable and welcoming environment. It
will be nice to be appreciated for all that I have to offer."
The board ultimately took no disciplinary action. Still, one year later,
he moved his family back south, into a big redbrick colonial house in
Lynchburg, Virginia, not far from where he grew up, and Lynchburg
General Hospital hired him as a staff neurosurgeon. He got back to work.
When he comes back, when he opens his eyes, when the new-old realm with
all its fresh-familiar sensations comes washing over him, he is at first
very confused. For the better part of the next week, he experiences what
is known as ICU psychosis. He hallucinates. Some of the hallucinations
are very strange. At one point he believes he is running through a
cancer clinic in south Florida, being pursued by his wife, a pair of
policemen, and two Asian ninja photographers. His vocabulary is
incomplete. Parts of his brain are still dysfunctional.
But slowly his brain comes back online. Reality imposes itself. He
becomes aware of who the people around him are. His family, his friends.
He becomes aware of exactly where he is. He remembers this place.
The sorts of operations Alexander performed at Lynchburg General
Hospital were old-fashioned, as far as neurosurgery goes. But that
doesn't mean they were unimportant.
For example, on March 1, 2007, a fifty-four-year-old tobacco farmer from
a small town outside of Lynchburg visited Dr. Alexander, complaining of
pain in his neck and trapezius and upper arm. Alexander conducted a
physical examination and inspected some MRI imagery and told the patient
that he recommended a spinal decompression surgery that would involve
fusing his fifth and sixth vertebrae. The patient agreed to the surgery,
and several months later, on June 27, 2007, Alexander performed it.
He did something wrong. Instead of fusing the farmer's fifth and sixth
vertebrae, he fused his fourth and fifth. He did not realize his mistake
at first. When he dictated the operative report, he recorded that the
"MRI scan showed significant disk bulge and disk osteophyte complex
compression at C5-6 mainly the left side," and then described an
operation on those vertebrae, instead of the vertebrae he had actually
On July 12, he had his first follow-up appointment with the farmer. He
reviewed the postoperative X-rays. He noticed his mistake. He didn't
tell his patient. Instead, after his patient went home, he pulled the
operative report up on his computer and edited it. Now the report read
that the MRI scan had showed disk bulge at both C4-5 and C5-6, and that
"we had discussed possible C5-6 as well as C4-5 decompression, finally
deciding on C4-5 decompression." Then he simply found every subsequent
reference in the report to C5-6 and changed it to C4-5.
After he finished editing the report, it read as though he hadn't done
anything wrong at all.
During a third follow-up meeting, in October, Alexander finally
confessed, and told the patient that if he wanted another operation he
could have it for free. It is unclear exactly when Lynchburg General
Hospital learned of Alexander's mistake, but by the end of October he no
longer had surgical privileges at the hospital.
On August 6, 2008, the patient filed a $3 million lawsuit against
Alexander, accusing him of negligence, battery, spoliation, and fraud.
The purported cover-up, the changes Alexander had made to the surgical
report, was a major aspect of the suit. Once again, a lawyer was
accusing Alexander of altering the historical record when the historical
record didn't fit the story he wanted to tell.
By the time the lawsuit was filed, Alexander had found another job, with
a nonprofit called the Focused Ultrasound Foundation in Charlottesville,
Virginia, an hour-and-a-half drive from Lynchburg. His new job did not
involve the practice of neurosurgery. His boss, the neurosurgeon Dr.
Neal Kassell, who was also a professor of neurosurgery at the University
of Virginia medical school, had known Alexander for many years. He had
high respect for Alexander's intelligence—like Alexander's former
residents, he described Alexander as brilliant. He had less esteem for
Alexander's surgical abilities. "Neurosurgery requires the ability to
intensely concentrate on one thing for a long period of time," he says.
"And that's not Eben's MO."
The tobacco farmer's lawsuit was still in its preliminary stages,
hanging over Alexander's head like a $3 million hammer, when the E. coli
started their terrible multiplication.
He goes home from the hospital just before Thanksgiving.
He is sixteen pounds lighter and still foggy, but getting stronger and
sharper every day. He had been scheduled to give a deposition in the
case of the tobacco farmer in December, but the court allows it to be
pushed back. He keeps himself busy. He writes thank-you postcards to
some of the medical staff that took care of him. He takes notes about
his memories of his strange comatose journey, the murky place and the
butterflies and the countryside and the dazzling epiphanic light at the
center of it all. He imagines there is probably a neurological
explanation for what he experienced. Eventually he starts going back to
work at the Focused Ultrasound Foundation.
On March 18, 2009, Alexander gives his deposition in the tobacco-farmer
case. He testifies that when he learned of his error, he "felt like
[he'd] been hit by a truck," but that he refrained from telling the
patient because he was intrigued by postoperative improvements he claims
the patient had made despite the botched operation.
"I thought that I would end up telling him about it," he says, "and I
think my overwhelming curiosity about why he had gotten better—I wanted
to see if his symptoms came back quickly because people sometimes will
have a placebo effect to surgery."
Soon after his deposition, Alexander's lawyers urge him to settle, and
he does. They also urge him to settle another case, stemming from an
operation he performed only two weeks after the farmer's, when he again
operated on the wrong vertebra of a patient. He settles that case, too.
The Virginia Board of Medicine allows him to keep his license, but
levies a modest fine and orders him to take continuing education classes
in ethics and professionalism. By the time all his pending cases are
resolved, Alexander will have settled five malpractice cases in the last
ten years. Only one other Virginia-licensed neurosurgeon has settled as
many cases in that time period, and none have settled more.
But really, in the wake of his coma, his perspective on his legal
troubles has shifted. He's just lucky to be alive. The mere fact of it,
the mere fact that his brain survived that vicious bacterial assault,
well...some might even call it a miracle. He starts reading a lot about
near-death experiences, books like Life After Death, by Dinesh D'Souza;
Embraced by the Light, by Betty J. Eadie; and Evidence of the Afterlife,
by Jeffrey Long. These books all argue that experiences such as the one
he had were not hallucinatory quirks of a brain under siege. They were
real. One morning, maybe four months after his coma, he's in his bedroom
reading one of these books, called On Life After Death, by Elisabeth
Kübler-Ross. He comes to a story about a little girl who has a
near-death experience during which she meets a deceased brother she had
Alexander, who had recently received a photo of a deceased daughter of
his birth parents, a sister he had never known, puts the book down and
lets his eyes wander to the photo. And then, suddenly, he recognizes her.
The girl on the butterfly wing.
He can't sleep.
For days and weeks and months in a row, he wakes at two in the morning
and can't fall back asleep, so he goes to the den long before he needs
to start his long commute to work, and he writes and reads and thinks.
He knows he has a story to tell, but the question is how to tell it.
He eventually decides to start with the story of his first near-death
It's a story from his skydiving days back in college. He logged more
than three hundred jumps during his college career, and most of them
were thrilling but otherwise uneventful. On one autumn day in 1975,
however, something went wrong. On that particular day, he was the last
of a group of six jumpers to exit the airplane. The group had intended
to form a six-man star formation, but one flew in too fast and knocked
the formation apart before Alexander could come in to complete it. After
recovering their bearings, the briefly discombobulated jumpers tracked
away from one another, preparing to deploy their chutes. Alexander did
the same, rocketing off to stake out his own untrammeled patch of sky.
He was about to pull his rip cord when he noticed with a start that a
jumper named Chuck had tracked to a spot directly below him. He
describes the moment:
He must not see me. The thought barely had time to go through my head
before Chuck's colorful pilot chute blossomed out of his backpack. His
pilot chute caught the 120-mph breeze coming around him and shot
straight toward me, pulling his main parachute in its sleeve right
From the instant I saw Chuck's pilot chute emerge, I had a fraction of
a second to react. For it would take less than a second to tumble
through his deploying main parachute, and—quite likely—right into Chuck
himself. At that speed, if I hit his arm or his leg I would take it
right off, dealing myself a fatal blow in the process. If I hit him
directly, both our bodies would essentially explode.
Instead, Alexander managed to react in the most perfect way possible to
the scenario, instantaneously and without conscious effort angling his
body so that it rocketed away from Chuck, avoiding disaster by
microseconds. At the time, he marveled at what he believed must have
been his brain's untapped capacity for preternaturally quick thinking.
Now he interprets this incident differently.
This book is about the events that changed my mind on the matter. They
convinced me that, as marvelous a mechanism as the brain is, it was not
my brain that saved my life that day at all. What sprang into action the
second Chuck's chute started to open was another, much deeper part of
me. A part that could move so fast because it was not stuck in time at
all, the way the brain and body are.
He has his beginning.
There was a man named Chuck in the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill Sport Parachute Club. He won't return phone calls. But his
She's read Proof of Heaven. She immediately thought to herself that the
Chuck in the book must have been her brother-in-law. She sends Chuck a
few e-mails. Finally he responds. He remembers Alexander. He says he
doesn't remember anything like the incident Alexander describes.
Alexander can understand the confusion.
"It's not Chuck," he says today. "I probably should have put a
disclaimer in the front of the book saying that Chuck is not Chuck. It
is actually somebody not named Chuck. Because I cannot give the name of
the person it was. Because the attorneys at Simon & Schuster would be
mad at me. Because potentially they did something wrong. Potentially
they were liable for causing trouble, etc., etc. So I am under very
strict advice from the Simon & Schuster attorneys not to divulge who
But if the man who'd opened the chute below him had done something
wrong, it was something wrong that hadn't caused any personal injury.
There wouldn't have been any legal liability there, right?
"Right," he says. "Well, that was my argument, but these attorneys, it
was kind of surprising to me, that was one of the few things they
focused on. They said, 'Do not, under any circumstances, divulge who
that was!' "
So he had changed the character's name to Chuck, which happened to be
the real name of someone he did skydive with?
"It's not Chuck," he repeats. "It's not Chuck."
Is he still in touch with Chuck?
And fake Chuck?
"No, I don't know what happened to fake Chuck."
Is there anyone else who was part of the jump that day who might be able
to verify his story?
"You know, there's not. Because I can't tell you exactly which day it
was. And my logbook—those pages in my logbook I don't have right now."
The book progresses. He starts to hone his argument and to shape its
He is, he writes, "a practicing neurosurgeon" and is familiar with "the
most advanced concepts in brain science and consciousness studies." His
"decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room" put him
"in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but
also the implications of what happened to me."
He introduces his central thesis.
"During my coma," he writes, "my brain wasn't working improperly—it
wasn't working at all." This is the key. His brain wasn't working, and
yet he had these vivid memories of voyaging through these other realms:
the murky dark, the butterflies, the vast darkness, and the luminous,
all-knowing creator. How could he have memories from a time when his
brain wasn't working at all? From a time when, as he writes, "my mind,
my spirit—whatever you may choose to call the central, human part of
The answer is simple and logical. It is also, he writes, "of stunning
importance. Not just to me, but to all of us."
Alexander writes, "The place I went was real, real in a way that makes
the life we're living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison."
As he nears the end of his tale, every part of his story seems to be
connected to every other part in mysterious ways. For instance, his coma
began on Monday, November 10, and by Saturday, "it had been raining for
five days straight, ever since the afternoon of my entrance into the
ICU." Then, on Sunday, after six days of torrents, just before he woke
up, the rain stopped:
To the east, the sun was shooting its rays through a chink in the cloud
cover, lighting up the lovely ancient mountains to the west and the
layer of cloud above as well, giving the gray clouds a golden tinge.
Then, looking toward the distant peaks, opposite to where the
mid-November sun was starting its ascent, there it was.
A perfect rainbow.
It was as though heaven itself was cheering Alexander's return.
Dave Wert, meteorologist in charge at the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration office that encompasses Lynchburg, reviews
the weather records for the week of November 10 through 16. "There was
nothing on the tenth," he says. "Nothing on the eleventh...two
hundredths of an inch on the twelfth." The next three days, he says,
were rainy and miserable. Then the storm appeared to break on the
evening of the fifteenth. The sixteenth was another clear day.
Could there have been a rainbow on the morning of the sixteenth?
"No," he says.
Unlike weather records, Alexander's medical records are all
confidential. Alexander does not plan to make them public, though he did
offer to allow three of the doctors who treated him to speak about his
case. Two of them declined the opportunity. The other, Dr. Laura Potter,
was on duty in the ER of Lynchburg General Hospital on the morning of
November 10, 2008, when the EMTs brought him in.
Both Alexander in his book and Potter in her recollections describe
Alexander arriving in the ER groaning and flailing and raving and having
to be physically restrained. In Proof of Heaven, Alexander describes Dr.
Potter then administering him "sedatives" to calm him down.
Here's how Dr. Potter remembers it:
"We couldn't work with Eben at all, we couldn't get vital signs, he just
was not able to comply. So I had to make the decision to just place him
in a chemically induced coma. Really for his own safety, until we could
treat him. And so I did.... I put him to sleep, if you will, and put him
on life support."
After Alexander was taken from the ER to the ICU, Potter says, the
doctors there administered anesthetics that kept him in the coma. The
next day, she went to visit him.
"And of course he was still in an induced coma," she says. "On
ventilator support. They tried to let him wake up and see what he would
do, but he was in exactly the same agitated state. Even if they tried to
ease up, a little bit even, on the sedation. In fact, for days, every
time they would try to wean his sedation—just thrashing, trying to
scream, and grabbing at his tube."
In Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that he spent seven days in "a coma
caused by a rare case of E. coli bacterial meningitis." There is no
indication in the book that it was Laura Potter, and not bacterial
meningitis, that induced his coma, or that the physicians in the ICU
maintained his coma in the days that followed through the use of
anesthetics. Alexander also writes that during his week in the ICU he
was present "in body alone," that the bacterial assault had left him
with an "all-but-destroyed brain." He notes that by conventional
scientific understanding, "if you don't have a working brain, you can't
be conscious," and a key point of his argument for the reality of the
realms he claims to have visited is that his memories could not have
been hallucinations, since he didn't possess a brain capable of creating
even a hallucinatory conscious experience.
I ask 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. "Conscious but delirious."
Potter hasn't read Proof of Heaven, although she did get an advance look
at a few passages. About a year after his recovery, Alexander approached
Potter at a track meet that both of their sons were competing in and
told her that he'd started writing a book, and that he wanted her to
take a look at some parts in which he described her thought processes in
the emergency room. He wanted, he said, to "make sure that you're okay
with what I've done." He later e-mailed the passages to her, and when
she read them, she found that they were "sort of what a doctor would
think, but not exactly what was going through my head." She told him so,
and according to Potter he responded that it was a matter of "artistic
license," and that aspects of his book were "dramatized, so it may not
be exactly how it went, but it's supposed to be interesting for readers."
One of the book's most dramatic scenes takes place just before she sends
him from the ER to the ICU:
In the final moments before leaving the emergency room, and after two
straight hours of guttural animal wails and groaning, I became quiet.
Then, out of nowhere, I shouted three words. They were crystal clear,
and heard by all the doctors and nurses present, as well as by Holley,
who stood a few paces away, just on the other side of the curtain.
"God, help me!"
Everyone rushed over to the stretcher. By the time they got to me, I was
Potter has no recollection of this incident, or of that shouted plea.
What she does remember is that she had intubated Alexander more than an
hour prior to his departure from the emergency room, snaking a plastic
tube down his throat, through his vocal cords, and into his trachea.
Could she imagine her intubated patient being able to speak at all, let
alone in a crystal-clear way?
"No," she says.
He finds an agent, and the agent shops his book proposal around, and
soon Simon & Schuster offers him a book deal. They put it on the fast
track for publishing, want to get it out that same year. A writer named
Ptolemy Tompkins, who has written other books about near-death
experiences, is brought in to help chop down the manuscript by more than
half. Alexander meets in New York with the publishers and his editor,
but once the deal is struck, the gears of the publishing world grind on
even when he's back down south.
The title of the book, according to Alexander, is generated during a
meeting he doesn't attend, a meeting between executives at Simon &
Schuster and, according to him, executives at various ABC television
programs, including Good Morning America, 20/20, and Nightline. During
the meeting, the Simon & Schuster executives, who are trying to line up
coverage for the book, are making their pitch—this renowned neurosurgeon
visits the afterlife, comes back with wondrous stories to tell—and
toward the end of the meeting an ABC executive asks if the Simon &
Schuster execs can summarize what makes the book important.
"It's proof of heaven!" someone blurts.
In his study, toward the end of our conversation, Alexander distances
himself from the title.
"When they first came to me with that title I didn't like it at all," he
says. "Because I knew from my journey that it was very clear to me that
no human brain or mind, no kind of scientific philosophical entity will
ever be able to know enough to say yes or no to the existence of that
realm or deity, because it's so far beyond our human understanding."
It is, he says, "laughable" and "the highest form of folly, of hubris"
to think that anyone could ever "prove" heaven. "I knew," he says, "that
proof in a scientific sense was ridiculous. I mean, no one could have that."
We talk five weeks later by Skype. He's in a hotel in Vancouver, at the
beginning of a one-and-a-half-week stint of speaking engagements and
book signings. He looks relaxed, serene, wearing another button-down
shirt, smiling into the Internet. He's excited to be on the road, he
says, eager to spread his message of hope. He hasn't had surgical
privileges since October 2007, but he still views himself as a healer.
I remind him of what he said about his book's title during our previous
meeting, and ask whether there were any parts of the book's contents he
would concede are similarly hyperbolic. He says no, there are not. And
he now says that not even the title is, strictly speaking, inaccurate.
It just doesn't go far enough. "This is so much more than a proof of
heaven," he says. "Proof of heaven is kind of a minuscule little claim
compared to what is really there."
We talk about rainstorms and intubations and chemically induced comas,
and I can see it in his face, the moment he knows for sure that the
story I've been working on is not the one he wanted me to tell.
"What I'm worried about," he says, "is that you're going to be so busy
trying to smash out these little tiny fires that you're going to miss
the big point of the book."
I ask whether an account of his professional struggles should have been
included in a book that rests its authority on his professional credentials.
He says no, because medical boards in various states investigated the
malpractice allegations and concluded he could retain his license. And
besides, that's all in the past. "The fact of the matter," he says of
the suits, "is they don't matter at all to me.... You cannot imagine how
minuscule they appear in comparison to what I saw, where I went, and the
message that I bring back."
His survival is a miracle, he says. His doctors told him that he is
alive when he should be dead, and he believes intensely that he is alive
for a reason, to spread the word about the love awaiting us all in
heaven. To heal.
By focusing on the inconsistencies in his story, on recollections that
don't seem to add up, on a court-documented history of revising facts,
on the distinctions between natural and medically induced comas, he
says, is to miss the forest for the trees. That's all misleading stuff,
irrelevant to his journey and story.
Toward the end, there's a note of pleading in his voice.
"I just think that you're doing a grave disservice to your readers to
lead them down a pathway of thinking that any of that is, is relevant.
And I just, I really ask, as a friend, don't..."
The walls are light blue at the bottom and darker blue toward the top,
like the May sky. There are flowers everywhere, purple and pink and
white, sprouting from pots and floating in clear glass bowls. On a
bright orange altar at the rear of the room, multiple swatches of cloth,
yellow and red and green, hang from a life-sized golden statue of
Buddha. The Dalai Lama reclines in a cushioned throne in front of the
altar, under the Buddha. He's wearing a red robe with a yellow shoulder
band that loops around and drapes over one of his arms, leaving the
other arm, which is as smooth and hairless as a child's, exposed.
Alexander is wearing a robe, too, but it's a standard black convocation
robe. He's sitting a few feet to the left of the Dalai Lama, in a
smaller chair. Both are here to speak at the graduation ceremony of
Maitripa College, a Buddhist college in Portland, Oregon. Alexander is
slated to speak first, and when he begins, the Dalai Lama cocks his head
in a quizzical way and peers at him through his thick glasses.
Alexander tells his story like he's told it so many times before, in his
soft, southern, confident burr. He tells the audience about the wondrous
realm he visited, about the all-powerful and all-loving God he
encountered there, and about some of the lessons he's brought back to
earth. He says that among those lessons is the fact that reincarnation
is real, and that knowing death is only ever temporary has helped him
understand how a loving God can permit so many "tragedies and hardships
and hurdles in the physical realm." As he did a few months ago, when
Gretchen Carlson asked him whether the dead schoolchildren from Newtown
remembered their slaughter, he offers comfort and hope. "I came to see
all of those hardships as gifts," he says, "as beautiful opportunities
The Dalai Lama is not a native English speaker, and when it's his turn
to speak, he does so much less smoothly than Alexander, sometimes
stopping and snapping his fingers when a word escapes him, or turning to
his interpreter for help when he's really stuck. He is not using notes,
and the impression he gives is that of a man speaking off the cuff. He
opens with a brief discourse about the parallels between the Buddhist
and Shinto conceptions of the afterlife, and then, after glancing over
at Alexander, changes the subject. He explains that Buddhists categorize
phenomena in three ways. The first category are "evident phenomena,"
which can be observed and measured empirically and directly. The second
category are "hidden phenomena," such as gravity, phenomena that can't
be seen or touched but can be inferred to exist on the basis of the
first category of phenomena. The third category, he says, are "extremely
hidden phenomena," which cannot be measured at all, directly or
indirectly. The only access we can ever have to that third category of
phenomena is through our own first-person experience, or through the
first-person testimony of others.
"Now, for example," the Dalai Lama says, "his sort of experience."
He points at Alexander.
"For him, it's something reality. Real. But those people who never sort
of experienced that, still, his mind is a little bit sort of..." He taps
his fingers against the side of his head. "Different!" he says, and
laughs a belly laugh, his robes shaking. The audience laughs with him.
Alexander smiles a tight smile.
"For that also, we must investigate," the Dalai Lama says. "Through
investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable." He wags a
finger in Alexander's direction. When a man makes extraordinary claims,
a "thorough investigation" is required, to ensure "that person reliable,
never telling lie," and has "no reason to lie."
Then he changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to
translate ancient Tibetan texts.
Alexander listens quietly, occasionally fidgeting with the program in
his hands. He's a long way from home, and even further from the man he
once was. It's been a dizzying journey, but his path forward seems set.
He's told people that God granted him so much knowledge, so much wisdom,
so many secrets, that he will have to spend his entire life unpacking it
all, doling it out bit by bit. He's already working on the follow-up to
Proof of Heaven. In the meantime, anyone can pay sixty dollars to access
his webinar guided-meditation series, "Discover Your Own Proof of
Heaven," and he's been consulting with a pair of experts in
"archaeoacoustics" to re-create some of the music that he heard while on
his journey. You can even pay to join him on a "healing journey" through
In his past life, Alexander went through some hard times, but those hard
times are far behind him now.
He is in a better place.
Luke Dittrich has been a contributing editor at Esquire since 2008. His
work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Best American
Crime Writing, The Best American Travel Writing, and The Best American
Science and Nature Writing, and his article about a group of strangers
who sheltered together during a devastating tornado won the 2012
National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He is currently writing a
book for Random House about his neurosurgeon grandfather's most famous
patient, Henry Molaison, an amnesiac from whom medical science learned
most of what it knows about how memory works.
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