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Mary C. Neal is the author of To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels and Life Again, an account of her “dying” during a kayaking accident and coming back to Earth from Heaven.

Ever wonder what Heaven is like? Philosophers and theologians have pondered this since the beginning of time. Will the bright lights of Heaven welcome you into the fold? Will your loved ones greet you at the gate? Will you finally and truly see the omnipotent God? Who knows? But Mary C. Neal provides us with another realm of possibilities to think about after she ‘died and went to heaven’ in 1999. 

If you don’t know who Mary C. Neal is (because I didn’t until recently), Neal is one of the newest members of Joe Biden’s family. Her son, Peter Neal, recently married Joe Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi Biden. Mary C. Neal is most notably the author of To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels and Life Again. Her book tells the story of her “dying” in 1999 during a kayaking trip down a waterfall on the Fuy River in Chile and miraculously coming back to Earth from Heaven. 

During her kayaking excursion down the river, Neal’s kayak flipped upside down and she was trapped underwater, unable to come up to the surface because the current was so strong. In her chapter “Death on the River,” Neal confesses that she was certain she would die when she “no longer felt [herself] trying to breathe.” Upon recounting an experience some might consider their worst nightmare, Neal claims that she felt “curiously blissful” during the event and went up to Heaven. 

“It felt as if I had finally shaken off my heavy outer layer, freeing my soul. I rose up and out of the river, and when my soul broke through the surface of the water, I encountered a group of fifteen to twenty souls (human spirits sent by God), who greeted me with the most overwhelming joy I have ever experienced and could ever imagine.”

Neal went on to describe that Heaven’s beauty was so stunning and overwhelming that she didn’t want to go back down to Earth but remain in Heaven. 

“Don’t get me wrong…I have been very blessed in my life and have experienced great joy and love here on earth. I love my husband and I love each of my children with great intensity, and that love is reciprocated. It’s just that God’s world is exponentially more colorful and intense,” she said. 

And when asked more about Heaven and all of its beauty, Neal claimed: “the Heaven I witnessed was so pure, love-filled and magnificent.” While she was unconscious, her fellow kayakers on the Chilean river tried to save and bring her back down to Earth. Neal shared that she began to feel annoyed at those trying to resuscitate her. And even more so when they began begging her to come back to life! She felt this deep desire to stay in Heaven and did not want to return to the world. Neal shared: “I knew they didn’t understand what was happening, but I was annoyed that they wouldn’t let me go.” 

Neal is a devout Christian who has made her career as an orthopedic surgeon. She holds a steadfast belief that despite her extensive medical training, during this event she truly died and was brought back to life by the grace of God. Neal went on to profess: “I believe Jesus was holding me, comforting me, and reassuring me when I was drowning.” 

However, it was brought to light that it was not her time to live in Heaven. Neal has spoken of her conversing with Jesus as well as being given instructions by God for work she still needed to accomplish on Earth. During this time she was also told of her eldest son’s premature death, which would sadly come to fruition. This not only stunned Neal, but also gave her the opportunity to cherish her remaining time with him. She was able to turn this experience and all the accompanying pain into something meaningful and positive in order to help and guide others through difficult times by learning to trust God completely. 

After the kayakers were successful in resuscitating her, they needed to bring a severely injured Neal to the road in order to find help and get her more medical assistance. Recounting her story, she says that this was when “several young Chilean men materialized out of nowhere” and helped carry her out to the road. Upon telling this to the people who had been with her, they said that they had not seen anyone. Neal later realized that these were angels who were sent to help her. “These young men were nowhere to be found…and the people from the village had no idea who they could be,” Neal recounts. 

After the incident, Neal returned to her home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she received intense medical care. The doctors at the hospital told her husband his wife would likely die. With the care and support of her loved ones and community’s prayers for her perseverance, Neal was able to recover with a healthy body and no brain damage. She is now experiencing life after death and sharing the power of God’s all encompassing love. 

Mary C. Neal is the author of two novels, To Heaven and Back: The True Story of a Doctor’s Extraordinary Walk with God and 7 Lessons from Heaven: How Dying Taught Me to Live a Joy-Filled Life. She has also gone on to write her memoir. Neal also gave a Ted Talk about going to Heaven and coming back. Unfortunately, it was later flagged by the company, who claimed it fell outside of their guidelines for topics speakers could cover, specifying: “This talk only represents the speaker’s personal experiences.” 


By Sarah Lange ‘25, Contributing Writer