As the rapid current brought his small canoe inexorably closer to the fork in the river, Dr. Allan Hamilton was in a state of near panic. In one direction lay the small Gabonese village where he was supposed to act as chief medic and immunize children. In the other, the impetus would sweep the small craft all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. But which was which? After crash landing on a strip of beach stretched between the two choices, Hamilton and his local guide noticed a pair of feet. Looking up, they discovered a handsome, older African man. “We’re lost,” he told the stranger. “I know,” the man smiled. “I dreamed that two men would be coming to Tan-Beang, but they do not know which way to go. So I am asked to stand here in the branching place of the river and lead them to my village.”
Hamilton was dumbfounded. How could this man have known they were coming and shown up at exactly the right moment to prevent a disastrous mistake? It was just one of many experiences in Gabon that led him to question his rational, scientific training from Harvard Medical School. Perhaps there was more to life than logic.
Since then the widely acclaimed neurosurgeon has had other inexplicable encounters, like patients who see their dead relatives in the room, who accurately predict their own deaths despite appearing perfectly healthy, or can repeat verbatim conversations that occurred in the E.R. while technically brain dead.
In 2008, Hamilton published a book about such experiences, The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural and the Healing Power of Hope. It was a bold move for a practicing surgeon with a reputation to maintain. As he reveals in this interview with SuperConsciousness, spirituality is a taboo topic in the medical world – but one he has brought to light.
SC: How did the experience in the fork of the river in Gabon change your thinking about human potential?
AH: In a simple way it was like walking through a parallel universe and then you realize that you could see the world one way and it would make sense, but you could see the world in a completely different set of algorithms and it would make just as much sense. That whole experience is somehow interwoven in a way that you can’t causally connect. Even from a scientific point of view, I can’t explain how this links together and yet there is a certain integrity to all of it.
I always wished someone had said that you are going to see stuff that is going to make you question your values, you are going to question yourself, and that is part of medicine and part of taking care of human beings. Maybe it is the mystery of taking care of life.
SC: Do you think the fact that you were not in your everyday environment allowed you to accept it more easily?
AH: I was immersed in a culture and people who wove supernatural explanations in modes of reasoning and logic to everything around them, which is not what we are used to. I began to not only question my own premises, but how is it that this works for them.
SC: Since early on, you have been able to see a specific kind of light around people who are going to die even if they appear perfectly healthy. As a young doctor, how did you explain that to yourself?
AH: I didn’t even really understand it. To this day, I always say to people it is not like I get on the elevator and say oh, that person is sick, that person is going to die. It doesn’t work that way. It is only when you see it that you say, “Oh my goodness, something serious is happening.” I am actually intrigued when I talk to hospice nurses and they will say they see it all the time. It is not something that you hear people share.
If I don’t see it, it doesn’t mean that person is not sick. It is not something you rely upon, like a diagnostic test, but at the same time it is an intuitive feeling of “this person’s sicker than they look.”
SC: You are very highly respected in the medical community. What was the reaction once your book came out?
AH: It was the weirdest set of reactions. A lot of surgical colleagues were dismayed. They couldn’t believe I wrote a book about spirituality. I had one person say, “I can’t believe you wrote about this, but on the other hand I always know when something has happened with one of my kids before the phone rings.” We sort of have this schizophrenic relationship with medicine because we know there is more to it than science. We always say there is the science and then there is the art of medicine. There is a Yin and Yang to it.
We sort of have this schizophrenic relationship with medicine because we know there is more to it than science. We always say there is the science and then there is the art of medicine. There is a Yin and Yang to it.
Colleagues were coming forward and saying, “I have had a lot of the same experiences.” Younger doctors especially, medical students, and residents would say, “I am so glad someone talked about this because it is something I felt and I have been moved by it and I thought I was alone.” Nurses are very different crowd in that they are, first off, much more in tune with their emotions in a lot of ways and much more willing to share their emotional experiences. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone in nursing. It was almost like, why are we talking about it?
Number one is because many of the patients want to talk about it, and they need to talk about it. But, number two, we need to talk about it. We are not sort of in a scientific peer review, spectators sitting on the sideline, we are involved in this emotional life. You can’t watch someone lose a child and not have a sense of empathy and loss. I think in a lot of quarters there was relief that we can talk about it since he’s talked about it.
I really felt like this was a topic that for a long, long time had blindsided me. I always wished someone had said that you are going to see stuff that is going to make you question your values, you are going to question yourself, and that is part of medicine and part of taking care of human beings. Maybe it is the mystery of taking care of life.
SC: What would you say is the heart of that resistance in medicine to really talking about spirituality?
AH: One, we are all comfortable with our dogma. In a way, science is our religion. Having someone question that faith in some way doesn’t make us comfortable at all. It also gives you a sense of not being as much in control.
It just made me really conscious about the fact that what we assume is unconsciousness is not. I don’t know what the patient might overhear or might not.
SC: You had an experience with a woman who was temporarily rendered brain dead, but later could reiterate entire conversations that were conducted during her surgery, which according to science is impossible. Did that change the way you deal with patients who are theoretically “under” or in comas?
AH: Absolutely, in a whole bunch of ways. One, I put signs up on the outside of my door on my operating room “Patient is awake” because people would walk in and say the dumbest things. If I put the sign on the door, everybody is going to be careful about what they say. Some people would walk in, go up to the scans and look at them, and say “Oh my God, that looks terrible.” That was the first thing.
I was much more conscious of speaking aloud to the patient telling them we were at a tough part, but I think we are making the right decision and I’m praying that everything is going our way. It just made me really conscious about the fact that what we assume is unconsciousness is not. I don’t know what the patient might overhear or might not. I tell families, always speak about how much you love them, say that you are here, and tell them that you are praying for them. We don’t know how or what gets through.
SC: Has it changed the way you thought about consciousness and the body?
AH: Yes, on the level that I just don’t really understand that experience from a scientific point of view. I can’t explain it from a neuro-electrical point of view. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen. It violates every rule I know.
On the other hand, it raises the bigger question of well, if this is possible for one single human being, what does it say about lots of other life forms? What does it say about an entire planet? What does it say about the whole notion of life? Life has a whole separate level of consciousness that you can’t even imagine.
SC: You had a major change in your life a few years back. Like your patients, you had to reinvent yourself after your back surgery, because it eliminated your ability to operate. What did that experience teach you about who we are versus who we may think we are?
AH: I think it is one of the most fundamental problems when a health care crisis comes along. It doesn’t just attack our well being, it attacks the state in which we are. So many of us are wrapped up in the day to day of what we do. So much of life, for me, was wrapped up in being a brain surgeon. It just took my breath away when it disappeared. I realized that my patients were going through this. We just think we are giving them bad news about a disease, but we are not. We are wiping out a state of being. We are wiping out a state of understanding. We are wiping out a state of knowledge. In some ways we just don’t really sometimes feel the poignancy of what we are delivering.
You can call it family, call it consciousness, call it God, or call it nature. I don’t care what you call it. I think that has to be part of medicine. It is an inherent part of being.
I had seen that my patients would come out of the experience as a much different person with a different perspective. I kept struggling with how I was going to make a contribution, how am I going to be something, how am I going to do something. I don’t feel like I have a definitive answer.
SC: How would you see medicine in the future if it did incorporate some concept of spirituality and did include conversations about the kinds of things you have experienced?
AH: I define spirituality very simply as the drive to connect to something greater than ourselves. It is this drive within each of us to reach out to something bigger than just an individual mortal existence. It doesn’t matter; you can call it family, call it consciousness, call it God, or call it nature. I don’t care what you call it. I think that has to be part of medicine, It is an inherent part of being. It would be nice to not deny it, but to have a dialogue about it.
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