tv Anderson Cooper Special Report CNN December 7, 2013 8:00pm-9:01pm PST
their stories begin tragically. orthopedic surgeon mary neal was trapped under water for more than 15 minutes. anita moorjani was living her final moments with stage four lymphoma. and ben breedlove's heart stopped beating for minutes at a time. on the brink of death, mary, anita, and ben say they went to heaven and they came back. their stories raise questions about faith and fear. is heaven real? what does it feel like to die? tonight cnn's randi kaye talked with three people who say they have left this world for another. we leave it to them to tell their stories, their words, their descriptions, their
answers to questions we'd all light to ask. >> my name is mary neal. on january 14th, 1999, i died while kayaking on a south american river. i live in jackson hole, wyoming. i am married. i had four children. they were all competitive cross country skiers. i am an orthopedic spine surgeon. and i was very busy. i mean, i finished my residency and was married with a full-time job and one child and then had another one and another one and they kept coming. and i think i was very, very typical. i had very little time for my spiritual life. >> what was your relationship with god and spirituality?
>> i did take my own children to sunday school. i tried to incorporate spirituality into my daily life, but then i would run out of time. >> tell me about your husband, bill. >> my husband is also an orthopedic surgery. he is a very bright guy with a keen sense of humor. my husband and i have been married for 26 years. this was in january of 1999. friends of ours are professional kayakers and during the winters, they go to chile to kayak. and so for my husband's birthday, i surprised him with this trip. and so we had planned to go to chile for a week of kayaking. what was going to be our last day of kayaking was january
14th. we had planned to kayak on a section of river that's well known for its water falls. drops of 10 to 15 feet. that morning, actually, my husband woke up with terrible back pain. so he chose not to go on the river. >> how did you feel that morning? what was on your mind? >> when i first put on the river, i didn't feel quite right. i just sort of said, oh, well, i guess i'm just nervous. as we started down the river, i still felt this sense of unease. things weren't quite pauling together. then we came to the first big drop. as i crested the top of the water fall, i could look down and it just looked like this bottomless pit of churning water. i couldn't see a clean outflow or clean exit. i hit the bottom of the water
fall and the front end of the boat became pinned in the rocks, and the boat and i were immediately and completely smerge -- submerged under eight or ten feet of water. the force of the water had me forced to the front deck of the boat. i couldn't do anything. >> did you have any sense while this was happening where your friends were, what they were trying to do. did they know where you were? >> neither the boat nor i were visible from the surface. and at that point in time, they started their watch. time is very important because it determines whether you are trying to rescue someone or whether you are really just trying to recover the body. >> did you think you were going to die at that point? >> oh, i was sure i was going to die. i knew at the time i really had been under water too long. i gave up trying to control the outcome.
i really gave it all over to god. and i really, really sincerely said, your will be done. and the moment i gave up control, i was immediately overcome with this very, very physical sensation of being held and comforted and reassured that everything was fine. regardless of whether i lived or died. my husband would be fine. my children would be fine. i believe i was being held by christ and i had this incredible feeling of his just pouring his love into me. but simultaneously, the other part of my brain kept doing these self assessment exams thinking, wow, this is really, really strange. >> and were you still in the water when you were being held? >> yes. i was still very aware of my physical surroundings. i could still feel the boat.
i could still feel the current. the father of this group that became very clear to him that what they were going to do was not going to make a difference. they all said there was a point in time when everything shifted. one of them said it was almost like a sonic boom. then this other rock became exposed and they were able to get closer to me. >> rock that hadn't been there before. >> no. when the rock opened up, and one attempt they were able to shift the boat just a little bit so then the current started sucking my body out of the boat. as i came over the front deck of the boat, my knees had to bend back on themselves and i could feel them breaking. and i could feel the ligaments and tissue tearing. i felt my spirit peeling away from my body. sort of like peeling apart two pieces of tape.
and i felt my spirit break free and i rose up and out of the water and i was immediately greeted by this group of, i never really know what to call them, people, spirits, beings. those mean different things to different people. they started taking me down this path that was so beautiful. >> did you have any sense of what was going on with your friends and were they still in that mode of complete panic and frustration? >> they were still in that boat. and they saw my red life jacket pop up down stream. and one of the guys felt my body hit his leg. so he then was able to reach down and grab my wrist and pull me over to shore. my body was purple and bloated and my pupils were affixed and dilated.
>> as a doctor, you know how long a human body can survive without oxygen. >> by about 10 minutes, it's over. they would believe i was without oxygen for 30 minutes. by every other definition, yes, i was dead. so if i'm hearing you correctly, you're having a conversation with jesus. over the next 40 years
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and i was greeted by these people or these spirits. i could be with them and be going down this incredible pathway. and simultaneously look back at the river. when i saw my body, i will say that was the first time that i actually thought, well, i guess i am dead. i guess i really did die. you came face to face with these 15 or 20 souls. who were they? what did they look like? >> i looked at these people long enough to see that they were in physical form, head, arms, legs and sort of wearing these robes and they were brilliant. >> in the book you write about dancing with them. were you celebrating something? >> yes. >> what? what were you celebrating? you just died.
>> it was a great homecoming. it was as though i had been on this long journey to earth and i was home. i was dancing. >> and they took you down to this bright hall as you describe it. it was exploding not just with light and brilliance of color but it was love. we use love as an emotional word. but it was as though you cannot only feel it but you could experience it and see it and it was complete and absolute and pure. and i was really surprised if i the fact that i had no intention of going back. >> you didn't want to return? >> no. and i had all the reasons to return. i had a great life. i had a great job. i had a great husband. my children are wonderful and i love them more than i can ever imagine loving something on earth.
but the love that i felt for them in comparison to god's love that was absolutely flowing through everything, was just pale in comparison. in this entrance hall, in this brilliant hall, what were you told? >> i sat on the threshold and observed everything and at a certain point one of the people or spirits told me that it wasn't my time and that i had more work to do on earth and that i had to go back to my body. they took me back to the path and literally i sat down in my body. >> your friends, they thought you were dead? >> i woke up, i saw them, and then i could hear yelling. and their faces were interesting. because it was a mixture, i think, of absolute shock and the
sense of, oh, now what do we do? we're in the middle of nowhere. when they looked up, two chilean young men just appeared. they actually never said anything. and no one ever said anything to them. but they picked me up and put me on top of a kayak as a means to carry me. one guy helped pick up the boat and the other guy started chopping of path through the bamboo. and when they emerged from the bamboo to the dirt road, there was an ambulance waiting there. >> not a common sighting in that area, i take it? >> no, there are no ambulances. >> you write in the book, it wasn't just one miracle. it was a constellation of miracles. >> the fact is, when you line up every single coincidence, you start to realize that you can't write everything off as a
coincidence. i was in the hospital for five or six weeks. i absolutely felt like i was neither here nor there. i then again felt myself back in heaven and god's world. i was in this incredible field. again, it was the same experience of intensity. but i was having this conversation with jesus. >> so if i'm hearing you correctly, you're having a conversation with jesus. >> uh-huh. >> and what are you asking him? >> we talked more about reasons that i had been sent back. it had to do with my husband's health. so when a couple of our friends died from unexpected causes, i then pushed my husband to have his heart checked.
and it was on this heart scan that they ended up finding this lung lesion that was malignant. >> how serious was it? >> had it not been found, he probably wouldn't be here. >> let's talk about your son, william. what do you remember the angel telling you about what would happen to willie? >> i knew very specifically with regard to my son, that he was going to die and that there is beauty and purpose in his death. not just his life. we talked about how he had really fulfilled his job. he really already had done what he was meant to do. i told no one until shortly before his 18th birthday. as his 18th birthday approached,
i really started feeling like it wasn't fair not to tell my husband. so i did tell him. >> did you live any differently regarding willie? >> i woke up everyday wondering if this would be the day. >> over year and a half later, he went out for a roller skate training session with a friend of his. they pulled up to this area that overlooked this river valley. he made some comment to the effect of, wouldn't this be an incredible last sight if we never could see anything else. and then, 30 seconds later, he was hit by a car and instantly killed. >> so this is willie's room.
>> you still have it pretty much decorated? all of his things. >> yeah, it is very difficult for me to come in and look at those things that really represented him as a person. as a -- as my son. because you know, the sadness never goes away. >> right. your story is, you know, incredible. do you ever look at it and maybe even be your own greatest skeptic? >> i am my own greatest skeptic. and i'm quite sure that i would not believe most of my life's story had i not personally lived each and every day of it. but i absolutely believe each and every person can look at their own life and see the hand of god retrospectively. being pulled out of the river and resuscitated is very dramatic. but most miracles are very quiet.
that person that calls you just at the moment when you most needed it, or the person that shows up and directs you to something that you never would have imagined. >> do you look back on your accident as something tragic? >> i look back at this accident as the single most greatest gift that i could ever, ever imagine receiving. i would never change a moment of it. i was in a coma. my organs had now shut down. the oncologist said that i probably won't even make it through the next 24, 36 hours. ♪
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i went to a british school where the kids spoke in english. and then of course, at home with my parents, we would speak in our native language, we call it sindhi but it is an indian dialect. >> walk me through what it was like walking around with so many cultures going around. >> i got bullied very, very badly at school. because i was pretty much the only indian child in my year. i wanted to be like them. i would want to color my hair to make it lighter. and i would use bleach on my skin and so i really wanted to fit in. at the same time, when i met indian people, when my parents tried to arrange a marriage for me and i was meeting other sindhi men, i didn't feel like i fit with them either. >> let's talk about your friend, sonny.
>> she was my best friend. we really knew each other's lives inside out. one day she was diagnosed with cancer. i didn't see her get better, and that really impacted me. it's like just being told you have cancer is a death sentence. so i went on the internet and i started researching her type of cancer. and once you start looking on the internet, it's a mine field. so i started to become really, really paranoid. >> did you start to believe that you could get it? >> yes. >> she was so vibrant and strong. so i felt immediately, wow, if she can get it, so can i. >> tell me about april 26, 2002. >> i felt a lump right here on the left-hand side at the base of my neck, just where it meets my collar bone. when i first went to the doctor, the doctor says it is a swollen lymph gland. she said maybe you're fighting
off an infection. when it didn't clear up in a week, she sent me to another doctor. a specialist for a biopsy. and the results were supposed to come back two days later. the very next day, though, the doctor phoned me. and he said, i would like you to come into my office. and of course, my heart leapt. >> tell me what the doctor told you. >> he said, you have hodgkins lymphoma which is a form of cancer. but i didn't hear any of his words beyond after him saying that it was cancer. >> so what was going through your mind at that point? >> at that point i was only thinking of what i had seen sonny go through. i watched my friend die. and she died a horrible slow and painful death. and i just thought, oh, my god, that's what i can expect. that's what's waiting for me.
i started to deteriorate as well. the cancer started to spread. i was like a skeleton with skin, that was it. because i weighed about 80, 85 pounds. and i had these big open skin lesions, one here on my neck, one under my arm. i had tumors, some of them the size of lemons, all the way from through out my lymphatic system. >> do you remember one of your worse days, i mean physically, what that felt like? >> oh, towards the end, my worst days, i couldn't walk any more. my muscles, like in my legs, had completely deteriorated. but one day it was actually february 1st, 2006. i was just so tired of fighting to stay alive. i remember consciously thinking, that it's just not worth it anymore.
even death can't be worse than this. so i just let go. my husband tells me the following morning i didn't wake up. and he was trying to wake me up. and he started to panic. and he called the doctor. >> so you were rushed to the hospital. and what do you remember? >> i was in a coma. my organs had now shut down. the oncologist said that i probably won't make it through the next 24, 36 hours. >> you're at the hospital. and you -- you start to enter this other realm. >> i was straddling two worlds. then, i understood why i had the cancer.
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the doctors were trying to put these needles into my veins, and they couldn't find the veins. the veins had all retracted. and then they were saying, this is normal for somebody who is dying. i was in a coma. they didn't realize i could hear them. they weren't even in the room. but i heard the oncologist say that i probably won't even make it through the next 24, 36 hours. in a way, it sounds like you were almost straddling two worlds. >> it felt like i was in a bigger world, which encompassed this world. it was vibrant. there was music. it was just incredible. but it's like it's beyond our
spectrum, our ability to perceive. it's beyond our physical five senses. and it was like for the first time in my entire life did i feel that i was loved and accepted unconditionally for who i am. it was a peace i had never experienced. and the fear was gone. the fear of illness. the fear of displeasing other people. the fear of being flawed was gone. i was aware of my father who had passed away, my best friend sonny. it was actually the most amazing feeling, because i had always felt that i wasn't the kind of daughter that he had hoped i would be. but when i encountered him in that realm, all i felt from him
and for him was pure unconditional love. >> but you could still see your husband, and how was he reacting to the fact that you were in this coma and he thought he was losing you. >> he was very distraught. he was there by my bedside. he was holding my hand and i could feel he was willing me to come back. >> and you had a choice to make. >> i had a choice as to whether to come back or not. at first i absolutely did not want to come back, because why would i want to come back into this sick and dying body. but then it was as though in the next moment i understood why i had the cancer. all the years of beating myself up, feeling flawed, had turned
my own energy against me and manifested as cancer. >> fear in a way poisoned your body. >> yes, it did. and i understood that now that i knew this, my body would heal. >> you had this huge revelation and sonny, and your father, both affirmed what needed to be done. >> both of them said to me, go back and live your life fearlessly. and it was around that time that i started to come back. >> so how long were you in the coma? >> about 30 hours. i was in the intensive care unit, but within four days they were able to take off the oxygen. they were able to take out the food tube. and the tumors shrunk by 70%. >> and the doctors, they kept testing you, right? >> yeah. >> they kept looking for cancer. they kept treating you. they were saying, there's no way that cancer disappears like that.
my oncologist actually said to me, i have no idea what to even write on your medical records any more. >> these are the results of an mri scan of your neck and thorax, if you look on there, tell me what's on there. >> throughout my body, it is showing large masses from my neck, lower lungs, all over. >> so that report is from february 2, 2006. this is 25 days later. read to me what doctor's finding was. >> the doctor's finding is that, in summary, no definite evidence of residual lymphoma is seen. >> how do the doctors explain it? >> i have had at least five oncologists look at my records and all of them have said they have never seen anything like it. >> are you still at all fearful? >> no, hardly at all. i don't live in that constant feeling of fear at all. i'm not scared of death.
whenever that day comes, i feel that i will have accomplished whatever it is i came here to do. >> which is what? >> you know, i believe that all of us have only come here to realize who we are and to be true to who we are. >> most people, myself included, fear death. what do you say to them? >> when you lose your fear of death, you actually lose your fear of life as well. >> and to this day, you're cancer-free? >> yes. to this day, i'm cancer-free. finally, they were wheeling him from the e.r. to a regular room. ben was looking straight up and he said, mom, do you see that light? [ mom ] because we have people over so often,
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my name is deann breedlove. my son is ben breedlove, and ben cheated death four times. >> hey, guys. i'm here on lake austin. my name is ben. and i'm 17. i'm really lucky because i've lived on the lake almost all my life and i love wake boarding. i have an awesome family. >> ready? >> i live with my husband, shawn, and two of our three children. ali and jake. >> where does ben fall in the lineup?
>> he is in the middle. >> we have reached 17,000 of subscribers. that's insane. >> what is it about making videos that your brother loved so much? >> his strong connection to people. that's why he gravitated towards giving advice to teens. he genuinely wanted to help them out. he became a little bit of a local celebrity. especially with the girls. >> it doesn't matter how a person looks. if they have braces or acne or anything like that. what matters is their personality. i have a really big challenge in my life. i have heart condition. it is called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. and i have a pacemaker. >> you remember that day that you got the diagnosis, what you felt? >> yes, i do. because it was very scary. the doctor just very clearly stated, he has this condition, there's no cure. we'll have to be careful throughout his life.
>> how nervous were you that he could die? >> i was afraid everyday that i would go downstairs or go to his bedroom and he may have passed away in the middle of the night. one time we were driving in the car, and ben, with a different tone in his voice, said, mom, how do we know if we get to go to heaven. and -- >> how old was he? >> he was four. i told him you just let jesus know you want to be there. he asked jesus if he would be his friend for the rest of his life. >> was he emotional when he had this conversation? >> he was. he actually had tears in his eyes. [ sirens blaring ] >> i remember the paramedics gathering around ben and measuring all types of vitals and that sort of thing.
the ambulance arrived and they put him into the back of the ambulance with my mom. >> there was a moment there where you just let go. >> there was a point in there where i realized that the answer to my prayer maybe was going to be, i'm going to take him home, to heaven. finally they were wheeling him from the e.r. to a regular room. and i was walking alongside the gurney holding ben's hand. and this warm little hand, which i was loving at the moment, ben was looking straight up and he said, mom, do you see that light? no, i don't see anything. but he said, it's there, can you see it?
and he told me it made him feel really good, and he thought it was an angel. >> nine years later or so, when he was 13, you took him to the cardiologist. >> he explained what was happening with ben's heart that it wasn't pumping properly at this point, and fluid was backing up. the doctor reiterated that we need to start thinking about heart transplants. >> so how did ben take this? >> when ben and i left the appointment, he just asked me very seriously, mom, am i going to die? so i said, yes, you will, and we all do at some point. none of us really know when that is. >> how hard was that conversation for you? >> it was really heart breaking. he was just so young. and he's having to deal with difficult questions, and i just wish he didn't have to deal with that at such a young age.
on the first day of summer, ben thought he would be on the lake wake boarding. i went into the room and it was similar to the time he was four, but i knew he wasn't having a seizure because he was conscious and he was talking. >> his fingers were blue. by the time we got to the e.r., we learned there was an abscess on the tonsil. >> so we went into everything expecting it to be extremely routine. but it was during the surgery that ben experienced cardiac arrest. >> he finally got up to icu and he was unconscious and they had him on the a breathing machine. they warned us that when he woke up, the hope was he would be able to breath on his own. we didn't know what to expect and when he woke up, he looked at ali or me or one of us and said, guys, i need to get back to work. and that's the first thing on his mind. and we're like, okay, ben's back.
ben's body was just getting weaker. his arrhythmia had been back. he was getting more tired. i felt like things were getting out of control. jake came running in the back door and he said, mom, it's ben. his face was already blue. [ sneezes ] [ female announcer ] the start of sneeze season. the wind-blown watery eyes. [ sniffling ] the sniffling guy on the bus. and, of course, the snow angels with your little angels. that's why puffs plus lotion is soft. puffs plus are dermatologist tested to be gentle. they help soothe irritated skin by locking in moisture better. so you can always put your best face forward. a face in need deserves puffs indeed. [ female announcer ] feed a man a cookie and he eats a cookie. ♪
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hey, guys. welcome back to breedlove tv. you're probably wondering why i haven't made a video in so long. i'm on this new medicine that has made me feel terrible for the past two weeks. >> in that fall of 2011, he missed quite a bit of school. >> he missed quite a few days before thanksgiving. >> december 5th he missed school. the next day what happens? >> i was surprised to come downstairs and find ben getting ready for school. part of me was concerned that going to school was not really a good idea. >> december 6th was a really normal day. at the end of first period, i remember i was sitting at my desk.
a couple of students came running in and said that a student was passed out on the floor in the commons and he was purple. and i remember saying, oh, my god it is ben. i mean, i knew he was not breathing. and then i just started doing cpr. and just thinking, please god, let him wake up. >> it sounds like the white light is back. what happened in that room? what did he tell you? >> it was like that pitch white light. he said, and then all of a sudden i realized kid cudi was with me.
>> the rapper. >> yeah. and he said he had his hand on ben's shoulder. and he said there was this mirror. he said when he was looking in that mirror, he wasn't just seeing his reflection, but he saw his whole life. he said when he looked in the mirror, it was the best feeling and that he was happy with everything that had happened in his life and he was proud of himself. and ben thought he was going forward to heaven, but instead he woke up on the floor of the high school. >> i had come home from college to visit that weekend, and we sat out by the lake on our boat dock. it was very unusual to find him out in the dark in the middle of the night in the winter when it
was so cold so i asked why he was there. he said i think god gave me that vision so i won't be afraid of dying and i know that heaven is worth it. i asked him if he is happy that he had woken up. he said i guess and then he started crying really hard. and that was the hardest thing i've ever had to hear him say. but i had to remind him that if he came back, it was for a reason. >> the week before christmas, your family held church at home. >> that was the morning after ben had experienced his fourth cardiac arrest. my dad felt like we needed some peace of mind. so he shared philippians 4 and 6 with us. and we took turns praying for ben and his health. and after we were finished, ben prayed for us.
he prayed we wouldn't be sad or scared for him anymore because he wasn't sad or scared. and he added, i'm okay with whatever god decides. >> did that bring you peace? >> a lot, yes. he wasn't afraid of dying anymore at that point. the day he chose to make this video, we had that home church that morning, and we didn't know what he was doing afterwards, but that's when he went into his room and made this video. >> so a week later, christmas day. >> we actually had a wonderful christmas morning together. we opened presents as a family. we were all laughing and ben was very adamant about playing our annual family game of monopoly. and it was right after that that he went outside with jake and watched him jump on the trampoline with his friends. >> i was in the kitchen starting
to fix christmas dinner, and i looked outside my kitchen window and i took a mental snapshot of ben standing there smiling. that was the last time i saw him smile. almost immediately after that, jake came running in the back door and he said, mom, it's ben. i yelled at shawn to come outside, and we started doing cpr right away. shawn and i felt really alone in those moments. and i, again, just thought, all right, if this is the time god you can take care of him. >> i knew that he had passed away, but i didn't believe it until i heard it from my parents at the hospital. >> we had to deal with the
reality that wasn't with us anymore. and i believed immediately that he was in heaven. >> what made you believe that? >> my faith was strengthened in those moments. i didn't doubt it at all. >> the video went viral. >> it did. it had been going around for hours even though ben had just passed away a few hours before. >> why do you think he made that video? >> it was ben's way of saying good-bye. and i think it was a gift to the world. i think he wanted others to have hope that there is life after life. and that there is peace in the and that there is peace in the midst of suffering.
-- captions by vitac -- www.vitac.com tonight, from the american museum of natural history in new york city, a cnn heroes tradition continues. we're here to honor everyday men and women who work tirelessly to change the world. >> you honor people who are heroes. it's incredible. >> i'm very humbled to actually be taking part because i've been a fan of it and i've watched it for many years. >> this is the kind of event that you sort of wish there were more and more of. >> this is fantastic. who couldn't stay away? >> stars from television and film, music, sports, and comedy have gathered to celebrate these ten extraordinary individuals. >> these are amazing people and they're doing really serious work. >> it's nice that it's actually about real people doing real good things. >> teaches us that wn