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Meaningful Mysteries

A UA Health Sciences professor writes about strange, otherworldly experiences he's witnessed in his career


In 1981, a year before he graduated from medical school, Allan J. Hamilton became a surgical fellow in Gabon, a small nation on the west coast of equatorial Africa.

Among his duties was the task of immunizing children who lived in villages scattered along the Ogooué River. One day, he and a native guide set out to make the rounds in a dugout canoe loaded with medical supplies. All went well until they came upon a fork in the river. To Hamilton's consternation, it quickly became apparent that the guide didn't know which branch to follow. They pulled ashore and were considering their options when a diminutive, gray-haired man wearing only a pair of shorts and a necklace made of coins suddenly emerged from the jungle and said he'd been expecting them. This news came as quite a surprise to Hamilton, since no word had been sent to the villages about the expedition. The man's explanation was even more astonishing: He had recently dreamed about a pair of lost wayfarers arriving at the river's fork needing directions to his village, and he had been waiting there for them ever since.

Hamilton was able to complete his mission with the old man's assistance, but, as he relates in The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters With Surgery, the Supernatural, and the Healing Power of Hope, that uncanny meeting on an African river bank was a watershed moment for him, shaking his faith in science and opening his eyes to a possible supernatural realm "just beneath the surface" of life.

He completed his medical studies and eventually became a neurosurgeon--he's presently a professor of neurosurgery and a clinical professor in the departments of radiation oncology and psychology at the UA's Health Sciences Center--but, throughout his career, his life has continued to intersect with the nonordinary, as he and his patients have had quite an array of strange and startling experiences: encounters with ghosts and shamans; near-death experiences; miraculous remissions; an apparent case of the mind functioning apart from the brain; and instances when Hamilton has been able to foretell death by detecting a "dull, waxy, yellowish" glow that sometimes seems to emanate from the bodies of people and animals in the final stages of life.

Hamilton is convinced that many of these occurrences have an otherworldly provenance--"the hand of invisible forces"--but he readily acknowledges that many people may be skeptical. He admits that, at first, he was a bit of a scoffer himself, often dismissing such phenomena as coincidences. He began to seriously consider spiritual causes "when it became necessary to help me explain my own experiences."

Hamilton, who's also a script consultant for the television series Grey's Anatomy, chronicles these events with the flair of a natural storyteller. They're genuinely interesting and often moving--especially the story of a dying homeless man, a former lawyer, who is visited in a dream by his long-deceased son--and they clearly have a great deal of meaning for those who experienced them.

Incidences like these, Hamilton says, are surprisingly common in hospital settings, but most medical personnel are reluctant to take them seriously. This attitude, he declares, may cut us off from new and valuable sources of knowledge.

"Can we not, as doctors," he asks, "allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that the supernatural, the divine and the magical may all underlie our physical world? Would we not be the richer for just challenging our imaginations?"

This book is not limited to paranormal adventures. It's also about the wisdom and self-awareness Hamilton has gleaned from his everyday interactions with patients.

"Every patient," he observes, "is an existential conduit to seeing your own struggles ... (steering) me closer to my soul's purpose."

Hamilton introduces us to some remarkable patients whose courage, faith and joie de vivre in the face of death are truly inspiring. He suggests that life-threatening illnesses can often be portals to profound personal change.

"Health-related crises ... call into question everything we've achieved, pursued or dreamt. ... When life slams us off course, jars us off balance, we become most susceptible to the greatest changes from within," he writes. "When the air is knocked out of us, we grasp the meaning of breathing."

While highly absorbing, this book doesn't educe any solid new understanding concerning these mysterious experiences, but it is abounding with compassion and hope.

"Miracles," Hamilton believes, "are the glue holding the cosmos together. We need a pinch of hope and then the miracles appear. ... Next to love, hope is God's most potent manifestation."

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