An Alabama teenager says he had visions of walking with God after a traumatic brain injury pushed him to the brink of death.
Trenton McKinley, a 13-year-old from Mobile, claims he remembers walking through an open field with a shadowy, bearded figure during an apparent near-death experience. The teen said the vision proved to him that God is real.
“There is no other explanation but God,” McKinley told WALA-TV in a May 7 article about his dramatic recovery. “There’s no other way that I could have come back.
Near Death Experiences (NDEs) like the one McKinley describes are a subject debated among researchers. Some are convinced that NDEs have a scientific explanation. The visions could be caused by a spike in neural activity in the brain as it approaches death, for example.
But many of those who have experienced NDEs aren’t satisfied with a scientific explanation, saying that the spiritual nature of such moments are too numerous and widespread to discount entirely.
People who live through NDEs often relate stories about visiting an otherworldly realm, encountering a loving presence, or meeting long-lost loved ones.
McKinley’s recounting of what happened while he was in an impaired state of consciousness appear to contain some of these key elements.
The teen’s accident occurred in March, according to USA Today, while McKinley and a friend were playing with a dune buggy. McKinley was riding behind his friend, in a utility trailer pulled by the buggy. The friend suddenly hit the brakes, causing the trailer to flip over and throwing McKinley onto the concrete, head first.
According to his mother, Jennifer Reindl, the teen was rushed to the hospital with seven skull fractures. She claimed in a March 22 Facebook post that her son flatlined four times, including one instance that lasted 15 minutes.
McKinley said he experienced a vision of heaven. He said he recalled walking through an open field with a shadowy figure.
“I don’t remember faces. I saw a shadow and I was walking through a field with the shadow,” the teen told the Christian Broadcasting Network, an evangelical production company, on May 10.
He told CBN that in the vision, he was holding a baby in one arm. His mother told him it could have been a baby boy she had lost through a miscarriage.
“Mom thinks it could have been my little brother,” McKinley said.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia who studies how the brain functions during various religious and mystical experiences, told HuffPost that what McKinley described is in line with an NDE.
Newberg said that an NDE’s common core elements are a knowledge of one’s death, a tunnel experience, meeting others, feeling peacefulness, seeing a beautiful realm of light with beautiful nature scenes, coming to a decision (either on their own or through others that they meet) that one must go back, and then returning to life.
He believes NDEs can occur at the time of death, but can also occur in life-threatening situations. Still, he noted that many people who come back from life-threatening scenarios do not report an NDE.
“The problem is that the person is unconscious and cannot be spoken to in order to find out what they are experiencing and when,” Newberg said. “Further, it has always been difficult to know the exact state of the person. Just because the heart stops does not inherently mean that brain activity ceases. There are most likely many neurons in varying stages of dying, but they might still be functional in these states.”
Serious injuries can also spawn scams concerning NDEs, such as one perpetrated by an Ohio boy who was in a coma after a 2004 traffic accident. He regained consciousness and, in 2010, a book he wrote with his father ― The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven ― became a best seller. In 2015, the boy ― now a young man ―admitted he had made up his story of meeting Jesus and Satan.
Regardless of the details of McKinley’s NDE, the teen’s family has been heartened by his dramatic physical recovery.
Doctors reportedly told Reindl that there was little hope her son would ever recover fully. The mother said she signed a document that would have allowed for McKinley’s organs to be donated upon his death.
But shortly afterward, Reindl said hospital staff noticed that McKinley was able to move his hands and then his feet. Later on, he was able to open his eyes. The teen slowly began to heal ― recovering his memories and eventually shooting basketballs into a hoop at the hospital. In April, Reindl posted a video on Facebook of her son walking with the help of a nurse.
McKinley still has a long way to go. CBN reports that the child suffers from nerve damage and seizures. He also needs additional surgeries to help fix his fractured skull.
In the meantime, Reindl hopes McKinley’s story helps change lives.
“My hopes are that our story brings hope to any mother out there facing such odds,” she wrote on Facebook.
HuffPost reached out to Children’s of Alabama hospital for confirmation of Reindl’s story. The hospital declined to provide details about McKinley’s injuries and recovery, but confirmed that the teen was treated and released.
Newberg said there’s still much about NDEs that scientists have not figured out.
“There are too many aspects of NDEs that are not accounted for by any singular answer,” he wrote in an email. “However, NDEs might provide a unique opportunity to explore whether we have a soul or consciousness that can go beyond the body. If we can truly verify the anomalous experiences, then it could result in a paradigm shift in terms of how we scientifically understand the brain and soul.”
For his part, McKinley appears convinced that what he experienced in the hospital is proof of God’s love.
“Jesus is watching you at all times. He’s with you,” the teen said on CBN. “Believe. Never lose faith.”