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SANJAY GUPTA MD

Is Heaven Real?; Concussion Crisis in Football; Concussion Creates Musical Gift

Aired November 30, 2013 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST: Welcome to SGMD.

We're here to keep you healthy this Thanksgiving weekend, including family, food, and football. The question is, can football be a safer game?

Also, there's this amazing medical mystery. This young jock who really wasn't into music at all, then he had a concussion. Well, now, he plays 13 instruments. How is that possible?

But, first, heaven. Is it real?

Here's CNN's Randi Kaye.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARY NEIL, HAD NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE: I could see them on the river bank and pull my body to the shore. I could see them start CPR. I had no pulse and I wasn't breathing. One fellow was yelling at me to come back.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You were unconscious. So, how do you know that all of this was happening?

NEIL: I felt my body break free and I felt my spirit break free 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've -- I really did die.

KAYE: In the book, you write about dancing with them. Were you celebrating something?

NEIL: Yes.

KAYE: What were you celebrating? You had just died.

NEIL: It was a great homecoming. And I was really surprised by the fact that I had no intention of going back.

KAYE: You didn't want to return?

NEIL: 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 could 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.

And then at a certain point, one of the people, or the 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: And Randi Kaye joins us now via Skype.

Randi, you know, it's interesting it's a wonderful documentary, people should watch this. There are a lot of stories about these near-death experiences, as a doctor, you know, you always want to sort of parse out what is real, what is inexplicable, what is not real. You spent time with Mary, this doctor.

What were your impressions? What did you walk away feeling?

KAYE: Well, she's a spinal surgeon in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She is an incredible woman who truly believes what happened to her really did happen to her. I mean, she remembers watching them try and save her, watching them work on her body on the riverbank. She's an incredibly warm, spiritual woman. This has really changed her life.

I mean, she remembers being lifted out of the water by what she called spirits which she thinks are souls which she thought were maybe her relatives even and they walked her down this hallway she says to this very bright room, and they did a life review with her. They went back through her whole life, Sanjay, and showed her all the people she had met and how she touched them.

So, she's a very -- a very intense woman. A very deep woman, and really just an incredible woman. It was great to spend some time with her and get to know her.

GUPTA: And, you know, I don't -- again, it's hard to know for sure, but did you -- did you buy it? Did you feel that it was -- that it was a real story?

KAYE: Well, you know, I said to her, you know, there are a lot of skeptics, and she said, look, I'm my own greatest skeptic, I tell you this story and I still don't believe it all these years later.

So, did I buy it? I mean, when you put all the pieces together, it's hard not to buy it. I mean, she was under the water for 30 minutes. In her canoe in this Chilean river, and these Chilean men came out of nowhere to save her. And this rock appeared out of nowhere, came up from under the water so the people who were trying to save her could actually get to her. And she says that was all after she had sort of given it up to God and let herself go and just accepted the fact that what was going to happen was going to happen. What they told her, I don't want to spoil everything, but all these things that the souls told her, and she talks about having a conversation with Jesus and all these things that they told them, did end up coming true in her life, and she understands why she would be sent back.

So, I mean, you would have to be a little skeptical, of course, because who knows? But it was -- it is hard to explain it any other way.

GUPTA: I don't want to give away too much of the documentary either, but there was one story, the angels told Mary something very specific about her young son that he would die on his 18th birthday. What happened with that?

KAYE: They did. That was very difficult for her to hear, and that's one of the three reasons they told her she needed to go back into her body and go back to life, but they told her he was going to die on the 18th birthday, I won't give you all the details, but every time -- I will tell you they were right, the souls were right, she did lose her son.

And every time we talked to her about her son, Willie, in this interview, no matter where we were, there were crazy noises just coming through. It was really loud and we'd have to actually stop recording, so we don't have any of it on camera, but every time we spoke to her, these strange noises would start and we went to her house and we went into Willie's bedroom.

And as soon as we went into Willie's bedroom, Sanjay, the smoke detector started going off, as soon as we started talking about Willie. So my photographer took the smoke detector down. Took the battery out and laid it there, and as soon as we started again to talk about Willie, the smoke detector started going off again without the battery in it. So --

GUPTA: Thank you, Randi. I really appreciate it. Everyone should watch this. I really appreciate your time.

KAYE: Thank you.

GUPTA: As Randi said, she spoke with three people who came back from the brink of death. You're going to hear those stories in their own words Sunday night at 7:00 Eastern only here on CNN.

And coming up, take a look at this face. I'm going to tell you why little maverick was denied a heart transplant. Now, the reason may surprise you. It may also make you a little angry.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: Transplant doctors make life-and-death decisions every day as they chose who is going to or not going to receive precious organs that are in short supply, but my friend and colleague Elizabeth Cohen has the story of one family in New York who says their baby was denied a heart transplant for all the wrong reasons.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Eight months ago, Autumn Chenkus says she was told her son was going to die.

AUTUMN CHENKUS, MAVERICK'S MOTHER: He didn't want to play. He didn't want to be touched. He slept all day every day. He was miserable.

COHEN: Maverick was just 6 months old and desperately need a new heart but his doctors at New York Presbyterian Hospital said no.

CHENKUS: I was scared that he was going to die. Every day, that's the only thing that I thought of, you know? And there was actually a point where we were planning his funeral.

COHEN: Maverick, who's one now, was unlucky enough to be born with two medical problems, the heart defect and a rare genetic disorder. Doctors said he was an undesirable candidate for a transplant because his genetic defect would limit his survival after he got a new heart.

CHENKUS: You slobbered.

COHEN (on camera): But you did your own research.

CHENKUS: Yes.

COHEN: And what did you find?

CHENKUS: That that is not true.

COHEN (voice-over): Chenkus didn't accept what the doctors told her. She asked some of the world's top expert about her son's disorder called Coffin-Siris Syndrome and they said the syndrome would not limit Maverick's chances of survival with the new heart. And that's what they told us, too.

Dr. Grange Coffin, he's the Coffin in the Coffin-Siris Syndrome, the scientist who discovered it, told us it's wrong to deny someone a transplant because of the syndrome.

So, what did Maverick's parents think is the real reason the hospital denied their son a heart transplant? They think it's because his genetic defect makes him developmentally disabled.

CHENKUS: I told them that I knew that they didn't want to waste a heart on him because they felt like he was going to be delayed. Hearts are very rare. And I understand that, but I also understand that Maverick's a baby, you know, and he needed a heart.

COHEN (on camera): Do you think they just sort of discredited his life, discredited his future?

CHENKUS: Absolutely. And if they were to say otherwise, they would be lying.

COHEN (voice-over): Maverick was dying. Chenkus pleaded with the doctors.

CHENKUS: I just said, "Would you, guys, reconsider this, reconsider transplant for Maverick?" And, "Sorry, there's nothing we can do about it. Sorry." And they just get up and walk out of the room. That was it, and just left me there.

I remember I was just -- I was laughing because I was in shock. I was laughing with tears streaming down my face because I was in shock, like, I could not really -- I could not believe that was really happening. We're talking about my son's life, and you're looking at your watch, and you just walked out on me.

COHEN: New York Presbyterian declined our repeated requests for an interview and in a statement told us their evaluations are conducted with compassion and bring the best ethical, medical and scientific principles to the process.

CHENKUS: You want to smile.

COHEN: Maverick's parents didn't give up. They filed a federal discrimination complaint against the hospital and got him transferred to a new hospital that didn't have the same transplant concerns. Eventually, it turned out maverick got better without a transplant, but that hasn't ended the controversy about whether transplant doctors discriminate against patients with disabilities.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: And Elizabeth joins us now.

Happy holiday weekend to you.

COHEN: And to you.

GUPTA: So, you know, what does his future look like? He seems to be doing well now.

COHEN: He's definitely doing better, but he still has this heart defect called hypoplastic left heart defect. And you know that's a very serious heart defect. So, he's going to need another surgery when he's around age 3 and later in life, he might need a heart transplant, doesn't need one now but may later in life still need one.

GUPTA: You know, you've done some reporting on this sort of issue before in terms of the tough decisions that get made around transplantation. In your mind, how cut and dry is it? What kind of latitude do the doctors or these teams essentially of people have?

COHEN: You know, doctors have a lot of latitude when they decide who is going to get an organ and who is not. And in many ways, that's the right way to do it. I mean, they're the ones who know the facts of each individual patient's case, but there have been criticisms that sometimes they have too much latitude. So, doctors can decide, for example, if they think you're too irresponsible and won't take your medicines after the transplant. They can decide they don't want to give you a transplant, you know, whether that's right or wrong, it's, you know, for someone else to say, but there is indeed a great deal of latitude.

GUPTA: And part of the reason this always comes up, because we're talking about a very rare commodity if you will and heart transplants in particular. How rare is this now?

COHEN: Hearts are rare. I mean, they really are a precious resource, and so there's about 3,500 people right now at this moment waiting for a heart and when you look at the number of people who die waiting for a heart, if we look at the statistics from last year for adults, about 300 adults died last year because they couldn't get a heart, and for infants it's about 19, for babies. So, 19 babies died because they couldn't get a heart. That's how precious it is.

GUPTA: And, you know, I don't know if you know the answer to this, but I've always been sort of amazed that this idea that a lot of people say they would donate their organs upon their death or even the death of a loved one, yet when it comes down to it, there's that disconnect. Have you ever -- I mean, has any sort of explanation made sense to you as to why such a big disconnect?

COHEN: You know, I think some people as you said want to do it, but I think some people are scared. They think they might need those organs, you know, after they die and so they want to keep them or they just don't like the thought of someone taking the organs out of their body after they died.

But I think it's so important to consider the good that you can do by donating an organ. You can help so many people, not just one person but many people with your heart, with your liver, with your kidneys, with tissue. It's amazing what you can do.

GUPTA: Yes. And, I think, you know, you're right. I think if you're a loved one, the finality of this reality that you're going to allow organs will be taken, but tempered with what you just said, a lot of good can be done.

Thank you. Happy holidays again to you.

COHEN: Thanks. And, to you.

GUPTA: All right.

Dave Duerson, Brett Favre, Tony Dorsett, you know these names in part because of football but also now concussions. What America really thinks about football's concussion crisis?

We've got that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: Fall and football -- they, of course, go hand in hand. And despite the season that's been wrought with lawsuits and scandals, according to a new CNN poll, America's love for the NFL -- well, it's as strong as ever. It's a whole different kind of game when it comes to our kids playing football, however.

And here to talk about this is Andy Schultz from "Bleacher Report" and CNN Sports.

Thank you for joining us.

You know, we've been covering this issue for a long time, just concussion and sports. I do think from a neurosurgery perspective. What's interesting, though, it doesn't seem to affect the fans' love for the game. There was some polling data that showed 60 percent of the people don't view the NFL any less favorably.

As a sports reporter, what is your sense? Has this affected how you report?

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS: Do you know what? I seems like no matter what the NFL, it's untouchable when it comes to these kind of scandals. You know, these have been two of the worst PR years ever for the NFL between the concussion lawsuit, bounty-gate and two lockouts and Aaron Hernandez trial.

GUPTA: Right.

SCHOLES: Yet, the numbers are higher than ever when it comes to TV ratings. You know, 19 out of the 20 top watched shows or programs this year have all been NFL games. And it just goes to show it seems like we're trained no matter what happens outside the game of football or even inside the game of football, we're still going to want to watch the game.

GUPTA: I know you don't report on middle schools and high schools obviously, but I think there's more of a concern there. I think about 80 percent of the people who were polled say they worry more about kids at that level.

Is this just a question of these are adults when they're in the NFL. They're making their own decisions?

SCHOLES: Well, I think that's part of it. You know, they know what they're getting into. They're paid millions of dollars and they make the choice to go play that game, but I think at the NFL and the college level, they're trying to institute we're not going to hit with the head anymore, they're trying to lessen the kind of injuries. But as you can see, the NFL players, they struggle with it every week. You see every week in the news, a player is fined and suspended, in the college football game.

Now, if you hit someone with a head-to-head hit, you are flagged and you are suspended for the next game. That's the new targeting rule this year. But the players, right now, they're just not trained to play that way.

GUPTA: Right. And that's part of the thing. They've got to play through it, that's their job. Although that culture does seem to be changing, especially in players who are retired but very well-known players, Brett Favre, Tony Dorsett, both coming out and telling their stories. I mean, Brett said he could not remember a soccer season for his daughter, as a father of three daughters myself, that's a huge loss, you know, in terms of his memory.

What about that? Does that -- does that have an impact? Are players, do you think, in the NFL listening and saying, OK, I'm playing now and hitting as hard as I can but I'm not anxious to have that sort of life afterwards?

SCHOLES: You're right. There are a couple of players that walked away from the game recently after -- now, these guys weren't high profile players. They weren't making the tens of millions of dollars that some of the guys are. But they actually said, you know, I don't want to have the kind of life that they are having, like the Tony Dorsetts, the Brett Favres and the Earl Campbells, I don't want to be like that one. I'm done, my playing days are over.

And a couple of guys have walked away and it will be an interesting question that people deal with year to year now do they want to keep playing this violent game.

GUPTA: I know it's a busy weekend for you, Thanksgiving weekend. Thanks for making for some time for us.

SCHOLES: No problem.

GUPTA: Appreciate it.

And we still ahead, we've got a medical mystery that you're going to have to hear to believe. It's about this Colorado teenager who experienced a very positive side effect of what Andy and I were just talking about, a concussion that he had after this hard hit to the head. What he could do afterwards is simply remarkable.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GUPTA: A medical mystery now: debilitating concussions. They sideline athletes every week. But today, I want to share with you one young man's story that took a very unusual and unexpected turn.

Suzanne McCarroll of our Denver affiliate KCNC has the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUZANNE MCCARROLL, KCNC (voice-over): This high school ensemble is really impressive. But the story of the pianist is truly amazing. Photos show Lachlan Connors' first passion, sports, football and lacrosse.

LACHLAN CONNORS, PIANIST: I thought I might be a professional lacrosse player.

MCCARROLL: But a series of hits put an end to that dream.

CONNORS: I fell backwards and I hit the back of my head on the ground. I didn't really under that something -- something bad had happened.

MCCARROLL: Two back-to-back concussions sent Lachlan to the hospital for weeks. Seizures followed.

ELSIE HAMILTON, LACHLAN'S MOTHER: He started to hallucinate, have these many hallucinations.

MCCARROLL: Before the concussions, a young Lachlan had tried to play the piano.

HAMILTON: He really had no talent. I would say, can't you hear what's next? You know, something like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and he said, no.

MCCARROLL: And I said, mom, I can't. And so, I would have her draw little numbers on the keys.

HAMILTON: When Lachlan got out of the hospital, doctors said he shouldn't play contact sports anymore.

But he suddenly could play music almost effortlessly. Lachlan can now play the guitar. The bagpipes both Scottish and Irish ones.

The mandolin, the accordion, the karimba.

CONNORS: I play roughly 10 to 15.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: Yes, no matter how you look at that, it's pretty remarkable stuff, and you're probably wondering how a medical mystery like this is even possible. I can tell you as a neurosurgeon, we don't know exactly what happened in the brain in this sort of situation. Lachlan said that he hit the back of his head.

Now, that may have been the part of the brain that he hit that's responsible for his coordination known as the cerebellum, or a little bit higher for his vision known as the occipital lobe, maybe that played a role. It Lachlan's case, it's also entirely possible that his unknown musical talents were already there, but he had more time to focus on them when he stopped playing sports.

But again, no matter how it happened, Lachlan said this is a gift that he hopes now will now stay with him for his entire life.

I'm really excited also to kick off this new series that you just saw there on medical mysteries. In fact, every weekend, I'm going to tweet out a new one. I want you to reply if you can with your best guesses and then I'll reveal the answer right here on SGMD.

You know, we are prepping "Chasing Life" to follow-up that last story as well. Something I'm very fond of, taking music lessons as a child does appear to pay off later in life. There's this new study that came out of Northwestern University, and it found that adults who did take music lessons as a kid but haven't actively played an instrument in decades, they had faster brain responses to speech sounds than individuals who had never played an instrument. It's good news there. So I just want to take a moment and say, thanks, mom, for all those accordion lessons, they're still serving me well.

And also before we go, something that could serve you well, look, I know you've been doing it. Truth be told, I did it, too. Making excuses about your health, especially this time of year.

So, let me help. You've now got until Sunday to tell us why we should choose you for next year's Fit Nation Challenge. It's easy to do. Just logon to CNN.com/FitNation, you can learn more there and upload your video submission. We got a chance to train together.

That's all the time we got for SGMD today.

Time now to get you back to the CNN NEWSROOM with Rosa Flores.