A Lynchburg neurosurgeon who chronicled a near-death experience in a bestselling book was repri-manded in 2009 by the Virginia Board of Medicine over two spinal operations he performed in 2007.
Dr. Eben Alexander — author of “Proof of Heaven, A Neurosur-geon’s Journey Into The Afterlife” — twice operated on the wrong segment of patients’ spinal columns, according to a March 2009 consent order signed by Alexander before the Virginia Board of Medicine.
The order also states that Alexan-der did not initially inform one of the patients that he operated at the wrong surgical site, and altered his original operative report to imply that the area he operated on was in fact the intended site.
The second incident took place two weeks later with a different pa-tient, when Alexander again oper-ated on the wrong surgical site on the neck area of the spine, and did not follow up on a postoperative X-ray report that showed the error, the order states.
Alexander, who could not be reached for comment through his website or at his Lynchburg home, gained widespread attention after publishing his bestselling book, “Proof of Heaven,” which has been on The New York Times best-seller list since its release in October of last year. The book chronicles his experiences during a coma when he was being treated for an E. Coli in-fection at Lynchburg General Hospi-tal. The book put him on the cover of Newsweek and into the guest chairs on “Nightline,” “Good Morn-ing, America,” “Fox & Friends” and “20/20,” among others.
News of the surgeries was first re-ported in an article about Alexander in the August issue of Esquire maga-zine, which raises several questions about the book.
While The News & Advance could not reach Alexander, he did issue a media statement earlier this month after the Esquire article was published.
“I wrote a truthful account of my experiences in ‘Proof of Heaven’ and have acknowledged in the book both my professional and personal accomplishments and my setbacks,” the statement said. “I stand by every word in this book and have made its message the purpose of my life.
“Esquire’s cynical article distorts the facts of my 25-year career as a neurosurgeon and is a textbook example of how unsupported assertions and cherry-picked information can be assembled at the expense of the truth.”
The patient in the first surgery ad-dressed in the state Board of Medi-cine’s consent order sued Alexander for $3 million in Lynchburg Circuit Court in August 2008.
The surgery occurred at Lynchburg General Hospital on June 27, 2007, according to the lawsuit.
The case was dismissed by the plaintiff in 2009, according to court documents. The court file did not indicate whether the case had been settled; attorneys associated with the litigation either declined comment or did not return messages last week.
A transcript of a videotaped depo-sition on March 18, 2009, in that lawsuit shows Alexander admitting he operated at the wrong level of the patient’s spine; he said he didn’t initially divulge the mistake because the surgery had alleviated the symp-toms.
At one point, Alexander says, “I wanted to see if his symptoms came back quickly because people some-times will have a placebo effect to surgery, and I wanted to see if this was truly a … durable (benefit of the surgery).”
Alexander later states, “So in a sense, I had done the correct opera-tion, even though it was not the in-tended operation.”
The patient contended in his law-suit that symptoms returned, and he expected to have to live with perma-nent impairments.
Alexander eventually told the pa-tient about the mistake in October 2007, more than three months after the surgery, according to the consent order.
Centra spokeswoman Diane Riley said Alexander was never employed by Centra, but had surgical privi-leges at Lynchburg General Hospital at the time. Riley said Alexander does not currently have privileges at the hospital.
Alexander currently holds an un-restricted medical license in Vir-ginia, according to the Virginia Board of Medicine website, and is board certified in neurological sur-gery.
The board fined Alexander $3,500 and ordered him to undergo training in ethics and professionalism, which he completed, according to an order dated Sept. 21, 2009 that lifted the conditions on his license.