Her 14-year-old son John, adopted by Joyce and her husband Brian from Guatemala when he was just an infant, had spent the night at a friend’s house. The kids had that day—a Monday—off from school in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And Joyce was preparing to go pick her boy up when the phone rang. The message waiting on the line turned out to be every mother’s worst nightmare.
“When [John’s friend’s mother] called, she sounded off. I asked what was wrong,” Joyce told Christian Cinema in 2017. “Cindy said that ‘There’s been an accident.'”
As she learned over the phone, John and two friends had ventured out onto the frozen Lake Sainte Louise in St. Charles, Mo. With the ice as thin as it was, the boys fell through into the dangerously frigid waters below. While his friends escaped relatively unscathed, John had been unlucky enough to be submerged in the freezing water for a full 15 minutes before EMTs were able to reach him and transport his lifeless body to the nearby St. Joseph Hospital West were life-saving measures were underway.
By the time that she arrived at the hospital, she learned that doctors had been attempted CPR on John’s cold body for 45 minutes with no signs of life. Dr. Kent Sutterer, whose daughter was in the same eight-grade class as John, was out of hope. As he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he’d never seen anyone survive after being without a pulse for more than 25 minutes.
“So at 43 minutes, I was not hopeful at all that he would come back,” he told the news organization. “I was anticipating explaining to his mom that efforts were futile from this point forward.”
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“I remembered in church all my life hearing this scripture that says, ‘The holy spirit will raise Christ Jesus from the dead,” she told the magazine. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re either who you say you are or you’re not.’ The minute I prayed ‘Holy Spirit, please come and give me back my son!’ his heartbeat started.”
As Dr. Sutterer confirmed with local NBC affiliate KSDK at the time, “Within a matter of a minute or two, his heart started again.” But with his temperature hovering at a dangerous 88 degrees and his blood’s pH level well below the range doctors had ever seen anyone survive, John’s prognosis remained rather grim. “His pupils were just minimally reactive, and he was taking occasional gasping-type respirations,” the doctor told the Post-Dispatch. He thought to himself it would be only a matter of days, if not hours.
After John and his family arrived at the new hospital, five pastors—including John Noble, lead pastor at the Smith family’s church, First Assembly Church in St. Peters—gathered in his room to pray. And it was there than Noble says he had a vision of two angels in the room and lights over John’s head.
“What I believe is that God was putting his brain back together again, almost rewiring it,” Noble told the Post-Dispatch. “I know that sounds strange, but as soon as it happened, John’s shoulders came off the bed, his eyes opened, and he grabbed my hand. I knew at that point that God was going to pull him through.”
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“It’s a bonafide miracle,” he declared. The Smith family agreed.
Joyce, who went on to tell her family’s story in the 2017 book The Impossible (which has been turned into the feature film Breakthrough, out April 17, with This Is Us star Chrissy Metz and One Day at a Time actor Marcel Ruiz playing Joyce and John, respectively), told People, “I have always believed that God’s going to do what he says he does because I’ve seen it all my life. But this is like the Oscars of faith. The very moment that I needed God, he was there instantly. And when John’s heartbeat started right up it was like, ‘Thank you, Lord, for being so merciful for me,’ which just set my faith forever in bedrock.”
For John, now 18, it was the opportunity for a fresh start. “I had a lot of issues,” he said of his pre-accident self. “I was chasing after what I wanted instead of what God had for me.”
Despite having no memory of the incident—pictures of him and his friends posing on the ice moments before they fell through have only brought back bits and pieces of the day, he told the Post-Dispatch—and no lasting physical harm, he was left to grapple with what his survival meant. “I had to deal with answering the question of ‘Why me?'” he told People. “After time and a lot of prayer and mentoring, I eventually saw that God is the only way to get through something like this.”
In the years since the accident, John has toured the country, speaking to young people. As for the future? “Next I’m going to college, hopefully marrying this one,” he told E! News’ Erin Lim on the red carpet at the L.A. premiere of Breakthrough earlier this month, pointing to girlfriend Abby Medaris, “and seeing where God takes us.”
Meanwhile, aside from the obvious, mom Joyce is most grateful “for the love that seems to surround all of this,” she told People. “The platform we have to tell people: Be happy for what you have; you don’t know if you’re going to have it tomorrow. Be thankful for it. And there’s hope. There’s always hope.”
Breakthrough is in select theaters now.