When 20th Century Fox released a preview for “Breakthrough” just before Christmas, it quickly went viral. The trailer for the faith-centered film, based on the true story of a boy who fell through a frozen lake, has now racked up more than 100 million views across all platforms.
On January 19, 2015, 14-year-old John Smith was trapped underwater for 15 minutes. First responders pulled him from the icy waters of Lake Sainte Louise in St. Charles, a northwestern suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported a month later: “He wasn’t breathing, and paramedics and doctors performed CPR on him for 43 minutes without regaining a pulse.” Yet, after his mother prayed for him, doctors at St. Joseph Hospital West say Smith inexplicably regained consciousness.
“They never expected the heart monitor to respond,” says Joyce Smith in an interview. “The first doctor who treated John wrote in his medical records: Patient dead. Mother prayed. Patient came back to life.” A year later, after telling the story in an interview, the mother and son met Hollywood producer DeVon Franklin. He had never heard of such a medical miracle.
Following a string of recent faith-based hits including 2014’s “Heaven Is For Real,” which earned $91 million at the box office, Franklin threw himself into the project. Now his biopic “Breakthrough” starring Chrissy Metz (NBC’s “This Is Us”), Topher Grace (“Interstellar”), Dennis Haysbert (“24”), and Marcel Luiz is set to open nationwide on April 17, in advance of Easter.
The major motion picture raises weighty issues about faith and miracles difficult to tackle in a two-hour movie. No one questions that a family experienced considerable trauma in a medical crisis, but supernatural intervention? The team behind the film maintain that facts have been medically verified, and the story on-screen reflects accounts from multiple sources.
Suburban Holiday Turns to Life-Or-Death Calamity
Reached in a phone interview at home with his mother, John Smith begins his story as any young athlete would. “Our eighth-grade basketball team was having the worst season of our lives,” he says. “We could have been playing fifth graders and still losing — it was just bad.”
Smith was adopted from Guatemala at five months old. Today a high school senior, he recalls making the game-winning layup in that nail-biter basketball match on a Sunday afternoon. With school out the next day for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, his parents allowed him to stay overnight with friends.
“The night of that game, we were actually out on the ice testing it,” says Smith. “We determined it was safe as, you know, three teen boys do. The next day, we were out there having a good time.”
He recalls texting his mother about hoping to go to college on a sports scholarship. They both signed off: I love you. Seconds later, he fell in the ice. As two friends tried to rescue Smith, it gave way under them as well. “People talk about that experience of fight or flight,” he says. “It was definitely fighting for our lives.”
Smith pushed one friend towards the surface, causing him to descend out of reach in the ice-cold water. “My family was going through my thoughts,” says Smith. “I was yelling in my mind: God, please don’t let me die! Shortly after that, I drowned.”
When A Heartbeat Gives New Hope
Only half an hour after her text conversation with him, Joyce Smith received the call: her son had been underwater for 15 minutes and had no pulse. She raced to be by his side.
“I prayed all the way to the hospital,” says Smith. “I was begging God for John’s life. He was our gift. I knew in my heart that God was not going to take that gift away from us.”
Family practice physician Dr. Kent Sutterer was on-call in the emergency room. He and his team exhausted their life-saving measures. They used a defibrillator on John intending to restart his heart, gave him epinephrine shots, and performed CPR — all to no avail. Finally, Sutterer invited Smith back so she could pay her last respects before he called time of death.
Smith began to pray in a loud voice that could be heard throughout the ER. “I’ve heard this verse my entire life: The Holy Spirit which raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in you,” she says, quoting Romans 8:11. “I don’t remember what all I said, but I remember telling God, Please send your Holy Spirit to save my son!” Suddenly, the heart monitor registered a pulse.
Doctors and nurses sprang into action to stabilize the boy fighting for his life. Sutterer ordered that he be airlifted to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital 40 miles away in St. Louis, with its fully equipped intensive care unit. There he came under the care of Dr. Jeremy Garrett, a pediatrician recognized for his expertise with patients after drowning and hypothermia.
After examining the boy, his prognosis to the parents was bleak. “John has only rudimentary brain stem function,” said Garrett, according to the mother. “If he lives through the night, which we don’t think he’s going to, he will be a vegetable. How far do you want us to go?”
Feeling their faith had been vindicated thus far, the Smiths felt emboldened to challenge the report. They urged every medical step be taken. The next morning, Garrett was surprised by the boy’s improvement and formulated a multi-step plan to triage his vital systems. Joyce Smith says a prayer team of friends and family “supplemented” that treatment plan.
Soon John spiked a high fever. Garrett and his team presumed it was an infection due to the gallons of dirty lake water they had pumped out of him. Smith put the word out to her Christian friends: pray about John’s potential lung infection.
“Dr. Garrett took a biopsy of his lungs to see what kind of infection it was,” recounts Smith. “He walked in and said, ‘OK, I have no explanation for this. Anyone who lives in the Midwest is going to have some kind of bacteria or fungus in their lungs, due to the pesticides. The report on John’s lungs came back sterile.’”
As the medical team defined daily concerns, Smith sent them on to what became a multi-state prayer team. Sixteen days after the incident on the lake, John was released from the hospital.
Unexplained Results After Shocking Incident
Medical professionals who managed the boy’s care, including Sutterer and Garrett, have gone on-the-record in multiple interviews, including for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. The unique case even spurred the pediatric critical care specialist to further research.
“For two years, Dr. Garrett and two others went around the world looking at medical records trying to find an incident that was like John’s,” says Joyce Smith. “Did anyone with his criteria ever survive? They found one lady in Switzerland who had a skiing accident, but it was only her head in the water and she only recovered 80 percent.”
To date, no other person is known to have survived an hour without oxygen and recovered as well as John Smith has. One theory some have advanced is that cold water activated his diving reflex, wherein oxygen is conserved to vital organs as the heart rate slows.
However, Garrett notes that Smith entered the water feet-first, which would not trigger this reflex. “For John’s brain to have gotten cold to be protected from the lack of blood flow and the lack of oxygen really is a miracle in itself, if that did anything here,” stated Garrett.
The Smiths have been members of First Assembly Church in St. Peters, Missouri for more than 20 years. Since her childhood, Joyce Smith has believed in the power of prayer and professes to having witnessed other apparent healings. “We were always Pentecostal and attended Assemblies of God churches,” she says “I have seen the miraculous all my life.”
Smith circles back to the odds stacked against her son. “When you have even one catastrophic organ failure, doctors say you are at grave risk,” she says. “For John, ten of his organs were failing. It should have taken him out. How do you explain it? If that isn’t God, then explain to me what it is.”
In 2017, her memoir entitled “The Impossible” chronicled the story in detail — “backed up by 305 pages of medical records,” says Smith. Franklin optioned the book and hired screenwriter Grant Nieporte (“Seven Pounds”) to adapt it. For 20th Century Fox to get behind the project contradicts claims that major studios discriminate against faith films.
“Many people think of Hollywood as a place that is anti-faith, but my experience has been the opposite,” says Franklin. “They have been incredibly open and welcoming. I wouldn’t be where I am now, with a track record of success, if I had been afraid to voice my Christian beliefs.”
The Beauty of Adoption
When Franklin heard the family on a TV interview in 2016, one element particularly intrigued the former Sony Pictures executive. “The adoption angle, which was so unique and different, actually drew me to this story,” he says.
The Smiths’ adoption journey reveals personal challenges that seem far from providential. “It was a second marriage for both me and Brian,” says Joyce Smith. She and her husband have three other adult children between them. “At first, we lost two babies and could never get pregnant after that. Finances were such that we couldn’t afford to adopt.”
Past their mid-40s, the couple figured their child-rearing days had ended. Then Brian Smith began to travel to Latin America for humanitarian mission trips, including building schools for children. “While he was down there, his heart was really stirred for the kids,” says Joyce Smith. “He came home from a trip, and asked me what I thought about adoption. That day, February 12, 2000, we decided to go that route.”
While some adoptive families wait years, the Smiths faced an expedited process in applying to Guatemala for a child. “It was almost nine months later to the day that we got John,” recalls Smith.
Years later, when producer Franklin set out to land on a director for his biopic about the Smiths, another adoption story came up. Sci-fi fans will recognize the name Roxann Dawson, known for her co-starring Klingon role in the TV series “Star Trek: Voyager.” In recent years, she has transitioned to directing such shows as “The Americans” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Interviewing Dawson for what would be her feature film directorial debut, she told Franklin of her two daughters, including one born in China. “When she told me the story of how she and her husband adopted their girl, it blew me away,” he says.
Traveling to China, the Dawsons found a baby girl malnourished in an orphanage crib. “[Workers] would prepare the bottle, put it in the crib and each infant would have to figure out how to feed themselves,” Franklin recounts. “Her daughter used her feet to grab the bottle. When they got there, her feet were contorted and she had all these bedsores.”
The Dawsons stayed with the infant in China for two weeks. “Every day, they fed her and held her,” he continues. “As they were getting ready to leave for the U.S., all the bedsores were gone and her feet had straightened out.
“When she told me that story about the power of love, I knew she was the director,” says Franklin. Dawson strived to bring authenticity to the portrayal of this adoptive family.
The Mystery of Prayer and Faith
For many observers, questions still surround the implausible events in that Missouri hospital room. Even believers open to miracles occurring today are skeptical about reports of the dead being raised. A recent hoax in South Africa confirms such stories are rife for manipulation.
While firm in her charismatic beliefs, Joyce Smith admits some events in life are confounding. When telling her family’s story at conferences, she is often asked about parents in similar situations who prayed and did not see their child spared.
“I don’t know,” responds Smith. “I wish I had an answer. I know that God is sovereign, and he has a plan for everybody’s life. Even when our questions and prayers aren’t answered the way we want them answered, I believe God can give us peace through those times.”
On the cusp of high school graduation, John Smith excitedly recalls rejoining his basketball team after intense physical training following his recovery. Last season, he scored 30 points in one game against a “pretty decent” team. “To this day, there are no aftereffects from the accident,” he says. “I walk with a limp, but that’s because I recently had a bad knee injury!”
With his latest faith-based film opening in theaters on April 17, Franklin affirms their aim with the project: inspiring people with any beliefs — or none — to view miracles in a new light.
“Easter and Christmas are the two times of year when even those in the mainstream are open to spirituality,” he says. “This is a resurrection story for resurrection season.”