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‘Breakthrough’: A Story of Faith and Miracles

For 16 days in January 2015, a teenage boy lay in the pediatric ICU in St. Louis, Missouri. He struggled to survive a catastrophic accident and, along the way, experienced a series of miracles. 

John Smith, 14, and two friends had decided to skate around on the thin ice of Lake Sainte Louise in St. Charles, Missouri, just northwest of St. Louis. The day was warm because of an early thaw, and the boys wore shorts and tank tops. Although warned by the manager of the lake’s clubhouse to get off the ice, they didn’t, and the worst happened. 

They suddenly fell through the thin ice. It was 11:33 a.m. One of the trio, Josh Sander, swam to shore. But John struggled as he tried to help the other skater, Josh Rieger, onto the ice. He yelled to Rieger’s sister, Jamie, on the shore, “Call 911! I don’t want to die!” Then he disappeared beneath the surface.

Local police and first responders were on the scene within minutes. The Wentzville fire truck arrived, and, using poles, firefighter Tommy Shine and another rescuer prodded the rocky bottom for the softness of a human body. Divers were already in the murky water looking for John. At 11:51 a.m., almost 20 minutes after John had fallen into the water, Shine found him. 

He was not breathing. Although dirty lake water spewed out of his mouth and nose, he had no pulse and no heartbeat. The EMTs rushed the teen to St. Joseph’s Hospital West (now called SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital Lake St. Louis), just six minutes away. 

Trauma doctor Kent Sutterer was sure that, after 43 minutes without breathing, John would not survive. As John’s mother, Joyce, sat anxiously in the waiting room, a tiny nun in her 60s, dressed in a gray and white habit, sat down and took her hand. 

Ten minutes later, Joyce was allowed in the trauma room where John lay surrounded by medical personnel. All she could see of her son were his colorless feet as a doctor continued doing CPR. Joyce sat on a chair and the nun stood behind her and placed her hands on the worried mother’s shoulders. Dr. Sutterer squatted near Joyce and introduced himself. Then he told her she could go and talk to her son. 

A doctor was still trying to pump air into John’s lungs. Tubes and wires snaked everywhere. Joyce grasped her son’s cold feet and quietly prayed. But later she learned that it came out as a roar that everyone, even down the hallway, could hear: “I believe in a God who can do miracles! Holy Spirit, I need you right now to come and breathe life back into my son!” 

At that moment, John’s heart monitor began to beep.

 

Family Ties

When Joyce was only 17 years old she became pregnant and chose adoption for her son. She later married the father and had two more sons before the marriage ended in divorce. Sometime later she met Brian, who also had a son, and they married. Brian was a videographer who often traveled with their church group on mission trips to Central America. There, Brian became aware of many babies who needed adoptive parents. Even though he and Joyce were in their late 40s, they decided to adopt a baby from Guatemala.

John was a tiny 5-month-old baby who weighed only 10 pounds and had a turned-in foot. But they fell in love with him immediately and brought him home to Missouri. There, John flourished; even though he stood only 5-foot-3, he was the captain of his school’s basketball team. 

Two years after her son’s miraculous recovery, Joyce Smith’s book was released, cowritten with Ginger Kolbaba: The Impossible: The Miraculous Story of a Mother’s Faith and Her Child’s Resurrection. It describes her journey from worried mom to a mother bear who rarely left her son’s side during his ordeal. At one point, when medical personnel in his room were saying that John was not likely to make it, Joyce demanded loudly: “We will only speak life in this room!”

 

‘A Love Letter’

This month, just in time for Easter, producer DeVon Franklin is releasing Breakthrough. This young producer already has an impressive Hollywood résumé with a penchant for true stories about God’s unexpected action in our lives, including the 2014 film Heaven Is for Real and 2016’s Miracles from Heaven. Franklin’s latest film details the story of John Smith’s accident and, as his doctors attest, his medically and scientifically inexplicable recovery from catastrophic injuries. 

The story also includes Joyce’s heroic journey of faith and the support of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, where John was airlifted right after his heart started beating. The nonstop prayer and presence of the Smith family; their senior pastor, Jason Noble; their church; the school; and the extended faith community of greater St. Louis are also portrayed.

Franklin, 40, is a joyful force of nature bursting with enthusiasm. He discovered the therapeutic value of films after the death of his father when he was only 18. He says: “Entertainment was pretty much my therapy. My mom didn’t have money to send us to a therapist or anything to help me and my two brothers through this devastating loss. It was the combination of church and entertainment that really helped me process the grief of losing my father.” The future film producer realized that if entertainment could have this influence for healing and good on him, “maybe I could use it to impact the world in a positive way. It was my intention then and it is now.”

He sees Breakthrough as a “love letter to human dignity. You just want to hug Joyce and have her hug you! The doctors in the story wanted to preserve both John and Joyce’s dignity by letting her in the trauma room to say a final goodbye to John, but that was not in Joyce’s script. She was not going to say goodbye to John; she was going to say hello to her son because he was coming back! Sometimes, like Joyce, we have to tune out other people’s narratives rather than internalize their perspectives. We have to go for what we believe God is telling us. Joyce did that.”

He continues: “We live in a time where things are so divisive politically, racially, and spiritually. What I love about this story is that John, who is from Guatemala, was raised in a predominantly white environment. Yet Joyce and Brian, their family, church, school, and community didn’t treat John like he was a kid from another country, or of a different ethnicity. . . . They said, from first responders on, ‘He’s our kid. We are going to pray for him. We’re going to intercede for him. We’re going to sacrifice for him because we believe God can bring him back.’ 

“I believe this story has the ability to bring people together as a community around things that matter, especially love, care, and prayer. I think this film can do this.”

 

The Cast 

Breakthrough movie

Chrissy Metz, who plays Joyce Smith, has taken television audiences by the heart in the hit NBC series This Is Us. In that series, she plays Kate, a woman who struggles with her family, her relationships, her career, and her weight. She says: “Kate feels like a second fiddle; she’s not as successful as her brothers. She feels like she never fit in. Much like John in the film, she is trying to figure out her place in life.”

Metz explains her role as a mom in Breakthrough: “Moms want what is best for their children, but kids might not understand or agree with what is best for them. In the film, John is an adolescent with a bit of an attitude, and hasn’t yet come into his own, a phase we all go through.” 

The film is about love, she says. “I think love is one of the most—if not the most—powerful emotions you can have. Love is something that is reciprocal; the more you love, the more you receive. The most miraculous thing is when love is blended with hope and your faith. When you get off balance, you can return to the love that you have for your faith or the love that God has for you and know that it is limitless.”

Josh Lucas, who plays John’s dad, Brian, knew of the national news story about John’s incredible recovery before he read the book and the script. “It is a profoundly miraculous and inspiring story,” he says. “Each time I read the story I get goosebumps, even though parts of it are painful and challenging. I had to think about doing this movie because I have a 5-year-old son and we are very close. I don’t like leaving him at all. But as I was driving him to school, I told him the story. When I got to the part of how everyone—all John’s family and friends from church and school—came together outside the hospital to hold hands, pray, and sing hymns for John, my son really liked that part of the story.

“I realized I wanted my son to be there when we filmed this because it was the part of the story that moved us the most. There’s also something in this mother’s will that really touches me, Joyce’s incredible faith and conviction to keep believing.”

John himself is played by Marcel Ruiz, who says that for him it’s important to be thankful for every moment in life and our everyday privileges. “It’s an inspiring story. We see that John is adopted, but you don’t realize it because they are just a real family; family does not have to be a blood family. I think it’s exciting that the entire community came out for him and prayed for him even if they didn’t know him. That’s pretty cool.”

 

A Life-Changing Movie

Breakthrough explores the interaction of mystery and grace. Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000 Pictures (a division of 21st Century Fox), explains: “Life often throws you a big challenge when you least expect it. This is why I think people are looking for stories today that show them characters who have experienced that kind of challenge, people who have reached beyond even their own limits of knowledge and faith to find power and an inner strength that leads them to believe in a higher power, to know that they will be protected, and that there is a bigger universe out there.

“I hope that this story will open channels of communication between different family members and give them a sense of humility about the blessings they have received. I hope it will encourage them to look for the good in people because there is always good in people.” 

Metz agrees. “I hope that families and parents and the younger audience will leave with the idea that having a belief in something greater than yourself can change your life. It changed my life; that’s the reason why I’m . . . telling the story of Joyce Smith and John. 

“I believe we are here for service, and that the more you give, the more you receive—whether it is adopting a child from another country or something else. We’re all in this together. It’s a beautiful, cyclical thing.”

 

Heroes and Miracles

“Patient’s dead. Mother prayed. Patient came back to life,” is how Dr. Kent Sutterer (played by Sam Trammell) described what happened at a gathering of thanksgiving held at the church following John’s release from the hospital. Dr. Jeremy Garrett (played by Dennis Haysbert), the drowning and hypothermia expert who treated John at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, agrees that John’s recovery cannot be explained, and that he as a doctor has been criticized for calling it a miracle. 

Joyce says in her book that “John had been in the water for close to 30 minutes, under the water for more than 20 minutes, had received CPR for about 43 minutes, and had been dead for more than an hour. My son was dead and then . . . he wasn’t dead!” 

John himself believes that God saved him for a special purpose. He says he plans to “study for the ministry as well as to major in mathematics.”

Another hero was the nun who held Joyce’s hand in the emergency room. Sister Donna Olson, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri, has worked at St. Joseph’s Hospital in pastoral care since 1999 and remembers that day well. “I sat beside her and held her hand. I told her, ‘God is with us, God hears us, and he’s not going anywhere.’ 

“When they took Joyce into the trauma room, I stood behind her and placed my hands on her shoulders. She prayed very loudly, and I was stunned when her son’s heart began to beat.”

A nursing school professor told his students the story of John’s miraculous recovery, saying, “There’s science and there’s God. This is God.”


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