The phone call Joyce Smith received on Jan. 19, 2015 was every mother’s nightmare.
Her son, John, then 14, had been playing with friends on the frozen Lake Sainte Louise in St. Charles, Mo., and fell through the ice into the water below. He had been submerged for 15 minutes and EMTs had transported his lifeless body to nearby St. Joseph Hospital West where CPR was being performed.
Joyce, now 68, raced to the hospital and by the time she arrived, the medical staff had been trying to revive her son for 43 minutes to no avail. ER doctor Kent Sutterer was preparing to tell Joyce that John had died when she walked into the room and began praying loudly to God over her son’s body.
“I remembered in church all my life hearing this scripture that says, ‘The holy spirit will raise Christ Jesus from the dead,” she tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “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.”
John was immediately stabilized and airlifted to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, where he had multiple organ failure and showed hardly any sign of neurological function. The doctor “told me that John wasn’t going to live through the night and if he lived he was going to be a vegetable,” Joyce recalls. “And he made me mad. Because God had already assured me this was going to be okay.”
Not only did her son survive the night but he continued to improve daily and defy the odds against him. To his medical team’s amazement, John walked out of the hospital on his own less than three weeks after the accident with no brain damage.
Their experience inspired the new movie Breakthrough, starring This Is Us’s Chrissy Metz as Joyce.
“I have always believed that God’s going to do what he says he does because I’ve seen it all my life,” says Joyce. “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.”
The ordeal also shaped Smith’s perspective as a mom. “I’ve had to learn to let go,” she says of John, now 18, whom she adopted as an infant from Guatemala with her husband Brian, 65, after raising three sons between them. “You learn that things like a messy room aren’t that important because it could be an empty room. You learn to appreciate life and start looking at things that matter.”
Besides having her son back, Joyce is now most grateful “for the love that seems to surround all of this,” she adds. “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 opens April 17.