Missouri teen John Smith was lifeless for an hour before his heartbeat started again—as his mother prayed over his body


John Smith believes in miracles.

On Jan. 19, 2015, Smith, then 14, was playing with two friends out on the frozen Lake Sainte Louise in St. Charles, Mo., when they fell through thin ice into the frigid water below. While his two friends were rescued, Smith slipped under the surface and sank to the bottom where he remained for 15 minutes.

First Responders retrieved his lifeless body and transported him to nearby St. Joseph Hospital West where CPR was performed for an additional 43 minutes to no avail.

As John’s mother, Joyce, arrived at the hospital, doctors prepared to tell her that her son had died but she “walked up to the end of the bed and felt his feet, how cold and gray they were,” she recalls in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I remembered in church all my life hearing this scripture that says, ‘The Holy Spirit will raise Christ Jesus from the dead.'”

Joyce, now 68, began praying loudly over her son’s body. “The minute I prayed ‘Holy Spirit, please come and give me back my son!’ his heartbeat started,” she says.

190320_BreakThruJohn Smith photographed on March 20, 2019
John Smith
| Credit: Yuri Hasegawa
John Smith

Not only was John revived but he made a full recovery—despite initial multiple organ failure and little to no neurological function—that stunned doctors and led his deeply religious family and community to credit the power of faith and prayer.

Their experience inspired the new movie Breakthrough, starring This Is Us’s Chrissy Metz as Joyce.

| Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

Before the accident, “I had a lot of issues,” says Smith, 18, who was adopted as an infant from Guatemala by his parents Joyce, a homemaker, and Brian, 65, a retired journalist. “I was chasing after what I wanted instead of what God had for me.”

Though he has no memory of the accident and didn’t suffer any permanent physical harm, Smith struggled to find meaning in his survival. “I had to deal with answering the question of ‘Why me?'” he says. “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, Smith has traveled around the country to speak to young people and plans to attend a Christian college in Minnesota in the fall, but he’s also “a typical high schooler,” adds the teen, who also coaches youth basketball. “I’m not always going to be perfect, I’m still going to screw up, but I definitely want to influence my generation.”

Breakthrough opens April 17.