Real-Life ‘Breakthrough’ Mom: ‘God Gave Me My Son Twice’

“Breakthrough” Mom Talks About Her Faith, Her Son, and Trusting God in the Midst of Tragedy

(photo: Register Files)

Joyce Smith's life has changed dramatically since that day back in January 2015, when her adopted son John, playing with friends on the frozen Lake St. Louis, fell through the ice. His friends were soon rescued, but for more than 15 minutes, John lay trapped underwater without oxygen. When his lifeless body was finally pulled from the icy waters, 14-year-old John remained in a coma, showing no signs of brain activity. Despite efforts by first responders and the emergency room team at the local hospital, no one believed that he would recover  — no one, that is, except Joyce.

When Joyce was summoned to the operating room to say goodbye to her dying son before the life support was turned off, she prayed fervently to the Holy Spirit to preserve John's life — and as she prayed, a faint pulse registered. The surprised doctor recommended transferring John to a better-equipped hospital, where he would be under the care of a doctor who specializes in cases of prolonged oxygen deprivation. In that new setting, John was placed in a medically-induced coma; but his parents were warned that there was little chance of recovery, and that if John were to live, he would likely remain in a persistent vegetative state. Not one to give up easily, Joyce again called out to the Holy Spirit, and her prayers were answered. John began to show signs of consciousness — first he was able to hear Joyce and their pastor, and he responded to questions with a squeeze of the hand. As a crowd gathered outside his window to pray for his recovery, a tear trickled from his eye. Within a few weeks, John awoke, not in a “persistent vegetative state” but fully aware and ready to return to school.

Joyce Smith talked with the Register recently regarding the trajectory of her life since her son's accident and dramatic recovery, and about John's plans for the future. Since Joyce's story reached a wide audience through her book The Impossible and through the 2019 movie Breakthrough, she and her son John have traveled widely, telling their story across America.

John had been a troubled youth, angry because his Honduran birth parents had given him up for adoption; but after his accident, he experienced God's love in a new way. “John has always been wise,” his mother told the Register. “but even more now. It is embedded in him.”

John now plans to become a pastor, to share the message of the Gospel with others. On Aug. 22 John, now 19 years old, will leave home to study at North Central University in Minneapolis.

Joyce's faith, too, has been strengthened by the near-loss of her son and his unexpected restoration to health. “God didn't just give me my son once,” Joyce said, recalling the adoption of a bright-eyed child from Honduras. “He gave me my son twice. He gave me the gift twice!” Since the release of Breakthrough three years ago, Joyce and her son John have traveled widely, bringing their message to cities across America. At the time of the Register interview, Joyce had returned from a media junket in Texas and the film's premiere in St. Louis and was looking forward to speaking in Columbus, Ohio, and in Orlando, Florida. “My son and I travel a lot,” Joyce said. “If we're home two or three nights a week, that's great.”

Joyce was enthusiastic about the personal stories she's heard on the speaking circuit. “One of the things I think is great about it,” she explained, “is that when we share our story, we talk to a lot of people who share their own stories in return. God doesn't just work in this place or that – He works everywhere!” She felt privileged to be able to sit at the table with others, to talk about their common faith, and to pray for the specific needs of the people she meets.

Joyce shared a few of the personal testimonies that she's heard, stories that buttressed her faith: For example, she recalled a young woman from Madagascar who heard Joyce speak about the incident on the ice. The woman had been experiencing serious depression, and was considering ending her life. “Everything was going backwards for her,” Joyce recounted. “Hearing the story gave her hope, and turned her life around. This is why we did the movie and the book!”

Another time, Joyce had a call from a woman who told her that in the local prison, inmates had watched the movie two or three times because it gave them hope. Joyce felt privileged that her story had been a positive influence in the inmates’ lives. “The Lord just comes in and turns things around,” she said with a smile.

Still another example of God's abundant love was the story of a little boy who had shared a hospital room with John Smith. Jackson, the young child, suffered from a virus which had left him paralyzed and made it impossible for him to breathe. Joyce met Jackson's parents when the doctors were performing an emergency tracheotomy so he could breathe again. Doctors predicted that it would be nine months before Jackson could walk; but soon after, on Easter weekend, Joyce saw a video on the news of Jackson riding his bicycle and picking up Easter eggs.

Joyce hoped that her son's story would show people that God loves you no matter what — that whatever your circumstances and whatever diagnosis the doctors give you, God is not scared. He is already aware of your situation and has it under control. Joyce recalled Jeremiah 29:11-13 and paraphrased, “He has a plan and a purpose for your life, and it is not to harm you but to prosper you... If you seek My face, I will be found.”

If you missed Breakthrough in the theater, you can see it on Digital; or if you prefer, the film is available on Blu-Ray, DVD or 4K UHD.