(CBS News) One boy's brief but inspiring life story has provided a heaven-sent message of hope to millions. Tracy Smith will tell us all about him.
Ben Breedlove seemed to be the kind of kid everyone wanted to be: bright, eternally cheerful, with his own popular TV show on YouTube.
He practically grew up on the lake behind his family's Austin, Texas, home.
But he was also born with a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle that can cause high blood pressure, and sudden cardiac arrest.
At various times in his life, Ben's heart did fail. But for him, it seemed those near-death episodes were always, somehow, a reason to smile.
At age four, Ben almost died during a violent seizure, but when he woke up in the hospital, he saw something he could barely describe to his parents, Shawn and Deanne.
"We were being wheeled down a hallway," recalled Deanne. "And he had commented to me that there was this white light above him. And he even said it was a pitch-white light. He didn't know pitch was black tar. He said, 'Mom, it's pitch white. It's right above me. Do you see it?' And I said, 'No.'"
"And it was significant because the hallway that they were being wheeled down, there were no lights on in that hallway," said Sean.
Little Ben recovered, but the vision stayed with him.
As the years passed, Ben's life looked like any other kid's: on bad days, his heart would act up and he'd have to take it easy . . . and on good days he'd do things not for the faint of heart.
"He had this adventurous spirit," said Smith, "and you didn't hold him back."
"Well, that you know of," said his mother.
But Ben was always mindful of the fact that his days might well be numbered.
In December 2011, while changing classes at Austin's Westlake High, Ben suddenly collapsed on a bench. His heart: stopped. The school nurse and emergency techs managed to bring him back, and later on, Ben described what he believed was another glimpse of heaven.
"He said he was in a white room," said Deanne, "and that the peace was more than he could explain. He couldn't describe it."
And he told big sister Ally that he had seen a place he didn't want to leave.
"I asked him if he was happy that he had woken up from his vision, and he said, 'I guess,'" Ally Breedlove recalled. "And he started crying really hard. And that was really difficult for me to hear, as his sister.
"There are some people who say, 'Oh, these visions can be explained by medicine -- that wasn't heaven. That's just what happens when your heart stops.' What would you say?" asked Smith.
"I could just see it in his eyes, this peace that he felt," said Ally. "There was no way he could ever describe it to us."
Two and a half weeks later, on Christmas Day, Ben was out in the backyard playing with kid brother Jake, when his heart suddenly gave out again.
Eighteen-year-old Ben Breedlove had cheated death before, but this time would be different.
"All the medical things went on for quite a while, in the backyard and in the ambulance," said Deanne, "and that whole time I just wondered where Ben really was -- if he was still here in his body or if he had gone to where he couldn't wait to go."
When the heartbroken family came home from the hospital the next morning, a friend told them they hadn't seen the last of Ben. Not really."And as they were leaving, my business partner's wife said, 'And you're really gonna like the video,'" recalled Sean Breedlove. "And we said, 'What video?'"
A few days before he died, Ben had recorded his life story, told without a single spoken word, about hsi struggles in this life, and his vision of the next.
"And then as we watched that video," said Sean. "Our son was there, he was smiling big, he was alive, almost like he was giving us a message."
You may watch Part 1 of Ben Breedlove's YouTube video by clicking on the player below. Part 2 can be viewed here.
But it wasn't a message just for them. And within a few days, it caught the world's attention.
For millions, Ben Breedlove's vision of something beyond death seemed to be just what they were longing to hear. Within hours, people started posting their own videos, with their own messages of inspiration and hope.
YouTube says that, as of this morning, Ben's video has been viewed more than 12 million times.
But Ben's sister, who wrote about her brother in a new book, says she's only been able to bring herself to watch the video twice.
"You know, that is the only reason that I'm able to cope with missing him every day, is because I believe that he is more alive now than he's ever been," she said.
According to a 2011 Associated Press poll,.
Thanks to Ben Breedlove, there may well be a few more.
For more info:
- "When Will the Heaven Begin? This Is Ben Breedlove's Story" by Ally Breedlove with Ken Abraham (NAL); Also available in trade paperback and eBook formats