For a parent, it was unthinkable and terrifying -- a simple split lip that suddenly erupted into a disfiguring, life-threatening infection in a sweet-faced 5-year-old boy. But while Jake Finkbonner's mother and father spent days fearing their son would die, Jake at one point found himself experiencing something he said was beautiful.
"I was in heaven and I spoke to God," the boy, now 11, said.
It began when Jake, who lives with his family in Ferndale, Wash., was playing basketball and hit his lip. Within a day, his face swelled so much he was unrecognizable.
"The swelling didn't go down. I got really sick. They took me to the hospital. Things weren't going so well," Jake remembered.
Doctors determined that Jake had been infected with a rare, flesh-eating bacteria -- necrotizing fasciitis -- that had entered the cut on Jake's face and spread like wildfire, literally eating away at his face.
"It was the most excruciating thing for a parent to have to listen to that everything just kept getting worse and worse and it was just one grim day after the next," said Jake's mother, Elsa.
For two months, doctors at Children's Hospital in Seattle kept Jake in a coma as they worked aggressively to beat the odds and save his life.
"They were just doing everything they could to stop it but at that point we knew as parents we knew that his life was in the balance," Jake's father, Donny Finkbonner said.
While Jake lay in his hospital bed, his parents, who are Catholic, prayed by his side. Jake, meanwhile, says he was able to speak to God directly.
Jake said that, at one point, his body felt so light that he could almost "lift off." It was then, he said, that he had a vision.
"I was able to look down at the hospital. I saw my family. And then I went back to the house where I saw my family," he said. "The only thing is, I didn't see myself."
After he woke up, he shared his experience with his mother.
"I remember him just laying there in the bedroom in the hospital bed and he sat straight up and said 'I've been raised,'" Elsa Finkbonner remembered. "And I said, 'Where?' and he said, 'To heaven.'"
Jake said he spoke to God, who sat in a high chair and was very tall.
"He wasn't the size of a normal person," he said.
Jake said he also saw deceased relatives -- his uncle and his great-grandmother -- as well as angels.
He said he was enjoying himself so much that he asked God if he could stay, "but he said that my family needed me and everybody else down here -- and he sent me down here and he sent me back down."
For the past five years, Jake has been through dozens of surgeries to repair the damage to his face. His progress has been almost as impressive as his survival. His experience is being investigated as a true medical miracle by The Vatican.
"To us, it's always been a miracle whether the church recognizes it's a miracle or not," Donny Finkbonner said. "It's not up to us, but in our hearts, we know that Jake is a miracle. We've seen it with our own eyes."
Jake said that these days, he sometimes finds himself thinking about heaven before he goes to bed. He has advice for others facing life-threatening illnesses.
"Don't be scared at all," he said. "Either way, it will be a good way. If you go to heaven, you'll be in a better place -- if you live, you'll be back with your family."