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How Accurate is Ordinary Angels? The True Story of Michelle Schmitt vs. the Movie


Hilary Swank
Born: July 30, 1974
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

Sharon Stevens
Born: 1946
Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Alan Ritchson
Born: November 28, 1982
Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA

Ed Schmitt
Born: May 13, 1955
Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Amy Acker
Born: December 5, 1976
Dallas, Texas, USA

Theresa Schmitt
Born: October 1, 1962
Death: August 16, 1992, Louisville, Kentucky, USA (complications from Wegener's disease)

Emily Mitchell
Born: 2016

Michelle Schmitt
Born: December 3, 1990
Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Death: May 7, 2021 (stomach aneurysm)

Skywalker Hughes
Born: 2009
Toronto, Canada

Ashley Schmitt
Born: May 19, 1988
Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Nancy Travis
Born: September 21, 1961
New York City, New York, USA

Barbara Schmitt
Born: 1934
Death: January 17, 2003, Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Historical Accuracy (Q&A):

When did the real story behind Ordinary Angels take place?

The events unfolded in Louisville, Kentucky in January 1994. The record-breaking snowstorm that shut down the city for almost a week happened during the overnight hours of January 16-17, 1994.

How long had Michelle Schmitt been waiting for a liver transplant?

By the time the family was notified in mid-January 1994 that an organ was available, three-year-old Michelle had been waiting for a liver transplant for approximately two years and was growing increasingly ill. She weighed a mere 22 pounds, the average weight of a child who is one, not three.

Why did Michelle Schmitt need a liver transplant?

The Ordinary Angels true story confirms that both Michelle and her older sister Ashley were born with the somewhat rare liver disease biliary atresia, a condition in which the bile ducts inside and outside the liver are blocked, leading to liver deficiencies. They both were recipients of liver transplants, and years later, kidney transplants. Ashley had undergone her liver transplant in Nebraska in 1991 at age 3 when her mother was still alive. Her transplant was a success.

Did Ed Schmitt's wife Theresa die in real life?

In real life, Ed's wife Theresa Schmitt had passed away a year-and-a-half prior in August 1992. As indicated in the movie, she died due to complications from a rare condition called Wegener's disease, which today is known as granulomatosis. The movie incorrectly states that she was 35 at the time of her death. She was actually 29 when she passed away. Theresa is portrayed by Amy Acker in the film.

The real Ed Schmitt (left) is pictured in the 1990s. Actor Alan Ritchson (right) plays the father in the movie.

Did hairdresser Sharon Stevens learn about the family through a newspaper article?

The real Sharon Stevens told WTVQ that, like in the movie, she learned about the family's story through a newspaper article. "I saw a news article, and I'm not one to read the newspaper every day, it just happened to be there," Stevens recalled. "I read it. A couple weeks later, the children that needed the help, their mother died, before the second little girl got her transplant, and it broke my heart."

Sharon Stevens said that after reading the newspaper article, she called Chuck Lee, a minister at Southeast Christian Church, where she attended. She told him she wanted to find a way to help the Schmitt Family. It was then that she learned that the girls' mother, Theresa Schmitt, had died the day prior. Stevens had recently completed training to become a commissioned volunteer care minister and learned that her church had been helping the family.

Similar to the movie, Sharon Stevens, played by Hilary Swank, first met Michelle Schmitt at her mother Theresa's funeral. "She was living with her grandmother who was at wit's end due to being older and raising a sick baby. Finances had dwindled, no insurance, and no one was there to help them."

Left: Sharon Stevens and Michelle Schmitt are pictured together in the 1990s. Right: Hilary Swank and Emily Mitchell depict Sharon and Michelle in the movie. Photos: Kingdom Story Company

Is Sharon's friend Rose in Ordinary Angels based on a real person?

No. In the movie, Tamala Jones' character Rose runs the beauty salon with Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank). They are good friends and Rose tries her best to keep Sharon, a recovering alcoholic, on the straight and narrow. While conducting our Ordinary Angels fact-check, we discovered that Rose is a fictional character, which is why she is absent from the cast vs. real people section at the top of this article. She is not mentioned in Sharon Stevens' book on which the movie is based.

Did hairdresser Sharon Stevens raise money for the family's medical expenses?

Yes. According to the Courier Journal, Sharon Stevens raised "tens of thousands of dollars" to help the family cover their expanding medical expenses. "I spent almost three years prior to her transplant raising money for medication, hospital runs to Omaha, and housing for the family," Sharon wrote in a Facebook post. "Her needs consumed my heart and she was a blessing to me."

Sharon Stevens had also pre-arranged for the family to travel by private jet from Louisville to Omaha when they received the transplant call. Like in the film, no one could have envisioned that the call would come the morning after a record-setting snowfall buried Louisville in almost 16 inches. While Sharon Stevens' role in helping the family was crucial, she was by no means the only person who helped to raise money. Other friends and community members helped as well, organizing raffles and charity auctions, as well as seeking donations.

Was Sharon Stevens an alcoholic?

No. This is one of the bigger liberties taken by the filmmakers. While researching the question, "How accurate is Ordinary Angels?" we learned that the real Sharon Stevens was never an alcoholic. However, she did grow up in a home plagued by alcoholism. Both of her parents had been alcoholics and her mother died from liver cancer brought on by years of heavy drinking. In her book, she writes that she vowed from a young age that she would never let alcohol control her life as it did her parents'. "I promised myself I would never allow myself to become a slave to alcohol as my mother was." Sharon said that she gave the filmmakers her blessing when she learned that they had fictionalized the character by turning her into an alcoholic.

Did Sharon Stevens ever have a strained relationship with her son Derek?

No. Unlike what's seen in the movie, Sharon's relationship with her son Derek was never strained. The book describes Derek as "a great source of love and strength for Sharon, and always has been."

Was the 1994 Louisville snowstorm as bad as it's portrayed to be in the movie?

Yes. On January 16, 1994, the day before Michelle Schmitt was supposed to undergo her transplant surgery, a storm was brewing over the Midwest that would dump nearly 16 inches of snow on Louisville in a span of approximately eight hours, setting a new single-day snowfall record. It came as a surprise since the original overnight forecast for the 16th-17th had only been for a few inches. Rain had fallen before the start of the snow, which created a layer of ice under the deep white blanket. Abandoned cars littered the roadsides and Kentucky's then-governor, Brereton Jones, closed the interstates to allow road crews to work. Travel was virtually impossible.

"No one was going anywhere," Michelle's sister Ashley told WDRB. Their grandmother, Barbara Schmitt, had answered the transplant call at 9 a.m., not long after most residents had woken up to discover the snow and impassible roads.

A pickup truck weaves its way through abandoned cars as it heads inbound on Interstate 71 in the aftermath of the 1994 winter storm in Louisville. Photo: WHAS11

Making matters worse was a cold air mass that moved in behind the storm, which sent temperatures plummeting well below zero by January 19, setting a new all-time low-temperature record of -22 degrees. Businesses and schools were closed for almost a week and airports grounded flights. At least five people lost their lives in the Louisville area. A total of 70 people perished in the storm, which wreaked havoc across the eastern half of the country.

Where was the transplant surgery scheduled to take place?

As in the Ordinary Angels movie, the true story confirms that Michelle Schmitt's liver transplant surgery was scheduled to take place in Omaha, Nebraska. It's true that the family only had a matter of hours to get Michelle to the hospital for the organ to still be viable. When Michelle's grandmother, Barbara Schmitt, answered the transplant call at 9 a.m., she was told that a liver would be waiting for Michelle by sundown. For the best chance of success, they needed to get to the hospital in Omaha by 6 p.m. — 7 p.m. at the latest.

Was the children's hospital in Omaha 700 miles away?

In the movie, Ed Schmitt (Alan Ritchson) is told that "Michelle will need to fly 700 miles to the children's hospital." An Ordinary Angels fact-check reveals that the distance by car is close to that at roughly 693 miles (10 hours and 40 minutes). However, the distance by plane between Louisville, Kentucky and Omaha, Nebraska is 582 miles (1 hour 40 minutes).

Did Sharon Stevens call a TV station to alert the community that the Schmitt Family needed help?

In real life, she called a radio station to help get the word out, not a TV station. After getting the transplant call, Michelle's grandma, Barbara Schmitt (portrayed by Nancy Travis), called Sharon Stevens to try and figure out how to get Michelle to her surgery in Omaha. Stevens then called Newsradio 840 WHAS and asked for help. Not long after, reporters arrived at the Schmitt Family's home and began to broadcast a plea for help. Ed Schmitt needed to get his daughter, three-year-old Michelle Schmitt, to a Southern Indiana airport where a private jet was waiting to take her to Omaha, Nebraska. There she would undergo the liver transplant surgery that could save her life.

Did a helicopter land in a nearby church parking lot to transport Michelle Schmitt to the airport?

After hearing the call for help on the radio, Teresa Amshoff, who lived roughly two miles from the Schmitts, was standing at her kitchen window peeling potatoes for dinner that evening. She looked out the window and noticed the large parking lot of what at the time was Southeast Christian Church. It was a wide open space with no trees or power lines nearby. It was the ideal spot for a helicopter to land. She called the radio station and was told the lot would need to be cleared within 30 minutes.

"I called the radio station and asked them why the helicopter couldn't land back here," Teresa Amshoff told WHAS11 from the scene. "And they said it would have to be plowed, and I said, 'That would be no problem. I could get a whole street-load of people to come and help plow.'"

A total of 200 or so Louisville residents took action and brought their shovels to help clear the snow from the Southeast Christian Church parking lot so that a medevac helicopter would have a place to land. A tractor with a big blade that was stored in the church's garage was also used. In the movie, the shoveling of the lot happens at night. However, in real life, the residents cleared the lot in the daytime. Miraculously, the lot was cleared when Michelle arrived in the arms of her grandmother and with her father by her side.

Community members stand holding shovels in the parking lot of Southeast Christian Church. Unlike the movie, they cleared the lot in the daylight hours, not at night.

"It tore me apart. I fell to pieces," Ed Schmitt told the Courier Journal of arriving to see all the volunteers. "It touched me deeper than I've ever been touched in my entire life." Michelle's grandmother, Barbara Schmitt, told reporters, "I can't believe it, and I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. That doesn't seem to be enough, but I just want everybody to know how much we appreciate it." The crowd cheered and some cried as the helicopter lifted off from the parking lot.

The helicopter took 3-year-old Michelle Schmitt to Standiford Field (later renamed Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport) where she was then transported by private jet to Omaha, Nebraska.

The medevac helicopter lifts off from the cleared parking lot of Southeast Christian Church to transport Michelle Schmitt to the airport where a private jet was waiting to fly her to Omaha for her transplant surgery.

How old was Michelle Schmitt when she received her liver transplant?

In the Ordinary Angels movie, Michelle (Emily Mitchell) is five years old when the family gets the call that a liver has become available and she subsequently receives the transplant. In researching the true story, we learned that the real Michelle Schmitt was still a toddler at the time. She was just three years old when the events in the movie unfolded. Michelle became known as the "miracle snow baby" and the "Snow Baby of Louisville."

In real life, Michelle Schmitt (left) was three years old at the time of her transplant surgery, not five as she's depicted to be in the movie (right).

Whose liver did Michelle Schmitt receive?

Michelle received the liver of Brian Friesen, a 7-year-old Kansas boy who died suddenly of a brain aneurysm the day prior, January 16, 1994. After the successful surgery, the Schmitt Family eventually met the Friesens and the two families developed a close friendship.

Does the Schmitt Family approve of the Ordinary Angels movie?

Yes. Michelle Schmitt's sister Ashley told WDRB that they got to meet the director, Jon Gunn, and that he did a great job with the movie. She added, "He did a great job putting this movie together and having the right people play us." Ashley said that the title is "perfect, because there [were] a lot of just ordinary angels that day that made it possible for us to get out of the city to get Michelle her transplant."

The real Sharon Stevens commented on Hilary Swank's portrayal of her in the film, telling WTVQ, "I couldn't have done it myself any better than she did." Stevens wrote the book on which the movie is based and visited the set in Winnipeg, Canada.

Sisters Michelle and Ashley Schmitt are pictured as adults. Both underwent successful liver and kidney transplants. Photo: Michelle Schmitt Cobble Facebook

What happened to Michelle Schmitt after the events in Ordinary Angels?

The "Snow Baby of Louisville" grew up and attended college in her hometown at Spalding University. She and her sister Ashley, who also had a liver transplant, required close medical supervision throughout their lives. Their regiment of daily pills (Michelle took eight) eventually damaged their kidneys. Both Michelle and Ashley underwent kidney transplants in 2011. Michelle received a kidney from her best friend Crystal. She married David Cobble in 2015 and was employed at the University of Louisville pediatrics department as a medical receptionist. In 2019, she told the Courier Journal that she thanks God, the donor, her family and friends, and the hundreds of people who came together to help for saving her life.

Sharon Stevens married Perry Evans, who she described as being her soulmate. In 2015, Perry tragically died in a flood accident. Stevens wrote the book Ordinary Angels, which was published in September 2023 and was the basis for the movie.

How did Michelle Schmitt die?

The real Michelle Schmitt died from a stomach aneurysm in May 2021 when she was 31. She had been aware of the movie, which was being filmed that same month. Her sister Ashley told WDRB that Michelle would appreciate Ordinary Angels and would want it to be a source of inspiration for others. Ashley said that the film will help keep her memory alive. She told the Courier Journal that "people who didn't know her story or the importance of organ donation will understand that now."