At 13 years old, Green Bay Packers fan Anna Schmidt has been through more than any bruised-up NFL veteran. Anna began experiencing stomachaches in November. Soon thereafter, she developed a cough. At first, doctors thought it was asthma or acid buildup. But a few weeks later, the Schmidts received news that would dramatically alter their lives.
Anna had dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart that was big in size but small on function. When they placed her on Milrinone -- a medicine to help her failing heart contract more powerfully -- doctors were pleasantly surprised by the way her body reacted. The medication gave the Schimdts hope that a serious procedure could be avoided.
Soon, that hope began to fade.
"Every time they tried to pull her off the medicine, her heart would just fail," said Brian Schmidt, Anna's father. You can't just keep going on Milrinone because it'll burn your heart out."
Anna, of Horicon, Wis., remained in the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin over the holidays. With her health showing little improvement, it was finally decided that she would need to be placed on the heart transplant list.
Shortly after this decision, things got worse. Anna experienced more pain, more stomachaches. In mid-February, it became apparent that the heart Anna was born with couldn't sustain itself until a donor came -- she would need an artificial heart.
It took 17 hours of surgery to install the Berlin heart, a device designed to help assist heart function until a donor is found. That was in late February, and the hope was that she'd start eating and feeling better once the pump was in place.
Yet once again, hope was crushed.
The artificial heart gave Anna just enough to keep her going, but it came at a life-threatening price.
"The problem with this pump is that it can cause blood clots, which lead to strokes," Schimdt said. "And she had a pretty significant series of strokes approximately one week after they put on the pump."
To prevent blood clots, doctors had to change out the pump nearly once a week -- a dangerous procedure in itself. Just when they thought it couldn't get any worse, a CT scan revealed a hemorrhage in her brain.
12 years old at the time. Countless strokes. Brain surgery. Heart surgery. About 17 tubes running into her body. But Anna had heart.
"You ask a lot of questions 'Why us? Why does this just continue to get worse and worse?' Every day was another experience in terror. ... She probably had to have the paddles put on her five or six times," Schmidt said. "But we relied on our faith. 'God's in control,' we kept telling ourselves. 'He's going to see us through this somehow.'"
On March 29, Brian got a call at work from his wife Jean, who was at the hospital with Anna. Hope. The hospital had found a match for Anna, and doctors were close to giving her surgery the green light.
Within 48 hours of receiving her new heart, Anna was feeling better than she had in months. She was eating and beating on her own, improving every day. Yet Anna's strokes had severely debilitated her. She had to relearn how to walk and talk. The tasks we take for granted were daily struggles for her and her family.
During this time, the Schmidts were contacted by the Make-A-Wish foundation. When Anna was told to wish big, she thought about a family vacation to a warm climate. Then, she thought about the Packers.
"Most Sundays in the fall we have breakfast, go to church, and then invite a few people over for the Packers game," Schmidt said. "Anna's always had this love for watching Packers games and having a little party. She likes to entertain."
When Anna found out in mid-August that the Packers were going to entertain her at their house, she burst into tears of happiness.
"It was such a precious moment," Schmidt recalled. "She went absolutely bonkers."
Nearly 24 hours after receiving the exciting news, Anna and the rest of her family pulled up to Lambeau Field in a limo: the beginning of a day filled with star treatment. When she walked out onto the field for the first time, a huge group of people were cheering in the stands, dressed from head to toe in Packers gear and all there to support Anna.
Then, the man who sat by Anna's bed when she could barely move, the one who helped her go from a wheelchair to a bike, was the one to lift her into the stands for her very own Lambeau leap.
Anna even had a personalized Packers locker and uniform right next to a big star: quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Throughout Packers practice, Rodgers would look over at the sideline and wave to his newest friend. As drills began to wind down, head coach Mike McCarthy invited Anna to close practice, introducing her to the team and letting her lead all 85 guys in a break.
Although she still struggles a lot with her right arm and hand, Anna was more than happy to participate in a few postpractice activities. Ryan Grant showed her how to run with the football, and Rodgers aired a few passes in her direction.
"You'd think they were almost big brother and little sister," Schmidt said of Anna's interaction with Rodgers. "The way they were joking around ... it was so cool."
Cornerback Al Harris, one of Anna's favorite players, didn't practice that day but came in to spend some time with her. Anna cracked jokes about his hair and asked about Brett Favre (to which players lightheartedly pled the fifth). She was such a joy to be around that the team asked her to stay through its second practice and attend its preseason game the next day.
As the Packers ran out onto the Lambeau grass that Saturday, Rodgers peeled away from the rest of the team and jogged across the field. He hugged Anna and lifted her in the air -- an emotional pick-me-up that went far beyond its physical implications.
"The whole experience was just amazing for our family," Schmidt said. "We went through a lot, but those days with the Packers are days that we'll remember for the rest of our lives."
Schmidt talked at length about the doctors, nurses, and donor family who helped save Anna's life. He talked about their close-knit community and the outpouring of love and support during difficult times, about the people who helped give him and his family strength when they needed it most.
But the most inspiring image of all is that of his 13-year-old daughter: a walking symbol of heart and hope.