MAYBE SHE'LL be at a sorority function, surrounded by her friends, when the text message pops up on her phone. Maybe on occasion, Anna Schmidt will roll her eyes when it comes. She's 19 years old now, and it's her dad. Again.
The text comes twice a day, as reliable as a January freeze in Wisconsin, around 9 o'clock.
"MD," it reads.
Brian Schmidt will not relent until he gets a reply.
"MD," Anna types back.
It means she has taken her pills, four in the morning, four at night. Sometimes, her life is moving so fast that it could be easy to forget. But there's no way she could forget. It has become part of who she is.
THE LAST TIME we saw Anna Schmidt, she was a 13-year-old with sandy-brown hair and freckles, a pistol of a kid who told Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that he didn't look so good in a mustache. It was August 2010, five months after her heart transplant, and Make-A-Wish had granted Schmidt her dream, spending a day with the Packers.
Anna is from Horicon, Wisconsin, a town of 3,600 that is roughly two hours southwest of Green Bay. On fall Sundays in this area, and pretty much everywhere in Wisconsin, the ritual is the same: eat breakfast, go to church, then camp in front of a TV for the Packers game. "The church makes sure that the service is over by the Packers game," Anna says. "Literally, Wisconsin is crazy during Packers Sunday." So picking a day with her beloved team seemed like a no-brainer compared to, say, visiting some exotic place. Anna figured she'd eventually get the chance to travel when she got older, but when would she ever have another shot at meeting the Packers?
When word spread around Horicon that she'd be hanging out with the team, the town went nuts. ESPN came to Wisconsin to film that August day as part of its My Wish series, capturing the glee when she met Rodgers and her other favorite player, former Green Bay cornerback Al Harris.
The Packers really took to her, especially Rodgers. When he first approached Anna, she was so nervous that she hid behind her brother, Austin. But the awkwardness ended quickly. Throughout practice, Rodgers looked over at her on the sideline and waved.
At lunchtime, he gave her a prized possession, the green hat he wears on the sideline when it's cold. She loved how Rodgers noticed every little detail about her, even her black-and-pink polka-dotted nail polish.
"He was just so considerate," she says. "He's a normal guy. He had peanut butter and jelly for lunch. He's just like me and you."
Anna was a seemingly normal seventh-grader in the fall of 2009, healthy enough to play volleyball. Then around November, she started to have stomachaches, followed by a nasty cough. Trips to the doctor yielded nothing suspicious, but the pain intensified and she wound up in the emergency room. Then came the diagnosis, dilated cardiomyopathy.
Her heart was enlarged, and it was failing. When medicines didn't work, she underwent a 17-hour surgery to receive an artificial heart pump. It was supposed to be the bridge to an eventual transplant, but the pump gave her blood clots. She suffered a series of strokes, then a brain hemorrhage.
Between the strokes and the surgery to open her skull to remove blood from her brain and the wait for a heart, the Schmidts began to lose hope. They prayed that Anna would regain feeling on the right side of her body, that a call would come and she'd have a new heart. By this time, she couldn't count anymore or do her ABCs.
"We didn't think she would make it," her father says.
After nearly 70 days on the transplant list, the Schmidts received word that a donor heart had become available. It was late March 2010. Holy Week. Brian and Jean Schmidt did not want to get their hopes up high. Every time they did, it seemed as if another bad thing happened.
The heart arrived by Learjet from Memphis. After months of waiting, now everything was moving so fast. As Anna was being wheeled into surgery, she insisted that her dog Max ride along with her. In her worst days, the tiny shih tzu-bichon was the only thing that seemed to help her vital signs and lift her spirits.
After the surgery, she almost immediately began to improve. But the recovery process was excruciatingly slow. She took upward of 27 pills a day after she was finally released from the hospital, some of them big enough for a horse. One day, it took two hours to force all the medicine down her throat.
The Packers didn't know how badly she needed that My Wish day. By summertime, she was stuck in a depressing slog of hospital visits and white prescription bags. The trip to Green Bay restored her self-esteem. She became sort of a celebrity in town, and people asked for her autograph. The day the My Wish story aired, at least 150 people gathered at the Schmidts' house to watch it.
"I guess right after my transplant, I thought, 'Oh my gosh. What am I gonna do with my life now?'" she says. "I'm just rehabbing, and I don't know what to do. When that event happened ... it gave me a sense of hope. It gave me a sense of life.
"It showed me that, 'Hey, I can be a normal kid. I can do these things, and I'm going to do these things.'"
SOMEWHERE IN TENNESSEE, Dave Gibson was watching the Monday Night Football game between the Bears and Packers, waiting for Anna's My Wish piece to come on at halftime. He had lost his son Luke to a motocross accident six months earlier, and had recently found out that Luke's heart had gone to a girl named Anna Schmidt in Wisconsin. The girl who was on his TV.
It made him cry and smile. Luke Gibson was a blond-haired boy who had a lot of friends and always seemed to have a smile on his face. He was born on May 27, 1997, just weeks before Anna.
"I guess in general, he loved life," Dave Gibson says. "Ironically, he was very similar to Anna's personality. A lot of spark."
A year before he died, Luke talked about being an organ donor because he wanted to help people. His accident happened on a Saturday, during practice for a weekend event in Pontotoc, Mississippi. He was life-flighted to Memphis, where doctors said he had no brain activity and, according to Gibson, "no chance."
Sometime in that haze of grief, doctors told Luke's parents that a little girl was in dire need of a heart. Gibson doesn't remember all of the particulars, just that she was up north and about Luke's age.
Luke's mother, Paula, eventually wrote a letter to the Schmidts through their hospitals. Paula hoped she could someday meet the Schmidts, learn more about Anna, and tell them about Luke. Shortly after Anna started feeling better, she grew curious about whose heart she had. She read Paula's letter, and went on Facebook, where she found someone she thought might be Luke's sister.
"And I said, like, 'Hey, I hope that this is the right person, because otherwise this is gonna seem very weird,'" Anna says. " 'But I may have received your brother's heart.'"
Luke's sister said yes, her brother had died and donated his heart to someone in Wisconsin. Sometime around New Year's Day 2011, the families met.
Paula asked if she could put a stethoscope up to Anna's heart. "Sure," she told her. Dave Gibson took her on a motorcycle ride.
The families kept in touch, and last year, when Anna graduated, Dave Gibson came to Wisconsin for the ceremony. Luke was supposed to be part of the Class of '15, too, and Dave cried when she got her diploma. It wasn't just Anna's graduation. It was Luke's, too.
"I lost a son, but at the same time, I gained a daughter," he says. "And that's how I look at it."
EVERY TIME ANNA tried to do something that teenagers do, her dad couldn't stop worrying. He was not crazy about her taking a part-time job scooping ice cream at Culver's when she was in high school, and then she started winning awards for being such a great server. When Schmidt was learning how to drive, Brian was a mess. But once again, she did just fine.
"She's the baby, and there are a lot of concerns," he says. "She always surprises me."
In the fall of 2015, Anna went off to college at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. In some ways, it was liberating. Her classmates no longer knew her as the kid with the heart transplant. She has told only a few of her friends about that part of her life.
It's there all the time, though. She sees the 6-inch scar on her chest, and the doctors' appointments and tests are a constant reminder. She does not pity herself because she has to endure these things; they remind her of how thankful she is that a little boy, a family, gave her this life.
And all of those days being sick did nothing to turn her off to the medical profession. This summer, she's working the night shift as a nurse's assistant at a local nursing home. She comes home after a long day, and there's Max, the scruffy-white friend that got her through the worst times. There's also a nameplate from the Packers' locker room hanging over a window in the living room.
Schmidt plans to go to medical school after college. She wants to be a cardiologist. She remembers how the doctors and nurses took care of her, and how her heart doctor, Steven Zangwill, inspired her. "I want to be just like the people who helped me and saved my life," she says.
Med school is a daunting task for anyone, much less a teenager dealing with the aftermath of a heart transplant. Her parents, of course, worry about her. But Schmidt is unfazed. She has been through worse.
"I believe that if you are passionate about something, you can do anything," she says.
"The sky's the limit."