Behind SMU's new Spring Game decals, a 13-year-old girl's message of hope

Children's Health

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Alexa Spears expects to shed tears, even at the risk of catching an eye roll from her two daughters, when the SMU football team runs onto the field for its spring football game Friday night. 

SMU’s white helmets have a different flare for this year’s game. The signature red Mustang now has a red balloon clamped in its muzzle, a design her 13-year-old daughter, Annabella, created. SMU’s football players and coaches chose to wear that decal among several submitted by Children’s Health patients. 

“It’s a big deal,” Alexa says. “It’s awesome.”

To Alexa, that design represents two community powerhouses, SMU and Children’s Health, collaborating for a positive impact. But it’s also a testament to Annabella’s fight.

Annabella was born on October 12, 2010, a happy and healthy baby after a pregnancy with zero complications. When she was six weeks old, her parents noticed Annabella’s skin and eyes yellowing. Alexa was a first-time Mom who didn’t know what to do. She called her pediatrician on Wednesday. On Thursday, they were referred to Children’s Medical Center Dallas. They received the diagnosis Friday: biliary atresia, a blockage in the bile ducts from the liver to the gallbladder.

The doctors attempted a Kasai procedure to delay the onset of complications. When that failed, Annabella required a liver transplant.The Spears family spent their first Christmas together in a hospital room, waiting for an organ to save their newborn’s life. But Children’s Health made the place no parent wants to be as joyful as possible. Through a program called “Deck the Halls,” 250-plus wreaths are strung through the corridors. Christmas carolers even stopped by their room.

Annabella got the transplant at eight weeks old. She stayed home for a year to ensure the new liver wasn’t infected or rejected, then was eased into a normal childhood, starting kindergarten at six.

“We will forever be so grateful to Children’s Health for everything they’ve done for Annabella and our family,” Alexa says. “So any time there’s an opportunity to give back or get involved, we’re like, ‘Ok, we’re in.’”

Every year, the Spears family decorates a Christmas tree to brighten the halls they once waited in, bringing joy to the families fighting like they were 13 years ago. 

Annabella’s artwork has developed the same mission. She and her sister, Emmeline, always attended art camps over the summer, and she’s taking an art elective as a seventh grader at the Episcopal School of Dallas. She makes drawings for Christmas cards that will go in the Children’s Health gift shop. Once, she sketched a snowman poking his head out of the corner and almost tossed it before deciding the snowman looked too happy to throw it away. The hospital loved the snowman and turned it into an ornament.

When the decal competition started, Annabella printed out dozens of outlines. She sprawled them across the table and rifled through helmet after helmet, crafting her version of the SMU Mustang. 

In the mid-afternoon two weeks ago, Alexa got an email that Annabella’s helmet was selected. When she broke the news to her daughter after school, Annabella’s eyes widened in shock. Alexa and her husband, Shad, both attended SMU for grad school, but Alexa returned to the campus bookstore to level up their Pony gear. Annabella and her family plan to get to the game early and stay after to meet some of the players and coaches.

Annabella has turned her story into service, one drawing at a time. 

“For families who are in similar situations, if they can see my story that I’m good and healthy right now, it can give them hope and motivation to keep going,” Annabella said.

Since she just got home from school, her father hasn't shown her the pictures SMU posted practicing in her helmet today. She leans over to look at his phone, and that same wide-eyed expression forms. Her drawing, her message, will be on the field Friday night. The shock hasn't settled yet.

"I'm super grateful that I get to be part of it," Annabella says. 

A correction was made April 5: Annabella was diagnosed with biliary atresia when she was six weeks old, not six months old as originally stated. DCTF regrets this error.

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