A long 12 years ago, in a Los Angeles far, far away ... Noah Bella Michaelis was born with a congenital heart defect.
She was diagnosed with a combination of heterotaxy syndrome, dextrocardia, and a single-ventricle defect — meaning, among other things, that her heart formed on the opposite side of her body.
She's also a huge fan of "Star Wars," although the verdict's still out on whether that's a congenital condition or something that developed over time.
In her short life so far, Noah has already undergone four open-heart surgeries, and numerous lengthy hospital stays.
In "Star Wars" terms, that's kind of like battling your best friend on the lava planet of Mustafar, but with less dramatic posturing and more endless bouts of hospital-induced boredom interspersed with moments of fear and relief.
Noah passes her recovery time in the hospital with homework, marathons of Minecraft and Settlers of Catan, and working with her parents on her lemonade stand and backyard festival fundraisers that have helped to raise more than $60,000 so far for the Hopeful Hearts Foundation.
But after too much time spent in hospitals, even a resilient kid like Noah needs an extra-special pick-me-up.
Fortunately, there are organizations like the For the Win Project that offer fantastical surprises and superheroic opportunities for kids like Noah who are stuck in the children's ward for weeks or months at a time.
When a nurse asked Noah who her favorite superhero was — not-so-inconspicuously-inquiring because of an upcoming kind of special visit — Noah offered a rather unconventional answer: Darth Vader.
Yep. Noah's favorite superhero is ... this guy:
OK, so maybe the Jedi-turned-Dark-Lord-of-the-Sith isn't exactly the first role model that comes to mind.
For most of us, the iconic image of Darth Vader emerging from the smoke for his first on-screen appearance is, erm, well, not something we usually associate with "happy thoughts."
When you think about it, though, Noah's affinity for Vader makes a lot of sense.
"I always found Darth Vader to be such a strong character," Noah says. "I'm short for my age, and I liked that he was really tall and so it made me feel tall."
Like Noah, Vader has lived through plenty of physical hardships. He endured immense physical pain and had to rely on technology to save his failing body, just like she has, and he still managed to become the second-most-powerful person in the galaxy.
And, oh yeah, let's not forget that time he redeemed himself by overthrowing the Emperor and restoring balance to The Force. That was cool too.
"Being Darth Vader kind of helped me step away from being in the hospital," Noah says.
For The Win Project arranged a special "Star Wars"-themed celebration for Noah at her favorite restaurant , complete with stormtroopers and a "Darth Noah" photoshoot. They even surprised her with messages from some special celebrity guests, which made her smile brighter than the twin suns of Vader's home planet of Tatooine. Somehow. It's even more delightful than it sounds.
Sure, the photoshoot and celebrity messages aren't a cure. But for one day, Darth Noah got to revel in the stoic, black-caped confidence of her hero.
And sometimes that's all you need to keep going.