Using all the strength in her 5-foot-4-inch, 83-pound body to limp up to the mound, 12-year-old Addison "Addie" Rerecich hugs her softball coach and throws the first pitch of the Continental Ranch Little League season.

"Play ball!" she shouts, and flashes a big smile that shows off her new orange braces.

Behind home plate, her mother, Tonya Rerecich, wipes away tears and snaps photos in rapid clicks.

"I just never thought this far into the future," Tonya says, beaming as she watches Addie greet old friends. "It was all about fighting the battle day to day. I pushed dying, funeral plans away. We focused on the fight."

There was certainly reason to celebrate when Addie survived a ruthless illness, received a new set of lungs and was released from the hospital last year. But like other organ transplant recipients, she has a whole new battle to focus on now - staying healthy post-transplant.

Lots of prayers

Addie has not been around this many people in nearly a year - not since she fell ill and almost died so many times that an online community formed around praying for her survival.

For months, Addie could not walk or eat on her own. She could not speak.

Tonya and her husband, Lawrence, were on unpaid leave from their jobs for so long they had to open a bank account and take donations from friends and strangers. Although they have health insurance, their share of medications and doctor visits runs about $1,000 per month, Tonya says.

Addie, an honorary member of the Wildcats Continental Ranch Little League team this season, sits on the sidelines under a sun umbrella as her teammates slap hands and take a lap around the bases to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Earlier in the day, like all days now, she took 14 pills, blew into a machine that measures lung capacity and took her vital signs. A drop of more than 10 percent in lung capacity might mean she's rejecting the lungs she received Sept. 8. She's already had one rejection scare.

Tonight she'll take 14 pills again. She must be extra careful of the sun, as she's more susceptible to skin cancer now. As a transplant recipient, she's also more at risk for kidney damage, diabetes and lymphoma.

Misdiagnosed as virus

Addie first noticed something was wrong after a softball game last year. The previously healthy sixth-grader told her mother she thought she'd pulled a muscle in her right hip. The pain didn't go away and she began getting sick, too.

Over the course of a week, Tonya, herself a registered nurse, twice sought medical help. Both times they were told Addie probably had a virus.

The third time, Tonya drove her daughter to the Diamond Children's Medical Center at the University of Arizona. That same day - May 19, 2011 - Addie went into septic shock.

A brutally aggressive staph infection had taken hold of the athletic sixth-grader. For some reason, her body had a violent reaction and the infection chewed through her lungs. She spent more than three months hooked up to an external lung that breathed for her.

The head of pediatric intensive care at the Diamond Children's Medical Center, where Addie spent more than four months, has said that in his 20 years of practicing medicine, he's never had a patient hooked up to the external-lung life-support system for so long.

But Addie could not breathe on her own, as her lungs were too full of holes. She had to stay on the external lung, get a lung transplant or die.

A milestone week

Two days after the opening ceremonies for Little League, Addie sits at the kitchen counter with a glass of milk, preparing to leave for school.

It's a week of milestones.

Returning to Redeemer Lutheran School will mark her first time back since last year, when she left just weeks shy of finishing sixth grade.

"It's like someone sliced a year out of her life," Tonya says. "She was in sixth grade when she got sick. She's going back to sixth grade. She stopped growing. Everything is starting back from where we left off last year."

Except that so many things are different, too.

About half of lung-transplant recipients begin to show chronic rejection after five years, so keeping Addie healthy is paramount.

The steroids she takes make her pale blond hair fall out. She wakes up every morning with hair on her pillow and now sports a cropped style to make the loss less noticeable.

She wears new glasses because she lacks peripheral vision in her left eye, the effect of a stroke she suffered while hooked up to the external lung.

"I'm half-blind in that eye," she quips. "So I am one-quarter blind."

Her left arm and left leg have limited movement from being immobile for so long. She calls her left arm "Lefty" as it seems to have a life of its own sometimes. The other day, Lefty dropped her Pop-Tart. Lefty has also slapped her in the face.

She has scars, including two prominent ones on her neck from the external-lung lines and the tracheal tube. She had more than 12 surgeries.

She now works out with a personal trainer to help get her strength back. She's graduated from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to walking on her own, though she still needs help for longer distances.

"Grandma said I could use her walker when we go to the fair," Addie tells her mother, referring to this month's Pima County Fair, which Addie is excited to attend with her family.

Tonya makes sure Addie has everything she'll need for school today, including a chair pad and hand sanitizer. The family has hand sanitizer throughout the house, and it's become a habit for Addie to use it numerous times each day.

At school, Addie slides into a mixed fifth- and sixth-grade earth-science class. Her mother remains in the classroom to make sure she's OK, and when the class breaks for lunch, she reminds Addie's classmates to wash their hands and to stay home if they're sick. She has hand sanitizer for the classroom, too.

"I get little preteen eye rolls and smart remarks now," Tonya says of her daughter later. "When she was sick that's all I wanted back. What I wanted was a true miracle."

"Do you want to die?"

At one point last summer, before her transplant, Addie looked at her mother and in a whisper asked whether she was dying.

"No," Tonya recalls saying. "Do you want to die?"

"No," Addie replied.

Tonya also told her daughter she'd get new lungs, despite medical advice to the contrary.

Many times Tonya felt alone as those around her tried to brace her for Addie's death.

Now she feels vigilant and apprehensive, but mostly grateful to have her daughter back home.

"All the promises I made her and myself in the hospital, they are starting to come true."

"I just never thought this far into the future. It was all about fighting the battle day to day. I pushed dying, funeral plans away. We focused on the fight."

Tonya Rerecich, on her daughter, Addison "Addie" Rerecich, who survived a ruthless illness and received a new set of lungs

You can help

Tonya Rerecich is maintaining a Facebook page about her daughter's post-transplant life: www.facebook.com/addiethepinkninja

Donations to cover the family's out-of-pocket medical expenses may be made at any Wells Fargo or Wachovia bank in the U.S. through account number 9894037671, routing number 122105278.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or sinnes@azstarnet.com