Note: Atara mourns the loss of Jessica Melore who passed away on September 25, 2019 while awaiting a new heart and kidney transplant. Her memory continues to fuel our urgency in developing new therapies for devastating diseases.
“My name is Jessica Melore. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I love being alive.” As Jessica speaks, every syllable of each word is clearly and empathically pronounced with a joy that radiates from the depths of someone who has met and escaped the grips of death—more than once. Now in her mid-30s, Jessica has survived a massive heart attack, heart transplant, leg amputation, and three bouts of cancer. Her story is one of will, determination, and hope that has and continues to inspire thousands of people around the world.
At 16 years old, Jessica had experienced no prior health issues. She hadn’t even spent a night in the hospital, until one evening, while out at dinner to celebrate her aunt’s birthday, she began to feel dizzy and lightheaded. She quietly excused herself from the table and made her way to the bathroom. After 10 minutes without her return, her parents began to worry. When Ellen, her mother, found her in the bathroom, she was as white as a ghost, unable to stand up. Feeling pressure-pains through her head and neck, as well as heaviness in her arms, her parents laid her down on the floor. Jessica thought, at worst, she was having an allergic reaction to the food she ate. As 911 was called, Jessica felt shocked and frustrated as she had important homework to finish, and crucial auditions for the school musical the next day. “I remember thinking, I don’t have time to go to the hospital,” recounts Jessica. Fortunately, she did, and through an echocardiogram, doctors determined that Jessica was having a massive heart attack caused by a blood clot lodged in the left side of her heart. The doctors didn’t know what caused the clot, as it wasn’t cholesterol or drug related.
Even though they caught the heart attack, Jessica wasn’t expected to live through the night. “It was frightening and surreal,” Ellen says. “We asked, how could this be happening to our daughter when she is perfectly healthy, athletic, and all of sudden you’re telling us she has a 30% chance of dying?” Jessica and her family traveled to three different hospitals searching for the proper care, until the last hospital finally managed to stabilize her. It became clear that Jessica needed a heart transplant as soon as possible, and there was a shortage of hearts and the waitlist was long. It was a stormy night, and the option of air-lifting was out of the question. With few options to choose from, doctors implanted an LVAD (left ventricular assist device), a battery-operated, mechanical pump that assists the main pumping chamber of the heart to move blood to the rest of the body. The size of a large donut, the metal device was implanted into Jessica’s stomach. Because the LVAD was an experimental device at the time, Jessica was monitored as part of a clinical trial while she waited in hope for a heart.
After the LVAD implant, Jessica was hanging on by a thread. A balloon pump had been placed in her leg to assist blood flow to her heart and other organs. Within a few days, however, the balloon pump ended up cutting off circulation in her leg, leading to an infection. “If that infection spread to the LVAD which was pumping blood to my whole body,” explains Jessica, “it would have been all over… At that moment I had to choose: my leg or my life.”
Groggy from heavy sedation, Jessica awoke from surgery to see that one of her legs was shorter than the other. Her left leg had been amputated just above the knee. She was heavily medicated, and it took some time to fully process the impact this would have on her life. “It was pretty overwhelming,” remembers Jessica. “I would ask myself, ‘why did this happen?’ It seemed unfair that all my friends were living their normal lives and my life was stuck in the hospital. I just wanted to go back and be a normal teenager.” She remembers telling the doctors she needed to be out of the hospital at the end of the week at the latest, because she says, “I had to reclaim my life. I felt that so much had been taken from me already that I was ready to take it back.”
Jessica was motivated in school with a strong interest in writing and speaking. “I always saw speaking as a way of not only imparting knowledge,” explains Jessica, “but sharing what could be a mundane subject matter and making it fascinating and engaging for people.” Enjoying this challenge, she knew she wanted to work in public speaking, but wasn’t sure exactly how. For a time, she was interested in broadcast journalism, either being a reporter or anchorwoman. Little did she know that her life’s circumstances would open the doorway to speaking to audiences across the world.
Jessica would not return to being that “normal” teenager she longed to be. With a battery-operated, experimental heart-pump implanted in her stomach and a newly amputated leg, she needed time to integrate, and wait for another heart. There were thousands of people on the heart-transplant waiting list. The wait could last for months or years and she may never receive one at all. Meanwhile, she adjusted to the mechanics of her new body and the LVAD, living with precaution, and with the help of a new prosthetic leg, re-learning how to walk.
In the process, Jessica realized there were ways she could reclaim her life, and she was determined to find alternate paths to still do the things she loved. “I was set from the beginning in doing all my activities in school, while my parents laughed in disbelief.” In love with music and theater, she was an active member of the choir, and performing in the school musical felt especially important. Aware of her passion and talent, the theater director told her he’d audition her at bedside if he needed to and selected an understudy for her in case the heart transplant came during the performances. Jessica played a lead role in the musical, and as timing would have it, she was able to participate fully. “I felt like I had my old life back,” says Jessica with a smile.
For nine long months, Jessica and her family waited for a heart. Then, in the middle of the night, the phone rang. Jessica’s new heart was ready. In the way they had prepared for months, they hurried to the hospital. Knowing the risks involved, their nerves were high, though so was their excitement. “I also knew there was a family out there that was grieving a loved one as I was getting my second chance at life,” says Jessica.
The transplant was successful, and just days before her high school graduation, Jessica had a new heart. “When I woke up, my hand went to my heart, and it was beating!” rejoices Jessica. “I had to miss the ceremony, but my brother received my diploma for me, and I figured the heart was a pretty decent graduation gift.” Three months later, Jessica began attending Princeton University.
Shortly after she received the heart, Jessica wrote a letter to her donor family, trying to put into words how grateful she was for this extraordinary moment. “How do you thank someone for saving your life?” she questioned. “I did the best I could and one year later I got a letter back.” The letter was kept anonymous at first, but it ended up being disclosed that it was from a woman named Tammy who had lost her own daughter, Shannon, an 18-year-old girl from Pennsylvania. Tammy described how Shannon had also loved writing and singing. Over the years, Tammy and Jessica eventually began a correspondence, culminating in an invitation to the Donate Life Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, where Jessica rode on a float that honored the late Shannon and got introduced to some of her extended family. “It was a moment I will never forget.”
On that day, Jessica learned of Shannon’s great love for horses, which inspired her to seek an opportunity to ride. During a summer trip in Costa Rica, Jessica and a friend set off on horseback through the rainforest. The horses ran fast, and the heart Shannon and Jessica shared raced. Riding horses was new to Jessica, but she felt complete trust. “It made me feel so alive. I saw it as a tribute to Shannon. I feel like I’m living for the both of us, so I wanted to honor her in that way.”
Riding fast horses was the tip-of-the-iceberg for Jessica and her risk-taking. “I learned that I could take certain risks, push myself, and get out of my comfort zone a little bit more. When you come so close to facing death, and you realize how easily it all could have been over in just an instant, you want to do as much living as possible—to squeeze as much life out of any moment as you can.”
After Jessica survived her heart attack and leg amputation, she started getting requests to speak at different schools, businesses, and organizations. “I made a decision at a very early point to be open about my experiences,” recalls Jessica, “because I wasn’t embarrassed about my experience, and I wanted people to be able to be inspired by it.” She quickly saw the impact she could have when she gave a presentation at a school that was focused on disability awareness. It was for a program called “Everybody Counts,” where they had able-bodied kids in wheelchairs during the week to understand a different perspective. “I think being able to educate kids from a young age, to learn that there are all different kinds of people, but we are all human with similar wants, desires, and feelings, is invaluable. Just because a missing limb might make someone different on the outside, it does not make us different on the inside.”
After her freshman year of college, Jessica felt a lump in her throat, which she learned was tumorous. After visiting two oncologists, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Large B-cell lymphoma caused by PTLD (post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder). Jessica would start chemotherapy immediately. “I had read in the fine print with some of my medications [post transplant] that there was a risk with having a suppressed immune system when taking medications to prevent my body from rejecting my heart, and that I could be more at risk for things like cancer. But that always seemed like a small chance and something that was further down the line.” The reality however, was stark. “When I first was diagnosed with PTLD, I pictured my gravestone. I came back from school and people asked how I was doing, and I didnt know what to tell them. I didn’t want them to think that I was going to die.”
Jessica made the plan to stay in school and fight her cancer. To stay hopeful, she surrounded herself with schoolwork and friends. Because her chemotherapy treatments were so regimented, she could plan her schoolwork and social engagements between them. “I’m a big fan of planning for joy in your life, so that you always have things to look forward to. That is what always kept me motivated through my journey.” Jessica’s teachers were understanding and worked with her when she needed extra time for assignments.
Jessica chose to major in psychology at Princeton, as it was closely tied to her interest in communications and understanding what motivates certain behaviors, in particular health behaviors. “I was beginning to think about how I influenced people through my speaking and how that could be translated into the health field using different psychological principles. What does a person need to hear to sign up to become an organ donor? Why are there so few organ donors out there? What are the barriers and how can we change those behaviors?” Whether it was about smoking cessation or getting proper cancer screenings, Jessica’s own experiences started to influence the content of her speeches.
Jessica eventually beat her cancer, graduated from Princeton, and began working in organ donation advocacy while continuing to be a motivational speaker. But that path was interrupted, when cancer hit a second time—six-and-a-half years into remission from the first cancer—as yet another form of PTLD, (non-Hodgkin’s) Burkitt’s lymphoma. She was prescribed intensive chemotherapy for three weeks each month and continuous IV treatment. Four years after graduating from Princeton, she was now living and working in New York and didn’t know what would happen to her apartment, social life, and her job. “That was the biggest emotional blow because I’d always relied on being surrounded by friends, family, and distractions.” She decided to actively seek out happiness. “For that one week outside of the hospital I planned every moment of every day, from breakfast, lunch, and dinner with my friends—and every moment in between.”
Jessica defeated lymphoma yet again, but her battles with cancer were still not over. A few years later, cancer reared its head a third time as endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine lining). Again, not a relapse, but a cancer that normally affects women over age 50. Jessica was 33. This time she decided she was going to be vocal about the cancer while she was going through it. Up until that point, Jessica had only talked about her experiences in hindsight. “I wanted to take people through the journey—to show them that losing your hair doesn’t have to be scary.” She had a total laparoscopic hysterectomy, and wrote about it, sharing her experience so that other women as well as medical professionals would be aware of their symptoms, so they were not ignored or misdiagnosed. In the end, Jessica proved yet again, stronger than malignant cells, and beat cancer a third time. “Because I was able to be treated at an early stage, I am alive, once again,” she states.
To commemorate her journey, Jessica holds up her Wonder Woman wristband, a golden band with a red star that she received while speaking on a panel for women’s heart health. The wristband was something that always stuck with her, and she wore it during all her chemotherapy appointments and speaking engagements. She has come to identify with it. “We all have a little Wonder Woman within us, and it’s just a matter of tapping into it and believing in yourself. A lot of people have said to me, ‘I never could have gone through what you’ve been through,’ but if someone were to ask me before I went through this experience, I might have had the same doubt about myself. It’s not until you’re in the situation and put to the test that you realize how much you are capable of.”