Last June, Jessica Melore ’03 stood on the stage at a TEDxYouth event in Brooklyn and shared what she’d learned in her 37 years.
“For all the variables that can affect our lives on a day-to-day basis, we believe there is a certain order to the universe and direction our lives should take,” she said. But she continued: “What happens when those best-laid plans don’t work out? Well, I found that by letting go of expectations, it can open you up to opportunities that you never would have envisioned and change your life for the better.”
Melore, who died in September while waiting for a kidney and a second heart transplant, was a three-time cancer survivor. At age 16, she suffered a massive heart attack, which led to the amputation of her left leg and a heart transplant less than three months before she matriculated at Princeton.
She was a world traveler; a foodie who always ate dessert and kept an alphabetized, color-coded, annotated Word document of the New York restaurants she’d visited; a lover of music and people. She devoted herself to sharing her story, helping others, and soaking up every drop of joy life had to offer, despite relentless health challenges.
“There’s something really profound in how much she lived in the 20 years since her transplant,” says her close friend John Kimble ’03. “The music she experienced, the friends, the food and family ... . [Her life] wasn’t defined by illness, it was defined by her.”
During her first bout with cancer, in her sophomore year, Melore kept up a full course load and sang with the Chapel Choir and the a cappella group Tigressions. During her second bout, six years later, she kept working from a hospital bed. During her third bout, eight years after that, she partnered with the American Cancer Society to show other patients that losing your hair doesn’t have to be scary.
Along the way, she became a motivational speaker who addressed audiences around the world, and an ambassador for cancer research, heart health, disability awareness, patients’ rights, and organ donation. She often said the greatest compliment she could receive was when someone signed up to be an organ donor. “For all the illogical and irrational things that seem to happen to us in life, that seem to have no purpose, I knew I had found mine,” she said in the TEDxYouth talk in Brooklyn, about promoting organ donation.
In a video on the cancer-information website Survivor.net, Melore said she was motivated “to live life with a certain vividness” and to try to have as much impact as possible. “I believe that you can choose to live in fear, or you can choose to live your life,” she said.
After celebrating 20 years with her donated heart, Melore entered the hospital July 26 to await a kidney and a second heart transplant. She kept her friends and fans updated on her website and social media and was hopeful until the very end.
Days before dying, she told her mother, Ellen, she had something to say. “It was very hard for her to speak at the end. It took a tremendous effort and energy at that point because she was very, very weak, and so we had to listen carefully,” her mother says.
Melore’s final message: “Thank you for all your healing prayers and well wishes. Thank you for your support. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to know you and love you.”
Ibby Caputo ’03 is a writer, editor, and teacher based in England.
JAN. 4, 1982 | SEPT. 25, 2019