December 4, 2002: On the Campus
By Melissa Harvis Renny 03
Photo: Among her many activities, heart transplant recipient Jessica Melore 03, shown here in the Tigressions rehearsal room, gives motivational speeches about organ donation. (Frank Wojciechowski)
Sitting next to her in class, hanging out with her on Prospect Avenue, or following her as she leads an Orange Key tour, you would never guess that Jessica Melore 03 suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 16 and underwent a heart transplant nine months later. Yet for Melore, who was named one of Glamour magazines Top Ten College Women for 2002, the last few years have been anything but glamorous.
In the fall of 1998, Melore was beginning her senior year of high school. She was cocaptain of the tennis team, a member of the cheerleading squad, and was getting ready to apply to college.
At a restaurant with her family, Melore began feeling dizzy and lightheaded, with pain in her chest and heaviness in her arms. She was taken to a local hospital emergency room, where the doctor informed her that she was having a massive heart attack.
I looked at him and said, Am I going to die? He didnt say anything, Melore recalls.
As doctors struggled to remove a clot blocking an artery on the left side of her heart, Melore began to crash and lost consciousness. Last rites were performed, yet she clung to life. As an alternative to a transplant, Melore was put on a battery-operated machine that pumped her heart. While still unconscious, she lost circulation in her left leg and it needed to be amputated above the knee.
Until she received the transplant, Melore lived on the battery-powered pump, which required fresh batteries every two hours.
After the crisis, Melore remained in the hospital for six weeks. When she returned to school, she made the most of what was left of her senior year: She learned to walk with a prosthesis, applied to Princeton, captured a lead in the school play, traveled to Disney World, and waited for the heart transplant she needed to save her life.
While other teenagers might have seen this life-changing event as a setback, Melore used it as an opportunity to enlighten others.
I felt like I had no option but to try to get back to a normal lifestyle. I started to give motivational speeches about organ donation and handicapped awareness, Melore says, emphasizing that the four weeks she spent in a wheelchair changed her perspective on life. I told the people I spoke to, Wheelchairs are fun to play in, but not to stay in.
A few days before her graduation, Melore received her long-awaited heart transplant. Three months later, she began her freshman year at Princeton.
Although she was apprehensive about life at college with a new heart and a prosthesis, Melore maintains that her experience here has been only positive.
People dont treat me differently because of my experience, she says. I am able to participate in a lot of activities, and the administration has been very supportive.
In her time at Princeton, Melore has continued to motivate others with her story, giving talks on campus as well as appearing on Hard Copy, Extra, Dateline, and Good Morning America. She has convinced people to become organ donors and has received mail from around the world. Melore also has lived the life of a busy Princeton student. A psychology major, writing her thesis about consumer psychology, she is a member of Cloister Inn, the Tigressions a cappella group, and the disabilities committee, as well as being an Orange Key tour guide. Her biggest obstacle at Princeton has not been keeping up with her daily 30-pill regimen but, rather, navigating Princetons stair-ridden campus with her prosthesis. Melore takes the stairs as she takes the rest of her life, one step at a time.
After applying to be one of Glamours top ten college women last year, Melore received notice in July that she had won the award. In September she joined the other nine recipients for a few days in New York, meeting with top professionals in communications as well as with the editors of Glamour.
As Melore looks toward the future, she wants to pursue a career as a professional public speaker, reminding people about the fragility of life and the beauty of living each day to its fullest.
My doctors believe I was saved for a reason, she says. Maybe this had to happen to someone who could turn it into a learning experience for others.
Melissa Renny 03 is an English major from Linwood, New Jersey.