Heart Recipient Jessica Melore Meets Teen Donor's Family for First Time

Jessica Melore was 16 when she suffered a massive heart attack.

December 29, 2010, 7:30 PM

Dec. 30, 2010 — -- Eleven years ago, Jessica Melore was a happy, healthy 16 year-old, and even the co-captain of her high school tennis team. But everything changed in one moment.

At a family dinner one night in 1998, Melore suddenly collapsed. What was not immediately clear was that she had suffered a heart attack so massive, doctors would not expect her to live.

"We were in shock that this could possibly be happening," said Ellen Melore, Jessica's mom, with tears in her eyes. "It's just a nightmare -- it's not really happening."

Jessica Melore was rushed to the hospital.

"I looked up at him and I said, 'Am I going to die?'" Melore said, recalling a conversation with her doctor. "He just looked at me and didn't say anything, and that was probably the scariest moment."

Her lungs began filling with liquid -- she was starting to crash. Her doctors did not expect her to live through the night. A priest administered last rites.

"I just pictured her room and her prom dress hanging up and everything and [thought], 'How -- how could this be happening?'" Ellen Melore said.

A heart transplant was Melore's only hope. Doctors tried for days to stabilize her and an infection in her leg led forced its amputation. The family waited, but still no heart was available.

"From day to day, minute to minute, we didn't know what was gonna happen," said Thomas Melore, Jessica's father.

But then, an experimental heart pump made Jessica a walking medical miracle. It saved her life.

Diane Sawyer interviewed Melore in April of 1999 on "Good Morning America." By then, she had been living on the pump for seven months. Sawyer asked her if she could walk and go to school.

"Well, I believe that you create your own limitations, so ... anything can take place in some way, shape, or form," Melore said.

Girl Gets a Heart

Dr. Satoshi Furukawa told Sawyer that the benefits of a heart pump far outweighed the risks because it was simply the only option.

"She would have died without this device because there's no heart sitting on a shelf for a transplantation," Furukawa said. "She needed something at that very moment, and this was the device that was sitting on our shelf."

Not only did Melore go to school, but she went on class trips and performed in the school musical. She even went to her senior prom -- all while living on the artificial heart pump.

"She's always been strong willed and had a strong personality -- but I think we really saw that strong will in her after this happened," said Matthew Melore, Jessica's brother.

Four days before her high school graduation, Jessica Melore got the call she and her family had been waiting for. A heart was available.

"We were excited about it and also nervous," said her father.

When she woke up from the surgery, Melore said the first thing she did was feel for her heart.

What Jessica didn't know was that at the same time she was getting a second chance at life, another young girl lost hers.

Shannon Eckert, 18, was fatally injured in a car accident. But Eckert, who loved horses and writing, turned out to be an organ donor.

In November 1999, Melore spoke again with "Good Morning America." Charles Gibson asked her if her she knew anything about the donor of her heart.

"I know she was an 18-year-old from Pennsylvania," said Melore. "I'm just eternally grateful for her and her parents for making this -- such an overwhelmingly generous decision at such a difficult time."

Melore said she wrote Eckert's family an anonymous letter.

"I thanked them and, you know, expressed my extreme appreciation for what they did," Melore told Gibson. "I told them about myself and that I would be able to achieve my dream of going to Princeton, and that I was just very grateful."

Eckert's mother wrote back and the two began a sporadic correspondence over the years to come, but never met.

Emotions Flow When Families First Meet

Melore went on to graduate from Princeton in 2003. For the past six years, she has been working on outreach programs with motor vehicle departments to encourage people to sign up as organ donors when they get their licenses.

"I feel so fortunate to be working in this field because it doesn't feel like a job," Melore said.

Melore said the spirit and memory of Eckert is always with her. When Melore went to Costa Rica last year, she said she rode a horse in Eckert's honor. She called it one of the most defining experiences of her life.

But throughout the years, Melore had never met Eckert's family -- until now. Every year in the Rose Parade, Donate Life has a float honoring organ donors. This year, Eckert will be among the people being honored, with Melore riding along.

"I try to live my life in honor of Shannon and try to keep her memory and her legacy alive through mine," said Melore, "because I feel like we're living -- I feel like I am living for the both of us."

Just before Christmas -- the two families came to the offices of "The Gift of Life" Donor Program -- and met for the very first time.

Tammy Eckert, Shannon's mother was too emotional to say anything until the moment Melore walked through the door. Then hardly any words were needed. The two embraced as more hugs and tears followed.

Ellen Melore thanked Tammy Eckert as they hugged.

"I so feel your pain, for what you went through, you are a hero to so many people," she said.

Tammy Eckert responded, "Thank you. Shannon is the hero."

"It was so hard to lose Shannon -- and I know all the work that Jessica does," said Tammy Eckert. "Shannon's life wasn't in vain. She lives on. And through Jessica, other people can learn that, yes, you lose your loved one, but that person will live on and do great things."

Click HERE to find out more about organ donation in your state.

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