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Jessica's New Life

Posted at: 11/13/2012 1:19 PM
Updated at: 11/13/2012 5:03 PM

“I feel amazing,” Jessica Danielson said as she sat on the couch in her Duluth home. Jessica is happy and healthy.

"I can’t believe how good it feels to have a fully functioning, working heart and liver,” she said.

Just months ago, Jessica's life was on the line.

“I got kind of terrified. I was walking around not knowing how sick I was.”

At age 19, Jessica was diagnosed with Restrictive Cardio Myopathy. The condition meant her heart didn't pump enough blood for her body. At the time, doctors told her she had three years to live.

“But it’s been ten, so I’ve actually done pretty good,” she said smiling.

Jessica may have outlived the prognosis, but her condition was getting worse.

“I was slowing down, wasn’t wanting to do the things I wanted to do—like hang out with friends,” she said.

During a routine check-up, Jessica learned her liver was also damaged. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic told her the lack of blood flow from her heart had damaged the other organ. Now she would need a heart and a new liver.

Ten months ago on doctors orders, Jessica dropped everything and moved to Rochester, Minnesota. The Mayo Clinic became her home. "I  had no idea what life would be like in here at all,” she said.

Jessica was confined to the hospital. She was not allowed outdoors for fear she would become ill. She grew pale, lost weight and her hair thinned.  It was there that her story traveled across the nation. Jessica was featured on ABC's "Nightline" and journalist Bill Weir referred to her as "the sweet-as-pie 30-year-old from Duluth."

Jessica had been at the Mayo for six months when she got the news that was worth the wait - a double organ donor that was perfect for her.

“I was extremely blessed to have the donor that I had. Perfect match, absolutely perfect,” she said.  “You know, eventually it was always, ‘OK, let’s do this, this is what I have to do'.“

Jessica underwent the rare double transplant and a few days later, doctors had her up and walking around. It was a daunting task, but she was able to forge on thanks to her strong will. With the doctors' approval she moved to The Gift of Life Transplant House, a rehabilitation facility in Rochester. 

“They get you moving, they get you exercising. They show you how to improve your body," Jessica said.

Now she is applying what she learned, as she transitions into life on her own back in Duluth. It's a move she faced with mixed emotions. "I was nervous, I was scared to come home,” she said.  “In Rochester, I felt like I was sort of in this protected bubble, where I had all of these specialists and all of my doctors and nurses.”

Jessica is keeping to a heart-healthy diet and she tries to exercise regularly. Much of her time is spent keeping track of what looks like her own personal pharmacy. Many of the medications help keep her body from rejecting the new organs.

The color has returned to her face and she is putting on some much needed weight. Jessica's hair is also getting thicker. They are all signs that her body loves her healthy organs.

She is celebrating this new life at home now, but while she was at The Mayo, she celebrated her 30th birthday. "I love turning 30," she said "I think my life is going to start at 30.”

Her heart and liver now allow her simple pleasures, like going for a walk. Something she was just too tired to do before. "My goal after this whole thing was just to be able to go for a walk and actually talk and enjoy myself," she said. "And I can do that now."

Jessica also has someone to walk by her side, something her condition prompted her to shy away from before. “You’re afraid to do it. Because you’ve got a lot of baggage that most people in their 20s don’t have. ”

Jon and Jessica knew each other before the transplant, but during her time at Mayo, Jon offered to take care of her cats. It was a gesture she says changed everything. "It went from that crush status to 'Oh wow, this guy is really something,' you know?" Jessica told him, "When I get out of here, we’re dating, and he said ‘OK!’" she laughs.

Jessica also returned to work. A member of the WDIO production department, she was welcomed back with open arms.

 “It feels really good to be back to work. I’ve worked here for a long time, about 12 years now, so coming back here is like coming back to family.”

Jessica wants to travel, maybe go back to school. She even would like to encourage others to be donors.  “I think it would really be a great thing to be an advocate for organ donation, now that I’ve gone through it and I’m doing well.”

Throughout the long journey, Jessica has not forgotten the person who made this all possible. Her 21-year-old donor. “This young woman did not die in vain.”

Jessica would like to write her donor's family a letter one day, thanking them. Jessica's mother is also full of gratitude. Gratitude for the young woman who gave life back to her daughter.

“It’s not that she just saved Jessie’s life--she saved our lives,” her mother says. “I would love to tell them thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

And Jessica wants to take that gratitude a step further. She wants to make the most of her new life. She says that is one way she can say thank you. “I just want to live the kind of life that I think my donor and her family would be proud of. “