Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Jessica Zampieri is committed to giving back to the donation and transplantation world and connecting with those within it. As a certified volunteer for hospitals in New Jersey and New York, Jessica decided to volunteer her time at the 2020 Reimagined Transplant Games in New Jersey just a few weeks ago. Jessica was a passionate volunteer, full of energy and eager to spread the mission of organ donation with hundreds of people at American Dream. She is a liver transplant recipient, author and public speaker, and account executive living in New Jersey with her husband and two boys. After hearing Jessica’s story and learning about her book, Surrender, the TransplantNATION staff knew almost instantly that Jessica’s story would be a perfect addition to the magazine.
Jessica grew up in the small town of Brookville, Ohio. In 2011, at the age of 28, Jessica was living on her own in Dayton, Ohio and working as a sales executive at LexisNexis when she started noticing strange symptoms. She felt tired and fatigued and couldn’t figure out why. “I was kind of embarrassed to admit how tired I was, I was only 28 years old,” recalled Jessica. She also developed inconsistent allergic reactions to foods such as eggs. After two years of dealing with constant body aches and tiredness, her symptoms continued to worsen, and her body started to deteriorate. “I could feel it in my bones, my bones felt like they were burning,” said Jessica. Additionally, she experienced brain fog and confusion. “I remember walking through a grocery store aimlessly because I couldn’t remember what I needed or what I was doing there.”
One day, Jessica passed out in her office at work, and that is when she decided to address her unusual symptoms. On May 31, 2011, Jessica went to her doctor’s office, thinking maybe it was just a case of mononucleosis (mono). The doctor knew from the start that this was much more serious than mono, she need a liver transplant. After running multiple tests, they found that Jessica’s liver enzymes were extremely high. Jessica’s doctor told her that she needed to go to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center immediately, to see a specialist. She was taken to UC Health in an ambulance that same day. Once Jessica got to the hospital, they ran more tests and found that she was experiencing acute liver failure.
Jessica’s doctors believed this was caused by her high intake of protein and supplements when she was very dedicated to fitness and dieting in her early twenties. Her “healthy” lifestyle got to an unhealthy point when she started drinking nutrition shakes and supplements in addition to three protein focused meals, counting calories, and restricting herself. “I remember the doctor looking at me and saying, ‘You’re lucky that you’re alive. You’re going to need a transplant.’” She was shocked by his words, to say the least. Other than those words, Jessica doesn’t remember much from that day. She was very confused due to the toxins in her brain caused by the high enzyme levels in her liver. Due to the severity of her case, Jessica was listed #1 for a transplant in the tri-state area which, at the time, included Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.
After a few days in the hospital, Jessica’s health took a drastic turn. She fought hard for her life for ten long days. The medical team needed to get the toxins out of her body and unfortunately, they had to flush them out. This was an extremely painful and defeating experience for Jessica. “I had no idea what was going on, only that the pain was unbearable,” recalled Jessica. She was in and out of consciousness for most of her time waiting for a transplant. She doesn’t remember much, but she does remember her grandfathers hand reaching out to her on the anniversary of his death. This provided comfort to Jessica, making her feel like things could get better. Jessica’s mother, who was a nurse at the time, was instrumental in advocating for Jessica and pushing the doctors to do more while her daughter’s health was deteriorating before her eyes. Jessica’s condition became so severe that she was moved up to #1 on the national waiting list.
In the moments Jessica was awake, she remembers feeling scared she might die. Now looking back on it, Jessica believes her grandfather’s hand reaching out was him showing her a helping hand and was trying to tell her that everything was going to be okay. A few days later, she received life changing news. On June 10, 2011, Jessica’s nurse came into her room to tell her that she had a match for a liver. While waiting for her surgery, she started to think about her donor. “Why do I get to live, and he doesn’t? It was difficult to come to terms with the guilt I felt, even in the midst of my gratitude and wonder. There was no getting around that fact that I was alive because an eighteen-year-old boy from Ohio had died.”
While going into surgery, she thanked her donor, and prayed for a successful transplant. A few hours later, doctors told her family that the surgery was indeed a success. Her family was overjoyed that this crazy journey was finally over and looked forward to bringing her home to relax and recover from the chaotic weeks she had just endured. Little did they know, this was not the end of Jessica’s journey. The day after her surgery, Jessica was eating ice chips in her hospital bed when the nurse came to check on her. Immediately, the nurse noticed Jessica’s lips were purple. They discovered she had a ruptured blood clot in her leg. “My abdomen became flooded with blood, about twelve liters of it. My blood pressure had plummeted to the point of being essentially nonexistent.” This caused her new liver to detach itself. She was immediately taken back into the operating room for emergency surgery. Jessica remembers thinking to herself, “this is how I am going to die.”
While they were wheeling her into the OR, Jessica flatlined. In that moment, Jessica had an out of body experience. “I could see myself on the hospital bed as they lifted my body onto the operating table, it was like I was looking down on myself,” described Jessica. “I made a promise, right then and there, that if I made it out of this alive, I would learn to love the body God had given me. If I had been able to accept myself as I was in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this life-threatening situation now. I just hoped I’d get a chance to make things right.” The doctors were able to reattach her liver successfully and she was brought back to her hospital room where her family was anxiously waiting to hear how things went.
The following days were some of Jessica’s hardest. “The pressure on my lungs was unbearable - I still felt like I was drowning inside of my own body.” She couldn’t talk because she was on a ventilator, so she had a white board that she used to communicate with her family and medical team. At one point, she wrote “Surrender” on the white board. “I saw an image of Jesus out my window, and I knew it was time to let go and give up to God and let Him decide what happens next.” Quite unexpectedly, with her family by her side, Jessica slowly started to recover without any more complications. She was taken off the ventilator, began walking, and on June 20th, just eight days after her transplant, Jessica was discharged from the hospital.
The word “surrender” continued to play out as a theme in Jessica’s life over the course of the next few months. For the past 28 years, she was trying to be perfect and on top of her game, but more importantly in control. This experience forced Jessica to admit to herself that she couldn’t control this situation on her own. She learned to surrender. This idea inspired her to write a book about her experience.
“The gratitude I feel for my life today is something I hold on to every day. I never want to forget how grateful I am. With this book, I was able to express my gratitude to my donor and his gift.”
Jessica’s book is titled, Surrender: What My Liver Transplant Taught Me About Control and Self-Acceptance. Jessica shares the ups and downs she faced throughout her 20 days at the hospital, what she learned about herself and how she learned to let go of things out of her control. She also talks about guilt. Jessica struggled with feeling guilty after her transplant, which is a common reaction of many transplant recipients. A few months post-transplant, Jessica connected with her donor’s family and found out her donor’s name was Dustin. Jessica does everything in her power to honor Dustin on a day-to-day basis.
After her transplant, Jessica moved to Manhattan where she met her now-husband, Michael. Today, they are living in New Jersey with their two sons, Robbie and Paulie. She continues to work in the sales world but is eager to get more involved in promoting organ donation and transplantation. In addition to her book, Jessica has talked about her transplant journey at various speaking engagements around the country. Her passion for organ donation is contagious and her story others to become a registered organ donor.