Alberta heart transplant recipient known as ‘Baby Jessica’ remembered as ‘symbol of strength’
Jessica Diggens lived a life “full of love” in her 31 years.
“She’s an inspiration for a lot of people,” her boyfriend André Laliberté said on Friday.
Born with a malformed heart in 1986, “Baby Jessica,” as she became affectionately known, was the first Canadian infant to survive a heart transplant 10 months later.
At the time, doctors in California gave her a new human heart which was still a relatively new procedure then. The fact that she survived as long as she did was nothing short of a miracle, her family and doctors say.
She died on Wednesday in her home in Black Diamond, Alta.
“Her legacy is that she was a trend-setter obviously, for the heart transplantation… in the U.S. and also in Canada,” her father Greig Diggens said.
Dr. Debra Isaac, who has overseen Jessica’s treatment since she turned 18, said it was “pretty amazing” to see her thrive into adulthood.
“It’s important to understand that she’s definitely a survivor,” Isaac said.
“Her parents let her grow up, let her take responsibility, let her be independent and managed to let go of control. It’s very hard for parents of children with chronic illnesses and problems to do that, so kudos to them, they were amazing.”
Jessica’s life wasn’t without struggle. She’d suffered heart attacks, one of them leading to a triple bypass surgery, and lived with chronic pain. She also struggled with keeping jobs as because of side effects of being immunocompromised.
But her loved ones say she lived “to the fullest,” taking in every opportunity she could to experience new things and enjoy time with those around her, including road trips and spending time with Laliberté’s daughter.
“She lived it the best way that she could. She loved animals,” Greig said, adding that at the time she died she had three cats and two iguanas as pets.
“What kind of excuses can you come up with that can stop you from doing whatever you want?” Laliberté said. “She had all the burdens to bear but she ended up doing all the stuff.”
While Jessica’s family is saddened to see her go, they take solace in the fact that she is at peace now, and will remember her strength and vigor as they say goodbye.
“She was so strong, what she’s been through, what I witnessed throughout the two and a half years, was a big burden to bear,” Laliberté said.
“She’s a symbol of strength. She’s my hero.”
Her cousins say they were inspired by her.
“She had quite a battle through her whole life,” Lynette Miller said. “It wasn’t easy. It was never easy for her.
“She taught me a lot… about courage, empathy,” Miller added. “She was a spark plug, but she was never scared and I want people to know that — she was never scared of this moment.”
Miller said Jessica helped the rest of her family prepare for this moment.
“That was always her biggest concern: how everybody else was feeling and take care of everybody else and never worrying about what she was going through, just how everybody else coping and dealing with things,” cousin Katie Diggens said.
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