Words weren't necessary.
Jessica Melore simply, quietly walked over to her heart donor's mother and gave her a long, hard hug.
The 28-year-old from Hell's Kitchen suffered a sudden heart attack 12 years ago that was so massive, doctors didn't expect her to live through the night. She survived on a mechanical heart pump for nine months.
But for the Melore family's prayers to be answered, the Eckert family, from Mechanicsburg, Pa., had to live through their worst nightmare.
Shannon Eckert was killed in a car accident in June 1999. She was 18. She was also an organ donor, and that selfless decision led to Jessica being given a second chance at life.
Wednesday at the Gift of Life Donor Program office in Philadelphia, Jessica Melore finally met Shannon's mother.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she got out, over sniffles, while Tammy Eckert repeated, "You're welcome" as emotional family members looked on.
"How do you convey to the mother who lost her daughter what it meant to my parents, who very nearly were in the same position, for giving me this gift?" asks Jessica.
"How do you express how it feels to put your hand over your heart and feel a beat that reassures you that your life will go on?"
Jessica's mother, Ellen, her father, Thomas, and brother Matthew were also on hand to greet the Eckert family. Shannon's grandmother, Donna Potteiger, was there, as were Shannon's uncle Gui Eckert and her godparents, Melvin and Patricia Underkoffler.
"Shannon was a good kid," her mother says. "She was very giving, very loving. She would do anything for you. I know that she lives on in Jessica, and I am so proud of both of them."
Shannon Eckert was a bubbly high school senior. "I was angry and upset at first," her mother says of her death. "I thought, why me?
"It took a while for the healing process to work. Even though your loss is tragic, sad and sorrowful, organ donation helps other people and saves lives. Shannon went young, but her death wasn't in vain."
Jessica's isn't the only life that Shannon saved. Her left kidney and pancreas went to a 51-year-old man, her right kidney saved a 49-year-old man, her liver was donated to a 48-year-old, and another recipient received the gift of sight from her corneas.
"My daughter is truly a hero," says Tammy.
But it is what Jessica did with Shannon's heart that made possible the meeting of the two families, now linked together.
"I've always felt that I'm living for the both of us, for me and Shannon, for that chance that she couldn't have," Jessica says. "I went zip-lining for the first time in Costa Rica last year, and I rode a horse, because Shannon really loved horses. I've walked the Great Wall of China. I've climbed the Parthenon and traveled all over Europe."
In September 1998, Jessica was celebrating her aunt's birthday at a restaurant with her family when she became dizzy and felt sharp pains in her chest, neck and arms. The Somerville (N.J.) High School senior assumed that it was an allergic reaction to the food.
"I was actually surprised when they called 911," she says.
The 16-year-old tennis captain had suffered a massive heart attack. A blood clot had lodged in the artery leading to the left side of her heart.
"I looked the doctor in the eye, and I said, 'Am I going to die?'?" Jessica recalls.
"He looked at me and didn't say anything. That terrified me. I thought to myself, Is this it? It can't be. I have my whole life ahead of me. When you're 16, the last thing you think is that you're going to be facing you own mortality."
Doctors removed the clot, but her condition deteriorated. During a failed bypass surgery, her lungs began filling with fluid. Jessica had her last rites read to her. She wasn't expected to live through the night.
She stabilized, but complications from the surgery cut off circulation to her left leg. Infection set in. Her parents made the agonizing decision to amputate their daughter's leg above the knee.
Jessica needed an immediate heart transplant, but no matching hearts were available, so surgeons implanted a device into her abdomen to pump for the decimated left side of her heart. The left ventricular assist device (or LVAD) connected to a battery pack outside of her body. It would keep Jessica alive during the nine-month wait for a heart.
Still, she was determined to live the life of a normal teenager. With a prosthetic left leg and carrying the LVAD, she went back to school in November.
"One of my biggest fears is missing out on life and not making the most of it," she says. "I wanted to participate in as many high school activities as I possibly could, and my friends and my family and my community rallied around me."
She was a lead in the school musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." She went on the choir trip to Disney World, was secretary of the school's glee club and made National Honor Society. Her classmates named her prom queen that spring.
She almost didn't get to wear her crown. She became dangerously anemic that week, and spent the 24 hours before the dance in the hospital. She rebounded just in time and was able to don her gown and disguise the LVAD battery inside her purse. In her prom pictures, no one would guess that the beaming brunette isn't a perfectly healthy teen.
"Prom night was really great, like the school play was really great, because I felt like myself again," she says. "I didn't want what happened to me to rob me of those experiences. I felt like I was reclaiming my life."
Four days before graduation - at 2 a.m. - the Melores got the call that a heart was available.
"I was excited, but I was also nervous, because open-heart surgery is a very dramatic surgery," Jessica says. "I remember glancing back at my parents, not knowing if I would ever see them again, as I was being wheeled toward the operating room."
After the successful transplant, Jessica says, she realized that for her to live, somebody had to have died.
"Of course, I knew that in order for me to get this heart that someone had passed away," she says. "I didn't know all the details at the time, but they told me it was an 18-year-old girl from Pennsylvania.
She wrote the donor's family, though under the Gift of Life program's protocol, their identity was not revealed.
"It's so hard to put into words how grateful you are for someone saving your life," says Jessica, her voice cracking slightly. "But I tried my best, and I said in my letter that I would be able to attend Princeton, and that I had so many hopes and dreams for the future that they have made possible by giving me this gift."
Three months later, she enrolled at Princeton University. "I had a wonderful freshman year," she says. She made friends, joined the school's choir and became a motivational speaker.
But Jessica's health woes weren't over. In July 2000, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I was in disbelief, really, because I had gone through so much and overcome so much," she says. "I was ready to move on with my life, and now I was hearing that I needed to have chemotherapy, and I was going to lose all my hair, but at least there was reason to think that the cancer was curable."
She was determined not to let chemo interfere with schoolwork. "It was really important to me to still attend college," she says. "I needed to have that balance in my life." She went for outpatient chemotherapy every three weeks from August until December 2000, and by January 2001 she was in remission.
In 2003, she graduated from Princeton with a degree in psychology. She moved to New York Cityand got a job with the N.J. Organ and Tissue-Sharing Network, a nonprofit donation group.
Then in October 2007, the cancer came back.
"Sometimes I look back at my life, and it's hard to believe that all of this happened," she says. "There were times when I was angry and frustrated. I realized that you can't always control what happens to you, but you can control what you do about it."