Jessica Beth Schwartz, a former Temple journalism major, lived for eight-and-a-half years after her heart transplant.
After her death in 2003 at the age of 23, her mother Janice Schwartz-Donahue and sister Laura Schwartz collaborated with the Gift of Life Donor Program to start a scholarship fund for transplant recipients in her honor. Money is granted to help other young transplant recipients in the Philadelphia area make the most of the extra life they’ve been given.
The 13th annual “Jessie’s Day” fundraiser, held Nov. 8 at the Independence Seaport Museum, was organized to raise money for the fund and encourage more people to become organ donors.
Jessica Schwartz was born as a “blue baby,” referring to the blue complexion of a newborn from lack of oxygen in the blood. She had a congenital heart disease in which her pulmonary artery and aorta were reversed, and underwent her first open-heart surgery at 10 months old. After living a healthy 14 years, she went into chronic congestive heart failure. She needed a transplant, which, fortunately, she received.
“I’ve never seen someone more excited,” Laura Schwartz said. “There was just pure joy because it was going to save her life.”
With this joy came a sense of responsibility. Jessica Schwartz’s donor was a 16-year-old boy who died in a car accident, and she was determined his gift would not go to waste. As an active volunteer for the Gift of Life Donor Program, she traveled to various high schools and colleges telling her story and advocating for more organ and tissue donations. It is a cause her family continues today.
“In Philadelphia, there are about 6,000 people on the list, and 20 people die in the United States every day waiting,” Janice Schwartz-Donahue said. “So that’s very important to us, knowing that there are 123,000 people nationally on the list. That’s what we get on our soapbox about.”
In addition to activism, Jessica Schwartz took up art to reflect on her condition. Her colorful and abstract self-portrait is now the logo for Jessie’s Day.
“The psychologists had a field day with [her art], because it was very much like looking through someone’s soul and seeing what they were going through,” Laura Schwartz said. “When she didn’t know how to express herself, that was her voice.”
Before transferring to Temple, Jessica Schwartz spent two years studying at Harcum College, where she was an editor of her school newspaper. That inspired her to channel her creativity into a new medium.
“Part of the idea of becoming a journalism major was, ‘I want to write my story and tell everybody what I’ve been through,’” Janice Schwartz-Donahue said.
Jessica Schwartz enjoyed her time at Temple, where she wrote poetry and articles for The Temple News. She was only one credit shy of advancing to her senior year when complications sent her back to the hospital, and she was bedridden for the last six months of her life.
“I hated school, and Jessie was the opposite of me,” Laura Schwartz said. “She wanted an education.”
Jessica Schwartz’s inability to realize her dream of earning a diploma inspired her family to help other transplant recipients achieve what she could not. They learned during her college application process that no Pennsylvania-based scholarships for such students existed.
But now with the Jessica Beth Schwartz Memorial, more than $100,000 has been donated to help nearly 50 students. Lindsay Truesdale received $2,500 as one of three recipients this year, and will attend the University of Tampa in the spring to study biology.
“I was really grateful,” Truesdale said. “It made me realize that I do have the same potential to be great. I think funding is universal support to tell [transplant recipients] not to give up.”
This year “Jessie’s Day” featured a live band, free food from local restaurants and a silent auction.
Despite the charity’s success, Jessica Schwartz’s mother and sister said they are not satisfied. They hope future events will raise even more money so they can give larger scholarships, and spread enough awareness to cut down the number of people on the organ transplant waiting list.
“We owe it to her to do this forever and make it bigger every year,” Laura said. “She was such a larger-than-life person.”
Brianna Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.