Episode 5 of 6
“We all wore pink to her funeral.”
Jessica got her name from another special little girl who commanded plenty of attention. So it’s no surprise when she lands her in front of the TV cameras – in Hollywood and Nashville. But even that’s no match for a promise made at the funeral of a friend who didn’t survive childhood cancer. A promise that changes her life. Again.
00:00 Allison: Well, I think the funny thing that happened is, right away, she became a teenager. She was almost 12 when it was done. And so right away, she became a teenager and everything that goes with that. All things teenager, boys, and clothes, and make-up, and mean girls, just whatever, all the normal things. The normal life, it came back because she was still always so close to that group, that tight-knit group of friends that she had had. Life was on a totally different trajectory when she was done.
00:39 Narrator: Jessica sets out on a new path, filled with college, with cameras and lights of a movie set.
00:47 Jessica: Everything around you is in slow motion, and you're like, "This is crazy. How is this happening right now?" This whole crew is here from LA, and somehow Billy Ray Cyrus just said a line to me, and I was supposed to say something back, and I don't even have a script.
01:03 Narrator: And a new career, giving back to the mission that helped save her life. This is St. Jude Flashpoint.
01:15 Steve: I think what really made an impression on her was when she watched a lot of her friends not do well, St. Jude kids that did not do well. And she had a really dear friend, Ali, that she loved.
01:32 Jessica: At that time, we were all on the other side, full heads of hair and living happy, healthy lives. And a little bit of time passes, and Ali finds out that she's relapsed.
01:47 Allison: Ali was a very special child, very happy. She almost had like a light around her, just radiant.
01:56 Jessica: And Ali fought hard, but she did not make it with the second battle, and that was crushing for me.
02:08 Allison: They like the patients to tell the stories. Who better to tell the stories than the patients? They're the ones that went through it and understand everything. Well, Ali... Jessica and Ali had done a lot of PR for national campaigns and things together and were really close. There were several kids that were in this little group. And Ali had survived her bone marrow transplant and all of that, and then had relapsed.
02:39 Jessica: We all wore pink to her funeral at her parents' request, and I just remember being there. I think I went to the funeral by myself.
02:49 Allison: And so at Ali's funeral, Jess... Ali's mother said to these kids, "Look, you've gotta pick up the torch."
03:00 Jessica: And it was just... It was a moment where I was just... You sort of... You sit there and you're like... Well, I've asked "Why me?" before on the day that I was diagnosed, but then you ask, "Why me?" on days when you're like, "Well, how did I get so lucky?" But she didn't.
03:22 Allison: You have to keep fighting, you've gotta keep talking. Don't let this go.
03:26 Jessica: The funeral's over, and Ali's mom comes over, and she's so composed on the day that she's burying her daughter, and she looks at us and she says, "You have to make me a promise. Even though Ali can't be here to keep telling the St. Jude story, you have to promise me that you will keep telling it." And so we did. We, of course, said, "We will do everything that we possibly can," because we have a voice that we can use, and that's a gift.
04:05 Allison: And so she knew how important that was. "Yeah, you're right, I do have to do this and I wanna do it for Ali."
04:14 Steve: I think that becomes her goal. She told one of their moms, she goes, "I'm gonna keep on for you."
04:22 Allison: And I don't know how often she thinks about that anymore. But it's things like that that make you understand, when you go through this, you did this and maybe you were chosen to do this for some reason. And because you came out of it on the other side, you do have to keep talking and pushing it.
04:43 Steve: I think she just felt like she was there to carry on for them.
04:52 Jessica: I've always just enjoyed using creativity, that's very fulfilling for me, and my mom, too. And actually my dad is extremely creative. We always did projects together. Me and dad we're kind of two peas in a pod when we were really little. I loved taking things apart, he would always be fixing a TV or a VCR or something. And I loved that so much. We would get "The Way Things Work," the book, and then go through it, and we would do science projects together.
05:24 Allison: Well, our family is not the same today. I got a divorce from their father. A lot of children that go through catastrophic illnesses, a lot of those, sometimes the family doesn't always come out of that. So, for us, we just both moved on and then we moved... My second husband and I, we always said, whenever the girls got out of school, wherever they were is where we would go. Well, they both got jobs in Nashville, and so then we moved to Nashville.
06:00 Jessica: When I was in college. I knew I wanted to be able to use my creative side. And I was just trying to figure out what that looked like. And so I knew event planning was something that I enjoyed, and that I had done some things within in college and in our sorority and that kind of thing.
06:21 Jessica: I'd always had this dream of working in TV news. That was something that I had wanted to do since I was probably 8, 9. And so I chose college to concentrate on broadcast journalism, and got my degree. And after college, I applied at the NBC affiliate in town and started there as an associate producer.
06:53 Allison: She and her friend were the producers for the Christmas eve news.
06:58 Jessica: You're always at the station in times when you may wanna be with your family, like on Thanksgiving or Christmas or in the middle of the tornado or the flood.
07:09 Jordan: We went down just to watch it happen, and they have those monitors, 20 of them, that covered that whole wall. And I'd never seen anything like that.
07:17 Jessica: I had been just obsessed with watching news since I was a kid. The other funny thing is, on the other side, later in life was like, "Hey, why did you pick Jessica? It just seems like such a most... One of the most common names."
07:31 Allison: It's her father's fault.
07:33 Jessica: I was named after Jessica McClure, who was this little girl who fell in the well.
07:38 Allison: I think he, oddly enough, he felt that that Jessica was just a really strong, resilient child. And he said, "I wanna name her Jessica."
07:51 Jessica: And I thought it was interesting that there was such a huge breaking news tie born into the name. So, It was important to me to live out that dream and do it. I love the adrenaline rushes, and the breaking news aspect, and being in the know, and hearing about things first. And just the pressure, the immense pressure of putting on that newscast and making it all seamless was a lot. And she doesn't do really well under pressure like that. I knew she wasn't gonna stay.
08:30 Jessica: My health was starting to flare up again, and I noticed that sleep was really important to how I felt. I was just starting to think, "Hey, maybe this isn't the job that I wanna do forever. I wonder what I should do next."
08:48 Steve: I gotta tell you, so I'm at work and she says, "Dad, I'm gonna go... I'm gonna do this body double thing." And she tells me this Miley Cyrus story.
08:58 Jessica: I had this summer job where I accidentally got a job working as Hannah Montana's body double.
09:08 Steve: She said, "I went and got myself one of these... One of those books that has all these terms for what a best boy is and all these different things, and a key grip. And I told them that I know everything about this, and I know absolutely nothing. And I also told them that I know how to ride horses." And she doesn't know anything about riding horses. And she goes on like, "I got it in my glove compartment in my car. And every now and again, I'll just pull it out and I'll start... I'm just trying to make sure... And if they mention anything that I don't know what they're talking about, I run out to my car and look in my glove compartment and get the definition of what the heck they were talking about."
09:44 Jessica: I show up with 80 or so other girls, and we all look exactly the same. We're all about 5'3, dark hair, and we have on black shirts and dark jeans. And they give us a Post-it note number, and I'm like number 42 or something crazy. The director is there, and he says, "How many people in this room are professional actresses?" And most of the room raises their hand.
10:12 Steve: The things that surprise you. Obviously, I never gave a bit of thought that my daughter would be interested in being in a movie kind of thing.
10:20 Jessica: I was like, "Goodness, I can't believe I drove 45 minutes. This was such a waste of gas money." Anyway, I was like, "Okay, I'm glad I did that." Whatever. And then I get got a callback that was like, "Hey, the director wants you to come read for him. You've made it with four other girls to the finals."
10:36 Steve: I was really proud of her. I thought she did great.
10:39 Jessica: And so I had no acting experience and I was like, "Well, goodness. I've gotta buck up and figure out how to pull this off. So, I just googled an acting coach and get an hour with somebody to learn how to read some lines. And they filmed this awkward me on camera, just like my first immersion with acting. And we have this fun workshop day. And then I go back and read for the director. And I get got a callback that was like, "You have the job and you start in a week, and you are going to be working as Miley's stand-in on Hannah Montana."
11:19 Steve: Anyway, she loved doing it.
11:22 Jessica: So I watched a bunch of Hannah Montana shows, trying to get prepared for day one. And I get there and it's a full day on this beautiful farm outside of Nashville in Franklin. The day is over and Miley has "pumpkined." So, they were like, "Jessica, Miley is out. You're in. Action." Basically, is how it went. As a stand-in, you have to wear a color that is matching whatever the costume is so that the lighting folks and everybody can have an idea of what the shot is gonna look like. Whenever the actress comes back, it helps save time. So, I knew I was doing that part, right? I was like, "Well, this is the yellow shirt they put me in to match her yellow dress." And they were like, "No, you need to be in that dress and you need to have her wig on." They take me, dress me, pull me back, and they say "action." And Billy Ray says his line to me, and I just stared at him, like a deer in the headlights. That was one of the... Everything around you is in slow motion, and you're like, "This is crazy. How is this happening right now?"
12:28 Jessica: This whole crew is here from LA, and somehow Billy Ray Cyrus just said a line to me and I was supposed to say something back, and I don't even have a script. That was such a... Oh, my goodness, the thing that you have nightmares about, I can't believe that really just happened. I called my mom, I'm like, "Look, I'm not going back tomorrow. That was humiliating, that was terrible." She was like, "Well, you can't just quit. You gotta figure this out." So, I go back the next day and they're like, "Look, here's the thing, most of the times stand-ins don't do lines. But Miley is a minor, and so she can only work eight hours a day." And so because of labor laws, when that's over, they have to keep shooting in order to get the most out of the day. And so that's where I was to come in and sort of... They were gonna go over-the-shoulder shots or wide shots.
13:18 Steve: Yeah, you're a dad, you're gonna go to the Miley movie thing. You're at the Miley movie and then you'd see supposedly Miley running off where you know that's not Miley, that's Jessica. So, I go, "That's Jessica's run. I know that run."
13:34 Jessica: She didn't wanna run on Santa Monica Pier, so I put her stiletto heels on and her wig on and ran down Santa Monica Pier, but then the tabloids were there, like it was Just Jared. And then the headline was like, "Miley Cyrus is a fake." And it was my picture, split screen with Miley, so that was hilarious, too, to just get to see that side of thing.
14:00 Steve: I think she kinda got the acting thing out of her system. I think it was just, "I wonder what it would be like to do that."
14:07 Jessica: And the funny thing is they called me back for year three and I was like, "Look, I really appreciate the call, but I gotta go and do some other things. I've gotta move on from being Miley's double, but thank you."
14:20 Steve: I knew she loved the hospital, I knew she had some friends that were involved in the hospital, and Mr. Shadyac, they would be at an event and he would ask them, "What are you gonna do when you grow up?" And here she goes, "I'm gonna come in and work for you."
14:34 Jessica: The country music marathon in town was this huge staple fitness event that have been happening for years, and there was a big announcement that St. Jude was going to be the charity partner. And so just like many other calls before, I got a call saying, "Hey, we're gonna have this big announcement, would you be able to come over and say a few words at the press conference?" And our CEO, Rick Shadyac, was there. And so we were talking afterwards and he was like, "Hey, would you ever be interested in coming to work for me?"
15:10 Steve: I told them, as best they could, try to find something that you would do for free, 'cause you're gonna... And that you would just love and... And then you're just gonna enjoy it every day.
15:21 Jessica: My journey with St. Jude really changed in 2012. That's when I became an employee for ALSAC, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities. It's really the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and specifically, I work on our country cares for St. Jude kids team. I started fundraising for ALSAC St. Jude about seven years ago, and I was an intern in the Nashville office. I wanted to be in event planning, and I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do with that, but I was thinking at the time it was weddings, and then I found out that there was a fundraising office. And obviously, with our past and how much we love St. Jude, and how it was just so natural to us to be a part of St. Jude in our lives, I was so thrilled to know that there was something that I could use my major with, but then also be able to give back and have more meaning behind it.
16:25 Steve: And here they are, they know they're doing great things about Jessica, Jordan, they know they're doing great things there. They're enjoying meeting these really amazing, interesting, wonderful people, and they're doing something they love. It makes me happy, it makes me proud as a dad.
16:45 Allison: It was just such a natural transition for me to go from an intern, to working here and doing something that is so meaningful in my life, and I'm able to give back, and it's really beautiful that Jessica is also here so we're able to do it together.
17:02 Jessica: I feel like every single day I have... I had this grateful heart. I just know that there has been so many... I've been offered so many chances and I've been given another chance at life, and I really feel a lot of pressure to make that life count. And I can't think of anywhere else that I could do that in my mind to have an impact more than St. Jude. And I can only hope that it's paying it forward and helping a family who's walking in today to just make their journey a little bit better.
17:51 Steve: I really worry about her because she's really driven, and she wants to keep on going and going and going.
17:58 Jordan: Jessica and all that she's been through, I think she just amazes me. You would never know it by looking at her, how sick she sometimes is.
18:07 Jessica: I look healthy, and so most people around me don't know what I'm going through. Some days I do feel as sick as when I had cancer.
18:17 Jordan: There's kind of a certain face that she makes, and I know that she's faking it, and I'm like, "You need to go home."
18:23 Steve: She still has problems with her heart, so she still has to take steroids every now and again to try to give her some strength and to get through the day. And, gosh, I think about that all the time. I always ask her, and I'm not really sure she really... I think she downplays it 'cause she doesn't want me to know, but I think... I know a lot of times she's really, really tired, and she just keeps on going.
18:52 Jordan: But that's another lucky piece of our life, we're able to say, "You can go home, you can take time, that's exactly what everyone wants you to do." So, I think our lives have turned out just as they should. We are honestly very lucky.
19:11 Jessica: It's also a little isolating sometimes because I like dealing with it on my own, but then if I'm not honest with my friends about what I'm dealing with, then they don't really know where I'm at.
19:24 Aaron: I don't ever wanna see my wife hurt, nobody wants that for their spouse.
19:30 Jessica: He is my constant, and he is never changing, and he is there no matter what comes on our days together now. And he is Aaron, he's my husband.
19:45 Narrator: Up next, Jessica finds a new supporter and friend. Rate, review and subscribe to St. Jude Flashpoint on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. Learn more, donate, or volunteer at stjude.org. Finding cures. Saving children.