Community mourns Baby Jessica’s’ death
Wednesday, Dec 20, 2017 08:43 am
Many who knew ‘Baby Jessica’ during the last years of her life describe her as tough, feisty and a hero.
Thirty one-year-old Jessica Diggens found her way into the hearts of people across Canada in 1987 as the first Canadian infant to survive a heart transplant, the fifth in the world, and likewise into the hearts of those in the Foothills after she moved to Black Diamond two years ago.
Among the most touched was her boyfriend André Laliberté, and his young daughter, Leila.
“She was my hero,” said Laliberté. “She had to deal with surgeries, heart attacks and cancers and yet she was always smiling. If she was happy that day, not even pain could bring her down.”
The community is mourning the loss of Jessica, who passed away in her home on Dec. 13.
She fought a hard battle since undergoing five hours of surgery in southern California at age 10 weeks old.
Born one month premature with a severely malformed heart, weighing just four pounds and five ounces, Jessica received the heart of a Mexican boy who was born brain dead.
Her surgery was performed by Dr. Leonard Bailey, who had performed the first neonatal heart transplant in 1984 when he implanted a baboon heart in a 12-day-old girl known as baby Faye.
Jessica grew up in Calgary with her parents Greig and Brenda Diggens, and throughout her life dealt with lingering health challenges, some of which were side effects from anti-rejection drugs.
“Her medical file is about three feet tall,” said Laliberté. “She was quite the fighter but she was so tired. She lived with chronic pain her whole life.”
While living in Black Diamond, Jessica spent a lot of time in visits to Diamond Valley Veterinary.
Susi John, equine technician, remembers Jessica as a very positive person.
“She had the biggest, brightest smile and was always upbeat,” she said. “It was almost like the sun came out when she came through the door.”
Even when Jessica wasn’t feeling well, she made sure to drop by the clinic to visit the staff and animals.
“She absolutely loved it,” she said. “I always called her the strongest woman on the planet.”
The last time John saw Jessica, about two months ago, she was having a hard time.
“I thought this will pass, too,” she said. “She will get stronger every day.”
The loss of Jessica hit the staff hard.
“It was a total shock to me,” she said. “We are going to miss her.”
Laliberté, who’s lived in the area for about a decade, met Jessica through friends in the spring of 2015. They began hanging out and went to the Calgary Stampede together a few times.
In mid-July 2015, Jessica suffered a massive heart attack, which led to a triple bypass and valve replacement.
When they became a couple in September, Laliberté learned of Jessica’s fame.
“When I asked why she had a heart attack at 29 years old, she said, ‘I’m actually quite famous - I’m the first Canadian infant to survive a heart transplant,’” he said.
The next two years were a rollercoaster ride for Laliberté as he saw first-hand what Jessica’s life was like.
“Jessica had over 100 surgeries on her body,” he said. “That takes a toll on her little body.”
Jessica also had two types of cancers, but was unable to get treatment due to her already suppressed immune system caused by the anti-rejection medication she was taking.
Laliberté said Jessica had almost lost her life once. She had told him how, while undergoing her triple bypass and valve replacement in 2015, the doctors lost her and she saw her grandmother who told her it wasn’t her time yet.
In March 2016, Jessica suffered a second heart attack while having some cancer surgically removed.
Laliberté said most of her arteries were blocked due to scaring and only one was working properly. A stent was installed.
Last September, Jessica underwent surgery again to have a valve enlarged from 19mm to 24mm.
While recovering in hospital, Jessica fell out of her wheelchair and dislocated her knee, slowing down her recovery, Laliberté said.
The night before she passed, Laliberté said she was up all night in pain. When he awoke a few hours later, she had passed away.
Laliberté said the most difficult moment of his life was made a little easier thanks to the support of Turner Valley RCMP Cst. Steven Sigvaldason, who showed up at his home shortly after he made the 911 call.
“He said. ‘I’m so sorry,” he said. “He came over and gave me a big hug. He made me feel very comfortable.”
A celebration of life will be held for Jessica in Calgary. A date had not been set by press time.
“I’m going to miss her,” said Laliberté. “She was my hero.”