Always shine and journey on

More than 45 surgeries and a three-year life expectancy hasn’t stopped senior communication major Jessica Zacharias, 21, from loving life.

Her health problems affect her every day, and she has so many that doctors don’t have a single diagnosis.

“I look healthy, but I’m not,” she said. “I just call myself Jessica. It’s just the Jessica problems.”


It all started when Zacharias was born. She couldn’t breathe because her esophagus was not connected to her trachea. Her first car ride was in an ambulance to another hospital, where she had her first operation.

This birth defect affected other organs. She has holes in her 61-percent-capacity lungs. Her arteries leak, her heartbeat is irregular and she has weak bones.

She ate through a feeding tube until second grade.

“I love food,” she said, explaining that it fills the stomach differently than liquefied nutrients. It is still hard for her to eat sometimes because of complications with her esophagus.

While some of her complications can be improved with operations, medical procedures always come with risks.

“My body has just been through so much that there’s always a possibility that I won’t wake up,” Zacharias said.

Even with her medications, Zacharias’ health complications run rampant. She passed out on a cruise in her junior year of high school, and her heart stopped beating for two minutes. When she regained consciousness, she got up without help and introduced herself to show that she hadn’t lost her memory.

“I’ve tried to balance the normal part of life, but in my college years, I’ve learned to accept that there is no normal and to embrace who you are and to let it shine,” she said.


Friends say Zacharias is always smiling.

“People say she’s an angel walking on this earth,” said Marianna Stepp, one of Zacharias’ friends and a senior studying human resource development.

“I try to make the best of everything because I know that life is full of dark, challenging times, but it’s only like that so we can grow and help each other,” Zacharias said. “And when you experience events that are surrounded with joy, happiness and laughter, that’s when you know it’s all worth it.”

Zacharias said that dancing has gotten her through her struggles. She started dancing when she was three and has been on OU’s athletic dance team for four years. She has been captain for two.

“Dance has been my best friend,” Zacharias said. “It has allowed me to release emotions that I was holding on to. It let me be happy and live in the moment, but at the same time, it let me stomp my feet and get the anger out. To this day, doctors have said that’s what healed me.”

Brittany Harris, dancing director of OU’s athletic dance team, said the other dancers trust Zacharias and look up to her. She said Zacharias is uplifting.

“She’s very inspiring. She’s just really happy,” Harris said.

Earlier this year, Zacharias had a knee injury. She was still the captain of the dance team, but couldn’t dance. She found a new outlet by teaching dance and plans to study to become a dance therapist after she graduates this spring.

“It’s what healed me, so might as well go after it,” she said. “It does do wonders, it does do great things. It moves people.”

Zacharias faced a new challenge in fall 2013 when one of her best friends, junior health science major Hailey Brouillet, died from injuries from a car accident. Zacharias and Brouillet had been friends since they were 5 years old.

“My life literally changed in a day, in a second,” Zacharias said. “I miss her every day.”

Zacharias said she finds comfort in knowing that Brouillet is safe.

“She said she did everything she wanted to do,” Zacharias said. “She made people laugh. She was happy.”

Zacharias said her faith helps her as well.

“I really believe in angels,” she said. “I feel like we can make our own heaven down here.”

Zacharias said she tries to share her light with others — and so did Brouillet.

“It’s the stuff we learned in kindergarten, but we tend to forget,” she said. “It’s to be nice to each other. It’s to follow your heart.”


Zacharias said she tells her story to help others.

“Telling it can bring so many people that inspiration or motivation,” she said.

She is writing two books. One is a memoir titled “The Truth Behind Letting my Journey Shine,” and the other is a self-help book titled “Let Your Journey Shine.”

Zacharias said she wants to help others find what she calls their “shine,” or what makes them happy.

“Everyone has a different shine to them,” she said. “Once we find our purpose, that is when we are alive.”

As Zacharias prepares for graduation, she said she sees her life as a blessing.

“Knowing that I survived these four years at Oakland, knowing that I will graduate, it’s so much more than a piece of paper,” she said.

She said she wants bring her own sunshine and live by her motto — “Always shine and journey on.”