A second chance at life
Combining her passion for the arts, technology and writing, alumna Jessica Wilt was building a life she loved in New York City – until the fight of her life brought her back to Columbus.
I attended Ohio State as a graduate student in the Dance Department between 1999-2002, where I dove head first into a master’s degree in choreography. As an MFA graduate associate, I have fond memories of sunny autumn days trekking across the Oval to Pomerene Hall, where I used to teach beginner and intermediate tap dance classes.
In musty old Pomerene, the dance studio sound equipment sat under a giant window. Sometimes as I was preparing my music for class and feeling the warmth of the late-day sun shining in, I would peer across Neil Avenue and see patients sitting in wheelchairs, hooked up to medical equipment, camped out on the James Cancer Hospital lawn.
“Wow, I feel so lucky. I’m young and healthy,” I’d think. “That could never be me.”
Then back to tap class I’d go and on with racing through life.
Advocate for students, the arts
After graduating with my MFA degree in 2002, I began teaching in K-12 public and private schools as a dance specialist and adjunct teaching at the college level. I’m an educator at heart and loved my work in the classroom, but at the end of the day, there was never an “off” switch from the emotional and physical toll teaching brings. In 2006, I decided with a heavy heart to leave the classroom and took a giant leap relocating to the city that never sleeps, New York City.
For the past eight years I’ve been working as an arts education administrator and consultant – connecting schools with teaching artists, arranging arts residencies and performances and designing curriculum to meet multiple educational standards. I’m proud of my tenure as a former board member with the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable and currently as a school board trustee with VOICE Charter School in Queens, N.Y., all while continuously advocating for arts education funding at the local and state level.
In 2010, I was elected to join a national arts education advisory council with Americans for the Arts. Through my work with the council, I became more active as an arts education advocate, lobbying on Capitol Hill for arts-related causes like the National Endowment for the Arts and sustaining federal arts education program funding. Through my council member relationship with Americans for the Arts, I began blogging on a regular basis for ARTSblog and the opportunity revealed I had a voice as a writer.
In tandem with my interests in blogging and politics, I discovered the power of social media and actively began growing my online community. On Twitter I learned about a contest with the Huffington Post looking for citizen journalists to cover the 2012 National Republican and Democratic Party conventions. On a whim, I decided to submit a video, and to my surprise, I was one of eight people selected from across the country to blog for the news outlet during the 2012 presidential election season. Ohio State’s ASCENT wrote an awesome alumni feature about the experience.
In early 2013, after months of soul searching and exploring answers to the question: “What’s next for me?” through my writing with the Clyde Fitch Report, I launched ArtsEdTechNYC in April that year. By spring of last year, life in NYC was finally falling into place.
I remember riding my bicycle along the Hudson River the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, documenting the moment on Facebook: “I love this time of year when sunrise is 5:30am. I naturally awaken, can squeeze in a bike ride and launch into my day with excitement and joy – this is my season.”
Less than a week later, everything changed.
As posted on jessicawilt.com:
The beginning of June I was starting to have trouble with what I thought was acute sciatica where the sciatic nerve gets pinched deep inside the hip causing seriously bad pain and muscle spasms. … By the end of June, I wasn’t getting any better and could no longer walk.
I flew home to Ohio on July 7, 2014, to be with family. My parents drove me straight to a local hospital’s ER and after a CT scan, a large mass attached to my right femur was discovered. I have a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma; my doctors can’t explain or understand why I have it, and for the next year of my life, I will be focusing on surviving cancer.
Back to Ohio State
After a month of being misdiagnosed in New York, I was grateful my parents got me home last summer to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where a team of world-class doctors at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute quickly identified what was wrong with me. Those early days after being diagnosed with cancer were shocking and rather grim, but as I shared in a recent Faces of Hope interview with a fantastic cancer organization I support called Hope Scarves:
When I first heard the ‘C’ word I decided I had two choices: I could be angry and depressed feeling sorry for myself, or I could fight cancer’s butt with positive energy and a giant smile. Outside of my own personal strength and determination, I have been blessed to have an amazing community of support that surrounds me every day with relentless love, kindness and prayers. I am also fortunate to have an awesome medical team at The Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital who are not only saving my life, but are treating me with great care and compassion every step of the way.
I remember a Saturday last fall watching Buckeye fans, decked out in head-to-toe Ohio State gear, parade eagerly by Pomerene Hall on Neil Avenue over to The Shoe for a home football game. It was the kind of day every Ohio State fan relishes. Only this time, the patient hooked up to medical equipment sitting in a wheelchair on The James lawn – wanting more than anything to be standing inside that Pomerene Hall dance studio across the street – would be me.
There was a time when my doctors weren’t sure I would ever dance again. Luckily, the groundbreaking cancer research happening at the James, a state-of-the-art, stunningly beautiful medical facility, has helped me heal in a short amount of time – I will dance again.
Cancer has a way of quickly turning life upside down. When you're faced with your own mortality, you quickly realize how much more life you want to live, all the things still left to do and experience and – most importantly – the daily stress I used to place on myself over stupid things that no longer matter. When you remain aware, open and accept everything that comes your way, those teachable moments and a new appreciation for life appear.
Over these past few months I’ve sensed growing excitement among my doctors and nurses. The beginning of February my oncologist shared the news: after seven months of chemotherapy, the original tumor on my femur was gone and there was no more traceable cancer on my scans. I recently celebrated my 38th birthday at The James with my 14th and final chemo treatment. Nurses serenaded me with "Happy Birthday" at midnight, decorated my hospital room and surprised me with a party celebrating that final drop of chemo.
I've moved on to the next step of treatment with six weeks of radiation as a preventive measure, and hopefully soon, the light at the end of my cancer journey will be near.
I’m grateful The Ohio State University is giving me the gift of having a second chance at life.