By Ed Morrone
Almost a decade ago at the age of 36, Jessy Kyle found herself confined to another hospital room, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for the third time in her life.
This time around, Kyle had a daughter, Malia, who was just over a year old at the time. While going through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, Kyle didn’t see Malia for five weeks, shielding her from any possible lurking infection. It was around this time that Kyle made a conscious decision to join the fight against cancer if she was lucky enough to beat it once more.
Almost 10 years later, Kyle, now 45, has used both her experience as a cancer survivor (she was also diagnosed at 16 and 27) and her voice as a professional singer to give back to those in a difficult position she knows all too well.
“I’m still here, healthy, and who knows why?” Kyle said. “I’m a faithful person, and I have to give back. It’s incumbent on me. It would be selfish to survive three times and do nothing for anyone else.”
Kyle had been a self-described “unofficial counselor” to cancer patients over the years, sharing her stories with friends, acquaintances and anyone in between willing to listen. But she wanted to volunteer in a more official capacity, and while she was at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) being treated during Thanksgiving, she encountered members of the HEADstrong Foundation, who had come to the hospital for their annual holiday tradition of serving meals to patients.
One conversation with HEADstrong President Cheryl Colleluori was all Kyle needed to know this was the foundation she wanted and needed to give back to.
“Cheryl was visiting, and she came into my room and I told her, ‘In one year, I’ll be healthy and on the other side of this bed with you,’” Kyle recalled. “I’ve jokingly said that I was never really invited to HEADstrong; I just kind of showed up, but I’ve been there ever since.”
Kyle is a professional singer by trade with close to 2,000 live performances to her credit. Her website describes her as a jazz/soul singer, songwriter and pianist, and lists Madison Square Garden and the White House as venues where she’s performed. Kyle has performed the National Anthem at Philadelphia 76ers games for 25 years, and has also done so for the Eagles for the last 10. She’ll open for Jerry Seinfeld and Maroon 5 at Philly Fights Cancer benefit in Philadelphia in November.
She began lending her voice to various HEADstrong events, and over the years has become an indispensable volunteer for the foundation. On her end, Kyle was drawn to the authenticity and hands-on nature of the foundation, a perfect fit for the kind of volunteering work she was interested in.
“I knew about Nick and was saddened like everybody else,” Kyle said. “You can’t fully heal from losing a child, but Cheryl was so uplifting and comforting when she could have been the opposite. She’s so positive; when she gave me a hug the first day we met, it felt like we had known each other for so long.
“This organization has turned the greatest loss one could ever had into something inspirational. What they do is who they are. It’s all love, nothing corporate about it. They are interested in not just helping financially, but also your life — where you’re from, how you’re doing during and post-treatment. They become your family during your fight. I’m so thoroughly impressed and inspired, because grief can kill you and take you down the wrong path. For them to take that grief and purely give, it says a lot about the person Nick was.”
Back in June, Kyle came to HUP to perform two jazz concerts for patients at the Abramson Cancer Center. Those who attended were able to leave their illnesses and treatment behind, even if only for a half hour; several moved and danced to the music, while others sang along in unison with Kyle’s voice as a guide.
“I was those patients,” she said. “Mask on, in a wheelchair, dragging around a chemo pole. That was me. Aside from the singing part, I visit them and tell them I was here, in this bed. They see that I look healthy and knowing what I went through gives them hope through their fight. To be on the patient side can be dark and solitary; it’s why I love to sing, to give a gift to someone who really needs it.
“Volunteering for HEADstrong, it means so much to me. They welcomed me into their family and let me do this. I’m honored they have created this platform for me to do what I can for other patients. I always knew how lucky and blessed I was from an early age that I made it. I know the gravity of surviving, and there’s got to be a reason I’m still here. Meeting this family has allowed me to be part of this beautiful work on a much bigger scale.”