5 lessons Jessica Hiatt taught TikTok followers, friends and family as she battled cancer

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune
Mourners look at the display of Jessica Hiatt's mementos during her celebration of life service at Nelson Park in Slater on Monday, May 16, 2022.

Friends and family of Jessica Hiatt gathered at Nelson Park in Slater on Monday afternoon to celebrate the life of the 34-year-old Ames woman who died April 6 from colon cancer.

Jessica battled her illness for three years, documenting her experiences and sharing them on TikTok. She didn’t expect it to happen, but she became a social media celebrity, with millions of views of her videos and more than half a million followers.

When Jessica was diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago, she didn’t set out to become a famous TikTok creator. She started in order to share her medical journey on social media platforms, especially TikTok, as she provided updates to her friends and family.

More:Hy-Vee, The Beignet Truck team up for Jessica Hiatt's beignet bucket list wish

Jessica Hiatt creates a TikTok video during an event to fulfill her wish to eat fresh beignets March 12 at The Parlor in Ames. the The 34-year-old Ames woman died April 6 from colon cancer.

That’s why her videos became known for their opening and closing catchphrases: “Hey, friends and family” and “stick around and I’ll keep you posted.”

In March, Jessica told the Ames Tribune she attributed her huge social media following to “the fact that I'm so open and honest about the fact that I'm dying,” she said. “I'm 34 years old and having to face something that is not something that people my age have to do. So they're kind of shell-shocked. Like, holy crap, I thought I had it bad.”

Hiatt had fans all over the world. She frequently chatted with people from places like Britain, Denmark, Australia and Sweden.

“Watching that unfold was kind of shocking,” Jessica’s stepsister Adangia Skjordal said of the ever increasing popularity of Jessica’s TikTok profile, @JessicaChristine6.

At the beginning of her cancer treatment, Jessica’s family was with her, squeezed into her hospital room with her. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and a crowded hospital room was no longer a possibility. So Jessica started sharing updates to her friends and family through short TikTok videos.

Jessica Hiatt's mother Sara Spangler and brother Ian Hiatt console each other during her celebration of life service Monday, May 16, 2022, in Slater, Iowa.

“When you can only have one person visiting at the hospital and when we were used to having such a strong team, it became a way to communicate with all of us at once,” Adangia said. “That’s how she kept all of us there with her through the whole thing. Because we all wanted to be there in person. It felt like it kept everybody together.”

More:Popular Iowa TikTok creator Jessica Hiatt's cancer journey comes to an end

Fighting back tears during eulogy

"Jessica was a very brave person. She fought hard and strong for a long time," Sara Spangler, Jessie's mom, said during the eulogy.

When Jessie was in elementary school at Ballard, she would push two or three kids on a tire swing on the playground, Sara said.

"She would run and spin them and spin them and spin them. And then she'd grab the chains and fly like Superman," she said, fighting back tears.

Jessica Hiatt's photographs are displayed on a table during her celebration of life event at the Slater City Park Monday, May 16, 2022, in Slater, Iowa.

"I can't say that she loved everybody, but she accepted everybody for who they were. She didn't expect them to change. She didn't expect them to be anything different than they were," Sara said.

Phoebe Cook, who worked with Jessica at Dublin Bay Irish Pub & Grill in Ames, spoke about her friend.

"St. Patty's Days with Jess were so fun," Phoebe said. "She had this skip to her step — you guys know it — just skipping around just happy, with her curls bouncing."

Jessica said in a TikTok video that she loved being a waitress at Dublin Bay, interacting with customers and getting to know the regulars. She missed her job and her work family after she became unable to work.

When Phoebe got her own cancer diagnosis, she looked to Jessica as a role model.

"She reminded me every single day to be happy, to feel the wind and the sun — just appreciate things," Phoebe said. "I was just so lucky to stay in contact with her. She made such a difference to me.

"Jessica will live on in all sorts of memories, in all sorts of ways. She had an indomitable spirit," Phoebe said.

More:Beignet dream comes true for TikTok creator Jessica Hiatt, a terminally ill Iowa woman

Courtney Thomas met Jessica when she was 16 years old. "She always had a bounce to her," Courtney said. "She used to do this silly thing when one of her favorite songs would come on. She gets her hair in her hands and she'd look up from her brows and she'd plump her hair and throw her hands up."

Hannah Winter said she got one of the greatest possible gifts from her cousin Jessica.

"That was the love of reading. Growing up, my parents had to force me to sit down and read. And then she introduced me to Harry Potter. And now I still, as a 30-year-old, love it," Hannah said. "But it really morphed into so much more. Just that one thing — and that doesn't include everything else she did — I could never have thanked her enough for giving me that gift of the love of reading."

Ian Hiatt, brother of Jessica Hiatt, sings a song during her celebration of life service Monday, May 16, 2022, in Slater, Iowa.

Jessica was instrumental in the planning of her celebration of life. She wanted it to be a joyful event — outdoors in the sun and the breeze.

She wanted lilacs, her favorite flowers, to decorate the tables. Not only did family lilac bushes cooperate by providing fragrant blooms for the decorations, many bushes were in bloom at homes surrounding Nelson Park in Slater during the celebration of life. The scent of lilac was everywhere on the breeze.

"Jessie had a heart of gold for every single one of her friends and family," her brother Ian Hiatt said to start the service.

She was a mother-figure for him, he said. She was the one who taught him to walk and talk.

Ian often played the guitar for Jessica when she was in the hospital, often in the evening after her treatments were done.

"That gave her some sort of solace at night," Ian said. "I played for her a few more times after she was put on hospice, and that meant a lot to her."

Jessica asked Ian to perform Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" at her celebration of life.

Through Jessica’s videos, she taught her friends, family and followers several lessons — by her words and by her example.

More:Beignets for Jessica: How TikTok helped a terminally ill Ames woman fulfill a delicious bucket list request

Tammy Spangler, Jessica Haitt's aunt, looks at the display of Jessica's memories during her celebration of life event at Slater City Park Monday, May 16, 2022, in Slater, Iowa.

Appreciate. Every. Day. 

“I have to enjoy the life that I have left,” Jessica told the Tribune on Feb. 27. “I’m just trying to live every day with love in my heart, to be able to see my friends and my family and talk with them and laugh and just enjoy life.”

She did that, even in her weakened condition, by spending a lot of time with friends and family. There were movie nights and Harry Potter marathons, board game nights and sleep overs.

One temperate winter day, she and her family went to Ames Miracle League Park, and Jessica enjoyed some time on the swing, being pushed by her father, Mark Hiatt.

Many family members were with her that day: Mark; Adangia; Kevin Buss, her boyfriend of 10 years; Jessica’s brothers Ian and Joey; her mom, Sara Spangler; stepmom Deanna Hiatt; and nephew Anthony Hinton.

“Everybody has work or sports or what have you, so I’m trying to portray slowing down and appreciating life,” she said. “Try not to let the little things that stress you out ruin your whole day.”

More:Photos: Jessica Hiatt's wish came true to try fresh beignets

Family and friends of Jessica Hiatt listen to a speaker during her celebration of life service at Nelson Park in Slater on Monday, May 16, 2022.

Surround yourself with the things you love

Jessica thought about her celebration of life — even months before her death. Many of her TikTok followers would send Jessica gifts and care packages, so she took the opportunity to request fun things like colorful drink tumblers, stones and crystals that could be given as mementos to friends and family members who attended the event.

“She had so many people sending her care packages on a regular basis, and that was her request. She wanted to make sure that everybody has something that had good memories of her, to be happy and have good thoughts and good feelings,” Adangia said.

She loved the color green, flamingoes, the beach, the ocean, owls, nature, magic, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Iowa State Cyclones. She loved The Big Bang Theory and the movie The Other Woman, which she said was so funny that it got her through hard times when she was in the hospital.

Jessica loved the Harry Potter books and movies. She was a self-declared Hufflepuff.

“We were doing a Harry Potter marathon,” Adangia said. “Whenever a new book came out, she would stay up all night long and read it cover to cover. It was a big thing.

“She also really loved nature and was very connected to the earth. That’s part of why she loved stones. She loved all that fairy tale fantasy; she loved all that whimsy.”

More Ames news:Cookie ATM will soon vend Cookies, etc.'s gourmet sweet treats 24/7 at Ames North Grand Mall

Family members of Jessica Hiatt grieve during her celebration of life service at Nelson Park in Slater, Iowa, on Monday, May 16, 2022.

Spend time with friends and family

Jessica’s family members and close friends were with her when she died April 6.

“There were a lot of emotions that we kept going through over and over because some days would be hard for her and some days she’d rally. She just didn’t want to give up, so it was hard to imagine it or anticipate it because she wanted to stay strong for everybody. And she was waiting for some miracle to happen at the last moment,” Adangia said.

Two nights before her passing, Jessica and Adangia were having a movie night. It was a common family experience, often including their brother Joey and Adangia’s son Anthony Hinton.

Several of her classmates from the Ballard schools she attended and their families visited Jessica at her Ames home in February. They streamed out of a school bus with cards and gifts and smiles, she said.

“I love all of my classmates. We were very kind to one another. It was a great school to go to,” Jessica, who graduated in 2006, said in a TikTok video March 4.

More Ames news:Worries, miracles between friends amid war in Ukraine: ‘You understand this friend cares about you.’

Jessica Hiatt's mother Sara Spangler and brother Ian Hiatt console each other during her celebration of life service Monday, May 16, 2022, in Slater, Iowa.

Ask for what you want

When Jessica made a bucket list request on TikTok, wishing to taste fresh beignets, her followers flew into action, donating money and spreading the word. Care packages started rolling in with beignet mix and Mardi Gras beads. Chris Bautista, owner of The Beignet Truck in Los Angeles, held a GoFundMe to get himself to Iowa to make his specialty pastries for Jessica, her friends and family. Hy-Vee stores stepped up and funded The Parlor venue for the event, decorations, ingredients and a performance by the Max Wellman Band. Bautista’s extra GoFundMe money went directly to Jessica.

It was just one example of people wanting to show their love for Jessica by sending her gifts. She was especially excited to receive a T-shirt from internet sensations Jenna and Julien, whose funny antics Jessica had followed for at least a decade on videos and podcasts.

Jessica Hiatt's mother Sara Spangler speaks during her celebration of life service at Slater City Park Monday, May 16, 2022, in Slater, Iowa.

Get a second opinion

Jessica was diagnosed with colon cancer in May of 2019 and underwent several surgeries. She had 36 of rounds of chemotherapy.

In February of 2022, she entered hospice care while continuing to live in her home.

Jessica overcame cancer as a child.

“She was diagnosed with that in November of 1989. She wasn’t quite 2 yet,” said Jessica’s mom, Sara.

Jessica had surgery then and underwent chemo, but she doesn’t remember those experiences.

When she was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2019, it was after seeking medical help many times for what the doctor then said was chronic constipation.

She finally got a second opinion and the results showed cancer.

Jessica encouraged her followers to get colonoscopies and regular cancer screenings, especially if they feel like something isn’t right with their health.

“Don’t take no for an answer,” she said.