Jessica Parido had everything going for her.
As a 14-year-old high school freshman, the future Shahs of Sunset star had booked the lead role in the school play and was ready for her chance to shine.
But Parido would never make it onto that stage.
After weeks of feeling “weak and tired,” Parido says she was pulled out of class by her father, who gave her some shocking news: She had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“It was a complete and utter shock,” Parido tells PEOPLE. “I remember just one tear dripping down my cheek.”
Despite being told she had only a 20 percent chance of survival, Parido refused to give in to fear and immediately resolved to fight for her life.
“I remember saying, ‘Don’t cry, Dad. I’m going to be okay,’ ” she says. “My mind just completely accepted it, and I said, ‘I’m going to beat this. There is no way I’m dying.’ ”
What came next was a “whirlwind” of change for Parido, who says she was admitted into a children’s hospital in Yorba Linda, California, and “dove right into treatment.”
A bone marrow transplant was suggested as a possibility, but Parido was told there was just a 10 percent chance that anyone in her family would be a suitable donor.
Still, her family got tested, and sister Kristina, who was 12 at the time, was deemed a match.
“I literally owe her my life,” Parido says.
But the transplant surgery left Parido’s immune system wiped out, and she was put in an isolation room where she would spend the next eight months of her life.
“I was the child in the bubble,” says Parido, who spent her 15th birthday in the hospital. “I became an adult at that point. You grow up fast when you’re in that environment because you’re slapped in the face with reality every day. It completely changed my life.”
But even as she was faced with months of homeschooling and extremely limited access to anyone other than the medical staff and her parents, Parido refused to give up on her positive mentality.
“When my family would come visit, they would be so negative and crying and scared. And I was like, ‘Why are you guys upset? I’m going to be okay,’ ” she says.
To help keep her mind off her illness, Parido dedicated herself to her schooling so she could stay on track to graduate with her friends. She spent her free time making arts and crafts for other sick kids at the hospital.
“It was daunting to be alone for hours on end,” she says. “I became very spiritual and very in tune with myself and my emotions.”
Day by day, Parido grew stronger, and the signs of her illness faded until one day she was finally allowed to go home.
“I just started crying because I hadn’t even smelled fresh air in, like, eight months,” she says of taking her first steps outside the hospital.
Now 26 and still in remission, Parido – who says she became a registered nurse after being inspired by her “amazing” caregivers in the hospital – feels she’s been given “a second chance at life,” which she refuses to take for granted.
“I got accused on the show of being ‘desperate to get married,’ ” Parido says of her short engagement to Shahs of Sunset‘s Mike Shouhed, whom she wed on March 29. “But the reason I was so ‘desperate to get married’ is because I knew what I wanted. At one point in my life, I didn’t know if I was going to make it to this point, so I was ready to start this new chapter in my life.”
And she’s brought that joie de vivre into her new marriage.
“She’s taught me so much about life,” Shouhed says. “She gives me wisdom and strength and the understanding that things could always be worse.”
Currently on their honeymoon trip through Mykonos, Ibiza and Paris, Shouhed says (aside from their on-screen dramatics) he and Parido “try to have a life where there is not a lot of drama or anger or fighting. We try to maintain a healthy lifestyle where we can live out the rest of our years together and grow old together.”
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With a yearly check-up the only remnant of her life spent in the hospital, Parido has mostly put her leukemia battle behind her – not that it’s something she wants to forget.
“I don’t look at it as the negative because I would never be the person I am today without that experience in my life,” says Parido, who hopes to start a family with Shouhed as soon as possible. “I was given a second chance at life, and I’m not going to let any day go by that I don’t remember that.”