In a whirlwind past 24 hours, two Salvadoran girls have embarked on their first plane ride, endured their first Chicago airport delays, met the suburban families serving as their hosts for the next month, enjoyed their first cheeseburgers and bravely endured having their blood drawn by nurses.
But all that has been the easy part.
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Next week, Andrea Escalante, 12, and Leslie Salas, 13, will undergo heart surgery at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Lake Barrington that will cure them of arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat.
Heart surgeon Mehran Jabbarzadeh said both girls were born with an extra pathway in their heart that sometimes will "short circuit," suddenly causing a very fast heart rate.
The condition can result in not enough blood pumping to the brain, heart and other organs, leaving Andrea and Leslie so tired that they almost pass out.
Jabbarzadeh said the surgical solution is to find the pathway causing the rapid heartbeats and burn or freeze it away, curing the problem once and for all.
"The ratio between success and complication is as high as it can be," Jabbarzadeh said. "It is a very rewarding procedure."
The pair underwent blood work and pre-screening procedures at Good Shepherd Wednesday in advance of their surgeries, which are scheduled for next Wednesday morning. Andrea and Leslie do not speak English, so accompanying them around the hospital was a laptop on a wheeled cart that hospital staff members would use to video chat with an off-site translator.
But the pair needed no translation when asked what they were looking forward to most after the operation.
"Chocolate!" they exclaimed, laughing.
Because of the effect caffeine in chocolate has on their hearts, the teens have been able to eat only bits of it at a time. That will change after their surgery. They also will be able to run, dance and do everything else a kid with a healthy heart can do.
"After so many years of being sick we are finally going to be able to be healed and be well," Leslie said.
Their trip to the United States was arranged through a medical mission sponsored by Healing the Children, a nonprofit organization based in Spokane, Wash., with a regional office in Barrington.
Officials at Good Shepherd have been partnering with the organization since 2007 to make needed medical care available for children in developing countries.
Jeff Degner, president of the Illinois-Indiana chapter of Healing the Children, said at least 12 other children have had their rapid heart rates cured at Good Shepherd through the program.
"It's such a joy to see the people here at Good Shepherd working together to help these kids have a good life," Degner said.
Andrea and Leslie will be staying with families from Hawthorn Woods for a month before returning home.
Kandy Gord, Leslie's host mom, said her family hosted a boy through the program in 2012 and felt such a connection that they recently traveled to visit him in El Salvador.
Marianna Bagshaw, Andrea's host mom, said it is her family's first time hosting.
"I feel that it will be as much of a gift to us as it will be to Andrea," she said.
While neither host family speaks Spanish, Gord said they are able to translate through an iPad.
"Communicating was no problem," Gord said. "They speak from their heart."
Through all that Andrea and Leslie have been through since leaving home Tuesday, the one constant has been having each other. In between procedures Wednesday, they chatted, joked and laughed together like lifelong friends.
When asked how long the two had known each other, they looked at each other and began to count on their fingers. Satisfied they had the right answer, Andrea turned to face the translator and said "dos dias."
"Two days," said the translator.
When asked how it could be that the two could seem to be such good friends after such a short time, the pair came up with their answer.
"We have a lot in common," Leslie said.