For most high school students, the sophomore and junior years are spent overcoming freshman year awkwardness, finding a niche and earning upperclassmen status. For Jessica Padilla, however, those two years were spent overcoming a serious medical condition, finding a whole new life goal, and earning a new lease on life.

It was the summer of 2004 when doctors told Padilla they had detected an irregular heartbeat during her tonsillectomy. That standard procedure began a long series of hospital stays and escalating heart problems, finally culminating less than two years later in a heart transplant.

“My sophomore year, I got a pacemaker,” Padilla said. “And then last year I needed a second pacemaker. Then I got really sick for a month-my heart grew to twice its size. … I went on the [transplant] list in February of ’06.”

Padilla said her rapid decline in health was hard to deal with, but was helped by her relatively short wait for a heart. She only spent about two weeks on the transplant list before her doctors at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital found her a heart. She recalled being told about the match at 1 a.m., and having a hard time grasping what it meant.

“When I first found out, I was really out of it still,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ But once people around me started talking about it, I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ That’s when I started freaking out.”

The transplant surgery was successful, however, and Padilla recovered quickly. She had been taking at-home tutoring or online courses for most subjects during her whole junior year, only going to RB for chemistry and choir classes. Less than two weeks after her surgery, she said, she was back in class.

“I came home just in time to make it into the last choir concert,” she said.

Padilla returned to school full time as a senior this year. She said it was difficult readjusting to the RB world, but her friends were always very supportive, and they kept her up-to-date on everything she missed when she was in the hospital.

“My friends always told me what was going on, but I still got a lot of stares when I came back,” Padilla said. “There were a lot of rumors-people thought I had moved, or had cancer. I’m still sort of trying to get back into the loop of things.”

As she reconnects with her old life, however, Padilla is also looking forward to pursuing her new career goal at Triton College this fall of becoming a radiology technician. She said she had always wanted to go into massage therapy, but after her experiences at the Comer’s, she completely shifted focus.

“After I experienced what I did, I knew I wanted to work with kids,” she said. “I went through it, so I already know a lot of the techniques you need to use.”

Padilla was also spurred to go into a science-related field when she discovered she had a talent for chemistry in the midst of her junior year.

“Chemistry was easy for me,” she remembered. “On my first day back, I had no idea what was going on, but by the end of the day I was basically doing my friends’ homework.”

Beyond altering her post-RB plans, Padilla said the past two years have changed her in other ways. Mostly, she said, she’s become more willing to accept challenges and deal with change.

This is probably best illustrated in her description of her current drug regimen. Padilla still takes about 20 pills every day, but looks at it as a skill instead of a burden.

“I’m a pro at taking medicine,” she said. “I can take them all at once. I guess it’s my new special talent.”