Keep an Eye on Your Heart

The Bencher—March/April 2022

By ileta A. Sumner, Esquire

Sixteen years ago, my husband shook me awake in the middle of the night after noticing I was drenched in sweat. As a military family, we know to do a quick diagnostic check to discern if a visit to the emergency room is necessary. But after going through the steps in our diagnostic book, the result was inconclusive. While my husband took care of our two young sons that morning, I drove myself the two miles to a civilian hospital, where my life changed forever.

Did you know that some of the hospital devices used to take your temperature, check your blood pressure, and detect your oxygen saturation have sirens attached to them? When my readings appeared on that multitasking machine, that siren begin to blast. Then, seemingly hordes of technicians rolling various machines ran into my room. My stats showed I was experiencing a crisis. An electrocardiogram was taken to measure the electrical activity of my heart and check for heart conditions. More machines began recording data—information that meant absolutely nothing to me at the time.

As I was wheeled into my own hospital room that afternoon, my husband arrived, followed by the hospital’s cardiologist. The first thing the doctor asked was if I had difficulty “keeping up” as a child. Unbeknownst to me, my blood pressure was 187/117, and my heart was struggling at a mere 10%. I have no family or personal history of heart disease or high blood pressure. But my heart was so damaged that the cardiologist wondered when I had first experienced aerobic problems.

I am telling you my story to remind all American Inns of Court members that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. It’s not diabetes or breast cancer, although physicians check our blood sugar regularly and recommend annual mammograms. However, we rarely get our hearts checked until we have a problem. Oftentimes, that is too late.

As a child, I was a dancer and an athlete. I began taking ballet at age three, becoming a serious dancer when I turned seven. In middle school, then high school, I played basketball, ran track, joined the pom squad. Later, I danced with the undergraduate Boston College Dance Ensemble while attending Boston College Law School. As an adult, I swam three or four miles a week or ran 12–16 miles a week. But on that chilly morning in November 2005, my heart was failing and I didn’t even know it.

Life Changes in an Instant

It’s amazing how drastically one’s life can change in a day. Each of the 10 business days before my cardiac event I was in court every day representing a different homeless victim of domestic violence. I was the creator of the first legal department at the Battered Women’s Shelter of San Antonio, having single-handedly designed both the mission statement and the priorities of the department, as well as creating every form and reporting mechanism. Not only had I “kept up” physically as a child, I was an extraordinarily busy attorney.

When I was initially hospitalized, I asked my nurse what they suspected I had. After she said “viral cardiomyopathy,” I gave her a quizzical look. She continued, “You remember the movie ‘Beaches,’ right? Well, that’s what Barbara Hershey’s character died of.” I now had a name to my illness: viral cardiomyopathy, a type of congestive heart failure from which 70% of the people who contract it die within four years.

I was hospitalized at that facility for seven days, receiving a different concoction of medications with each passing day. After a week in the hospital, I finally asked what the game plan was. The reply? “Um, we are just going to try and keep you comfortable.” I had seen enough episodes of “Chicago Hope” to know what that meant.

Nevertheless, I am still here! Years later, my cardiologist confirmed that had my husband not awakened me in the early morning of November 14, 2005, I most likely would have slipped into a coma and died.

Soon after that initial hospital visit, I had a defibrillator implanted to monitor and regulate my heart. In 2009, when my older son, then a fifth grader, was home with the flu, I was preparing my lunch when it happened: Boom! Cardiologists describe the feeling of the defibrillator jump-starting your heart as being kicked by a mule. But I say it’s more like being slammed by 27 18-wheelers all at once! My son rushed for help.

Where I Am Today

Since developing viral cardiomyopathy I have not stepped foot in a courtroom. Before my diagnosis, I was very active in the local legal community, but all that stopped. In 2012, I was able to begin to reengage in some legal organizations, including the William S. Sessions Inn. In 2020, during the pandemic, I successfully led our Inn’s outreach group through four small outreach projects. It is refreshing to be an active member once again, although it did take a little time getting used to the fact that more than one of my former mentees is now a judge!

I am still on 29 different medications and supplements. I have at least one appointment with a specialist every month, and I had my second defibrillator implanted in 2012.

To my fellow women Inn members, please talk to your primary care physician about getting an electrocardiogram. I’m not letting men off the hook either: I encourage you to talk to your wives, daughters (if they are over the age of 30), sisters, and mothers about requesting an electrocardiogram and learning about the importance of heart health. For you want them to be able to say, as I do whenever I can, “Thank you, Lord, for I am still here!”

ileta A. Sumner, Esquire, has been a member of the William S. Sessions American Inn of Court in San Antonio, Texas, since 1995. She is thankful to be married for 30 years to MSgt. (Ret.) James H. Sumner IV and to be mom to her two adopted children, Joshua Dominic and Jayson Joseph, after she had been given a life expectancy of four years in 2005.

© 2022 ileta A. Sumner, Esquire. This article was originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.