Herd Member | Jessica Sumter

NYE, 2020. It’s been a year lol. 

Forest asked me to write this post a few months ago and I just couldn’t think of the words to say. I could find excuses; I’m too busy… horse shows… 2020… but that wouldn’t be true. I just don’t typically want to talk about my heart condition. 

I was born with Tetrology of Fallot. The basics? I had holes in my heart valves and the valves don’t close all the way so some of the blood pumping through my heart goes backwards until it’s finally pumped forward again. This makes it difficult for me to go on a long runs, hikes, play sports, etc. without regular breaks. 

So, how do I ride? I was a pretty determined kid. I have liked sports my whole life. I was taught how to throw a baseball and football as soon as I could lift them. I always preferred to be outside, and I loved animals. I couldn’t play typical sports so my parents started looking for something else for me to do and we discovered that I loved horses. My cardiologist at Children’s WI looked into it and said that as long as I learned to tell people when I needed a break, I was ok to take lessons. Woo! 

And here we are 21 years later. Now, what really got Forest and I talking? A birth defect isn’t something SUPER different than many things. In December 2014, I was finishing my last semester of college and working full time at a hunter/jumper barn in Cedarburg so that I could pay for my lease and riding lessons, when shortly after Christmas I came down with something. I figured it was the flu, so I kept working and thought nothing of it. New Year’s came and went and I still wasn’t completely rid of it but I felt good enough to ride and work. Until one morning I wasn’t. Long story short, I was sent to Children’s for a blood infection; and it was doing damage to the artificial valves that were in my heart. It was even doing some new damage to other valves. 2 heart surgeries and a lung re-inflated later, and we’re at the end of January. I was in the hospital for 18 days while they figured out how to stop the infection, replace the damaged valves, and pull the fluid out that had started to build. 

So how does this happen to someone that, for having a heart condition, is in the best physical condition they can be in? Well, life can be funny as I’m sure we’ve all figured out over the past year. The very thing that was keeping me in peak physical condition was also the thing that tried to break my body down. See, some horses are carriers of the Strep C virus. I must have gotten a cut at some point doing chores on the farm (crazy right?), and happened to also get a virus in my bloodstream. Having artificial valves like I did became a target, and that is where the virus headed. 

I didn’t ride for close to 5 months. I had to go through cardiac rehab before I could; again, that funny peak physical condition helped me and I got through it in 1/2 the time they told me I would. Yes, I was that determined. I wasn’t sure if my cardiologist would let me ride again, so I showed him I was ready and he let me; with conditions of course. I’m now the girl in the ring with a protective vest and gloves on at all times; with hand sanitizer everywhere and that won’t eat anything until I can grab it. 

I had to rely on my barn family to give me updates, of which they gave me tons and to this day I still can’t thank them enough for all their support in those months. I had had goals for that year. I had just graduated college. I was supposed to be looking for a job (what, I had no idea). I wanted to show my first entire show season on a horse I had given my heart to and rode 6 days a week, so that we could ride in the 2015 season. 

Now, I go out to the barn not just because I finally hit those goals with my mare, but simply because I can’t stay away. I love riding. I love my barn family (that now spans a few barns; yes, our community can be that supportive). I have goals and I want to crush them (hello A circuit 2021), but I also just enjoy my time with these animals and the family I’ve surrounded myself with. 

One thing that came out of 2020 to be excited about? I went in for my annual cardiology appointment this year and was told everything has finally healed and I’m back to where I was pre-2015. 

So, yes, this year might have been a year, but we’re more than ready to crush 2021 and be stronger than ever!