Journey through cancer begins at age 2, leads to health care career
Samantha Sumerlin has faced medical challenges throughout her life, and has done so with an appealing grace.
She underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor before the age of 2 and has had repeated surgeries over the years to revise — replace or modify — the shunts that were subsequently needed to drain excess fluid from her brain.
Sumerlin had become hydrocephalic after the surgery to remove the tumor, meaning that excess cerebrospinal fluid was collecting in her brain.
When Sumerlin was 14, she suffered bleeding during later surgery to revise the shunt, said her mother, Debbie Sumerlin.
The incident left Samantha Sumerlin with a life-changing learning disorder.
Samantha Sumerlin, who turned 30 this month, has become familiar with life-and-death crises, and, for her, it’s brought a kind of forbearance, a sense of humor and a deep-seated wisdom.
In fact, she’s become an inspiration to many.
“She’s got a million friends … everyone who meets her loves her,” said Sumerlin’s first cousin Anna Ellingburg. “She’s got a heart for caring, a heart for serving ... I think all of that came from God. I think it’s a gift he gave her.”
The Advocate wrote about Sumerlin first in 1992, when she was 9 years old, in third-grade at a local private school and coping well with the periodic shunt revisions. Sumerlin loved to draw, dance and cheer, the late Advocate reporter Laurie Smith Anderson wrote then.
The Advocate checked back with Sumerlin in 1997, when she was 14 and had been left with short-term memory loss and the learning difficulties following another surgery.
At that point, Sumerlin had had 11 shunt revisions over about 12 years.
Sumerlin told the reporter, again Laurie Smith Anderson, that she wanted to be a nurse one day and help take care of children who have to go to the hospital.
While Sumerlin’s learning difficulties may preclude her from a traditional nursing career, she has still found ways to follow her goal of working in health care.
Sumerlin completed the certified nursing assistant program at Our Lady of the Lake College Health Career Institute and in January enrolled in the medical assistant program at Delta College.
“I’m passing. That’s all I really care for. Even before my learning disability, I wasn’t that big into grades,” said Sumerlin, who was in honor classes at Hosanna Christian Academy before the surgery in her teen years that affected her learning.
She ultimately went on to Broadmoor High School with support from the school’s administration and the help of a resource teacher.
“I just got a certificate (at graduation time). My dear principal, Brian Vaughn ... he let me walk with the class,” Sumerlin said.
“After my surgery in ’97… I was told I would never be a normal human being again,” said Sumerlin, who said she believes it was a psychologist who told her so.
“Only God knows” what someone’s life will be, said Sumerlin, who has worked in day cares and as a sitter for the elderly as her circumstances have allowed.
This past summer, Sumerlin had surgery to repair neck vertebrae that were affected by her original surgery as a small child and also by a car accident in recent years, her mother said.
Debbie Sumerlin remembers like it was yesterday the Valentine’s Day of 1985, when Samantha was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Debbie Sumerlin and her husband, Ronnie, had been concerned for weeks about their little girl, their only child, who didn’t seem well and was very lethargic. The pediatrician said it was the flu; finally Ronnie Sumerlin pushed for further answers, and Samantha was admitted to a hospital for a CT scan.
The tumor was the size of a softball, on the brain stem, said Debbie Sumerlin, who taught in public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish for 30 years.
At M.D. Anderson in Houston, the Sumerlins learned that the tumor had characteristics of two types of cancer of the brain, astrocytoma and ependymoma.
Samantha Sumerlin receives a yearly MRI and complete checkups. The cancer has not returned.
“I’ve been going to doctors since I was 2 years old,” Samantha Sumerlin said. “Doctors have never scared me.”
In her second semester of Delta’s medical assistant program, she goes to school for most of the day, Monday through Friday. Sumerlin can’t yet drive again, after her surgery this past summer, so for now is relying on her mother for transportation to school and back.
Debbie Sumerlin said it feels like making up for lost time — time lost because of an addiction to alcohol that gradually grew for Debbie Sumerlin during Samantha’s teen years.
“She had a really hard time,” Samantha Sumerlin said of her mother. “Before, she would study with me, and I could comprehend.”
Debbie Sumerlin said she’s been sober now for several years and often shares her story and testifies about recovery at her church.
These days “I even get up and make her breakfast (before school),” Debbie Sumerlin said. “It’s helped in my recovery.”
“I’m enjoying her so much ... I’m getting to redo something — becoming a mom,” she said.
Samantha Sumerlin lives with her parents, but said she hopes one day to be financially able to live independently, perhaps with the help of a roommate.
She said when she was younger, she had dreamed of getting married early at 18 or 19 and having a big family.
“I’m so grateful my cousin lets her little girl call me ‘Auntie Sam,’ because I don’t know if I’ll ever get married,” Samantha Sumerlin said of Anna Ellingburg’s daughter, Kaitlin, who’s 18 months.
But Sumerlin knows there were times when she was younger when she was “not supposed to live through the night,” she said. “I have so much gratitude to give to the Lord that I’m here.”
Mickie Roy, the Allied Health Program coordinator at Delta College, said she felt like she knew Sumerlin for years before she actually met her for the first time in January.
One of Sumerlin’s uncles had been best man at Roy’s wedding years earlier, and Roy had learned of his niece’s circumstances.
When Roy did meet Sumerlin this year, she said she told her, “You don’t know it, but I’ve been praying for you since you were a little thing.”
The 7 1/2-month medical assistant program at Delta includes four school terms and an “externship” that is 210 hours of training outside the school.
The program includes classes on anatomy, physiology, medical terms, clinical skills and more.
Things don’t come as easy to Sumerlin as they might for other students, Roy said. Sumerlin can do the clinical procedures well, but the books are a bit more of a challenge, Roy said.
“Her dad said he has to make her get up from the table (at home), she studies so hard,” Roy said of Sumerlin. “She probably wants this way more than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”
“I think she’d be wonderful at a cancer center, talking with patients who are there for treatment,” Roy said. “She’s got the passion. She just has this little light in there.”