Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Heart-Transplant ~ Second Chance !

Taking heart on the highest mountains...

A jubilant Kelly Perkins, with husband Craig, in the Swiss Alps. The pair would go on to climb to the peak of the Matterhorn in a day-long ascent.
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Kelly Perkins accepted her donor heart while standing atop the world
Apr 01, 2008 04:30 AM Nancy J. White Living Reporter
At age 30, Kelly Perkins, an avid mountain climber, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart muscle disease. For more than three years, she lived in and out of hospital, so frail her husband Craig carried her up stairs. Then in 1995 she received a heart transplant and began reclaiming her life, one mountain top at a time. She's scaled some of the world's most famous peaks, including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, to raise awareness for organ donation. The author of The Climb of My Life, Perkins is to speak in Toronto at LifeFest Saturday.
From her California home, Perkins talked to the Star about the need for success stories, nearly fainting astride an icy peak and finally accepting the heart as hers.
Q: Did you know anything about the donor?
A: I knew she was five years older than I was, and she was athletic and my size, petite. She'd fallen while horseback riding and been admitted to hospital. She developed an aneurysm and died in hospital.
Q: Any problems with rejection?
A: I had six months of severe rejection. None of the usual drugs worked. Then they tried an experimental procedure, basically sterilizing my white blood cells.
When they told me I was in rejection, I was shocked. It was like I'd been thrown a life raft and then I found a hole in it.
Q: No nerves are connected to your heart, so your brain can't tell it when to speed up or slow down. What's that like?
A: I'll start up the stairs but for my heart it's as if I'm still sitting in a chair. So I get really out of breath. (Eventually) adrenaline starts flowing ... I have to warm up before I get going and taper off at the end.
Q: Were you wary of exertion?
A: I was super cautious. I remember stepping off a curb and landing with more impact than usual. I panicked that my heart would come loose.... But soon the issue was to redefine my self image, to distance myself from being a patient.
Q: There are lots of ways not to be a patient. Why mountain climbing? The strenuous exercise, high altitudes, remote locations – it seems like the worst thing for a heart patient.
A: The purpose became bigger than the climb. Every time I did a mountain, it was like getting a clear biopsy. The bigger the mountain, the better the health report.
Q: Ten months after the transplant, you tackled the 4,100-foot ascent of Half Dome to an elevation of 8,842 feet in Yosemite. You ended up in hospital.
A: I admit now it was too soon. I ended up getting dehydrated. But I had to get to know my body again.
Q: Of your many mountains, what was your physically toughest climb?
A: Probably the Matterhorn in Switzerland. When you climb that, you stay in a hut and get an early – 4 a.m. – start. You go to the summit and back in the same day. There are a lot of other climbers. So speed is very important and because of my heart, speed is my biggest battle. I had to really keep it together for 12 hours.
Q: Scariest?
A: New Zealand. We were on a big snow peak at a 45-degree angle. We had to cross a traverse very exposed on both sides. There were three of us roped together with me in the centre and Craig behind me. For some reason I came to a stop and my blood pressure dropped. I went dark. Craig grabbed the back of me and pushed my head down (to keep from fainting). So there we were at a 45-degree angle with our crampons and ice axes. I came out of it and said I was fine.
Q: At some point, did you accept the heart as yours?
A: We'd just made it to the top of Mt. Fuji in Japan, when Craig handed me a pouch containing my donor's ashes. It was quite a surprise.
He'd been in touch with the donor's daughter to ask if she had a wish she'd like us to make for her. We always made wishes once we reached a mountain top. She asked us to release the ashes. I felt the moment's gravity. But once I let the ashes go, it was so uplifting, as if she was free and I was free to accept my heart as my own.
For more information about Perkins, visit Details about LifeFest at
"Give The Gift of Life, Be An Organ/Tissue Donor, Its The Masonic Thing to Do"!

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