California heart transplant patient scales Kilimanjaro six years after surgery

Saturday, November 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Six years after a heart transplant saved her life, Kelly Perkins braved cold, thin air to scale 19,340-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

The achievement was the latest in a series of treks by the 40-year-old California woman to summits around the world. Her goal has been to prove that transplant recipients can live a full life _ and then some.

According to the American Alpine Club's records, Perkins was the first heart transplant recipient to scale Kilimanjaro.

``It was pretty brutal,'' she said in a telephone interview after returning to her Laguna Niguel, Calif., home this week. The wind chill at the top plunged to minus-20 degrees, by her guides' estimates, and she said the wind was so fierce she was knocked to the ground.

It took a winding, seven-day ascent that covered 45 miles for Perkins to reach the mountain's highest point, Uhuru Peak, on Oct. 21. Her husband Craig traveled most of the way with her.

``So many times, I would tell Craig to pinch me because I couldn't believe this dream was becoming a reality,'' she said.

As her husband sees it, as Perkins pushes the envelope, she expands boundaries for others.

``It doesn't mean everyone is going to climb Kilimanjaro. But maybe this will provide a sense of additional freedom for other transplant recipients or people with chronic illnesses or other obstacles in their lives,'' he said.

``Maybe someone who thinks they can only walk one block might walk two blocks.''

Despite training, Perkins had to fight severe nausea and change her medication and diet in mid-hike to keep going. She borrowed a spare jacket from filmmaker-climber Michael Brown, who filmed the journey for Picture Plant Entertainment, as she made the final push to the top.

Last spring, Brown also filmed blind climber Erik Weihenmayer's ascent of 29,035-foot Mount Everest, in Nepal. Weihenmayer was the first blind person to successfully climb the world's tallest mountain.

Craig Perkins, exhausted from hiking just ahead of his wife to keep the wind from constantly buffeting her 5-foot-3, 105-pound body, had to stop at about 19,000 feet and turn back.

Among the eight climbers who reached the summit was Kelly Perkins' longtime friend, Susan Kjesbo, who also joined the couple in a successful 1997 hike up 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the United States outside Alaska. They also scaled Mount Fuji, Japan's highest peak at 12,388 feet, in 1998.

Perkins, a real estate appraiser, was dying from a virus that attacked her heart when she received her transplant six years ago. The heart came from a 40-year-old woman who was killed when she was thrown from a horse.

In 1996, 10 months after the surgery, Perkins tackled 8,842-foot Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

She was cleared by her doctors for last month's Kilimanjaro ascent and had medical help with a helicopter on standby.

``This is a monumental accomplishment, and it will spread the word of donor awareness around the world,'' said Dr. Jon Kobashigawa, one of her doctors at UCLA Medical Center.

Because the heart's nerves were severed for the transplant, Perkins' heart does not ``know'' immediately when to start beating faster to match the exertion of her body. Adrenaline kicks in after a few minutes, but first she endures an oppressive feeling of fatigue.

Kobashigawa said Perkins had proven that with exercise, people with donor hearts ``can develop extraordinary capacity. This will help other transplant patients. She's an inspiration and a role model for them.''

Perkins chose Kilimanjaro because the first heart transplant in the world was done in South Africa in 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. Barnard, who knew of the planned ascent, died a month before the climb. Perkins paid tribute to him in a small ceremony at the top.

So what's next?

``We don't even want to go there yet,'' Perkins said. ``I'm still remembering how cold it was on Kilimanjaro.''

If there is another mountain, it wouldn't necessarily be a higher one, her husband added.

``All the mountains we've climbed have been symbolic. They have helped us carry the story of Kelly's recovery and promote organ donation,'' he said. ``So if you hear of another mountain with some other meaning that helps our goal, let us know.''