Heart transplant patient scales Kilimanjaro | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Heart transplant patient scales Kilimanjaro

Brenden Riley, Associated Press, and Nancy Hayden, Tahoe Daily Tribune

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 Perkins to mountaintops around the world to prove that transplant recipients can live a full life — and then some — in her case.

Perkins is the daughter of Jere and Carol Williams of Zephyr Cove, Nev. She was raised at Lake Tahoe, attended St. Theresa School and graduated from George Whittell High School in 1979. She and her husband, Craig, reside at Laguna Niguel, Calif., where they are real estate appraisers.

Accompanied most of the way on her climb of Kilimanjaro by her husband, she made it to the highest point, Uhuru Peak, on Oct. 21, after a winding, seven-day ascent that covered about 45 miles.

“It was pretty brutal,” she said in a telephone interview after returning to her Southern California home. “The winds were so fierce that once I was actually knocked to the ground.”

The wind chill at the top plunged to minus-20 degrees by her guides’ estimate, but despite the extreme conditions she found the experience incredible.

“So many times I would tell Craig to pinch me because I couldn’t believe this dream was becoming reality,” she said.

“I don’t like to say this is all about me because I had such amazing support. Sometimes people are afraid to rely on others for support — but everyone wins if you work together, if you work as a team.”

As her husband sees it, when 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 the lives,” he said. “Maybe someone who thinks they can only walk one block might walk two blocks.”

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

Because its nerves were severed for her transplant her 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 until then she must endure an oppressive feeling of fatigue.

Her husband, exhausted from hiking just ahead of her to keep the winds from constantly buffeting her 5-foot-3, 95-pound body, had to stop at about 19,000 feet and turn back.

Among the eight climbers who reached the top was her longtime friend, Susan Kjesbo, who also joined the couple in a successful hike four years ago to the top of California’s highest peak in the United States outside Alaska. They also scaled Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak at 12,388 feet, in 1998, where they scattered the ashes of the woman whose death had given Kelly life.

Perkins was dying from a virus that attacked her heart when she received her transplant in October 1995. The donor was a 40-year-old woman killed when thrown from a horse. Perkins began her post-transplant climbs in 1996, 10 months after her surgery, by reaching the top of 8,842-foot Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

She was cleared by her doctor for the Kilimanjaro ascent and had medial help with a helicopter on standby, but didn’t have a doctor on the last leg of the climb. Now her doctors, Hillel Laks and Jon Kobashigawa of the UCLA Medical Center, “are bouncing off the walls,” she said. “This is huge for them.”

Perkins picked Kilimanjaro because the first heart transplant in the world was done in South Africa in 1967 b y Dr. Christiaan Barnard. She paid tribute to him in a small ceremony atop the mountain. Barnard, who knew of the planned ascent, died a month before the climb.

“I felt it was appropriate to do a tribute to him as he represented a real milestone in medical history,” she said.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the Perkinses talked about postponing their climb. But she said she opted to move ahead, thinking how “a wonderful person gave me a second chance to live life to its fullest.”

So, what’s next?

“We don’t even want to go there yet,” she 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 said. “All the mountains we’ve climbed have been symbolic. They have helped us carry the story of Kelly’s recovery and promote organ donation.”


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