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Woman hikes Half Dome in spite of heart transplant

Jenifer Ragland

Sometimes life’s greatest challenges can become one’s very inspiration for living.

This could not be more true for Kelly Perkins, who, only eight months after being on the verge of death, became the first heart transplant patient to hike to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome.

“I always like being at the top, and I wanted to try out this new heart,” she said. “I was doing it to prove to myself that I’m OK – that I’m not a weak, frail person anymore.”

Perkins, 35, spent most of her childhood in South Lake Tahoe and is a graduate of George Whittell High School. While she and her husband, Craig, now live in Laguna Niguel, Calif., her parents, Jere and Carol Williams, have lived and worked on the South Shore for more than 30 years.

“I think that every day is a day of great relief when we reflect back on what Kelly has been through,” Jere Williams said. “I think the whole experience will make us all, including Kelly, better people. It makes us more aware how fragile this life that we have is.”

His daughter’s symbolic journey up the 4,100 vertical feet of Half Dome began in 1992, when she was first diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy – the condition that eventually led to her transplant.

Before she began noticing that her heart occasionally beat faster than normal, Perkins said she lived a very active life, which was why it was so odd for her to become ill and why it took months to figure out what was wrong.

But before leaving on their annual Labor Day backpacking trip, Perkins said she decided to get one last checkup from her family doctor – just in case.

“My resting heart rate was 200 beats per minute, and the doctor said I had to see cardiologist right away, so I was airlifted to Los Angeles to see a specialist.”

That is when the real challenge began.

What doctors at the Good Samaritan Hospital found was that a virus “from out of the blue” had attacked Perkins’ heart, causing scarring of her heart tissue that interfered with the organ’s electrical impulses and caused it to race.

They inserted an Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defribrillator – which works in the opposite way as a pacemaker – to shock her heart into slowing down.

“I was on different medication – up to 30 pills a day, and living with the implant,” Perkins said. “We always had a bag packed, ready to go to the hospital. It was really tough for three years.”

She said what she is most grateful for is the support she received from her family, particularly Craig.

“He never made me feel guilty about it, and he always said it was ‘our problem,'” she said. “That really got me through a lot.”

In October 1995, her condition worsened to the point that she suffered congestive heart failure, and she would soon be hours away from death.

“I was sleeping through most of the day and night,” she said. “It was at that point that I needed the heart transplant.”

Perkins said the strangest part about being an organ recipient is that you are literally waiting for someone else to die.

“At the same time you look at it as a very mechanical thing that you need, and it’s going to save your life,” she said. “You just totally desensitize the human part of it.”

Now, she said every night she and Craig say a prayer for the young woman whose heart gave them another chance.

Perkins describes having a heart transplant as “exchanging one set of problems for another.” Still, she said managing the daily inconveniences is well worth being given the opportunity to live again.

Her gratitude for that opportunity is what motivated her to climb Half Dome and what inspires her to help others who are battling chronic illnesses.

“You are given such a wonderful gift, and you feel an obligation to give back,” she said. “This heart could have gone to anybody. If I sit back and do nothing worthwhile, it could have gone to somebody who made a difference.”

She completed one of those goals when she reached the 8,842-foot summit of Yosemite’s popular hiking destination, she said.

The 11-hour, 17-mile trek ended in teary-eyed triumph as Perkins blew bubbles off of the edge of the cliff and made a wish, with two women who were cheering her on along the way.

Perkins, who otherwise works as a residential appraiser, has written a workbook to be used by caregivers and patients who are faced with the task of organizing medical records, medications and doctors’ appointments.

More information about Perkins hike of Half Dome and her workbook can be accessed via the Internet, at http://www.andreas.com/crakel/. Her story is also featured in the April edition of McCall’s, a national magazine.

Perkins said her traumatic experience has taught her, above all, to take advantage of life while she can.

“I don’t know that I will be around five more years or 20 more years,” she said. “The biggest lesson was probably to take each day one at a time and appreciate every day, because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”


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