Kelly Perkins climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland last month. She’d already climbed Mt. Fuji, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Whitney. Of course, so have a lot of other people. But Perkins may be the first to do it with a transplanted heart.
“Kelly’s exploits are unique,” said Dr. Jon A. Lobashigawa, medical director of the UCLA heart transplant program. “This is truly an extraordinary achievement, and I think Kelly represents that unique transplant patient who has the drive to get back to her usual quality of life.”
Perkins, 41, who lives in Laguna Niguel, has chosen her mountains not just because they were there. Each climb carried a special significance for her and her husband Craig -- who, like Kelly, works in sales for an Orange County shipping firm.
In September 1997, two years after her transplant, she climbed California’s Whitney -- at 14,495, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. She had climbed it years earlier, before disease claimed the heart she was born with. Repeating a feat she had accomplished when healthy “was a huge deal for me,” Perkins said. “It was a direct comparison. I’ve done this, and I’m back.”
Mt. Fuji came about six months later. They picked the sacred mountain because Japan recently had passed a law recognizing brain death. Before then, you weren’t dead until your heart stopped beating, which made organ transplants in that nation all but impossible.
“We wanted to share with the Japanese what they had to look forward to,” Perkins said.
They chose Mt. Kilimanjaro in October 2001 because it is the highest mountain in Africa, the continent where Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart transplant in 1967.The Matterhorn -- well, that’s a little more complicated, and gets to the tale of her heart transplant.
The Perkinses had celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary by backpacking through Switzerland and Italy in 1992. They hiked around the base of the 14,692-foot-high Matterhorn. “We both looked at the mountain and said you’d have to be a serious mountaineer to do that,” Kelly said.
When she returned home, Perkins noticed her heart raced when she lay in bed. The doctor found nothing on an EKG and told her she was stressed out.
Two months later, Perkins went for her usual 5-mile run. She was the runner, not her husband, but she couldn’t keep up with him. She stopped and walked back home. She went to the doctor again. This time the doctor knew something was wrong, and she was admitted to Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.
The next day she was airlifted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. As they passed over Disneyland, the pilot banked the helicopter so she could get a better look at the Matterhorn.
“It may have been nothing at all, but it stayed on our mind,” she said.
Doctors at Good Samaritan discovered that a virus had attacked Perkins’ heart. The scar tissue it left was interrupting electrical signals, causing the arrhythmia. Doctors implanted a defibrillator that shocked her heart back into rhythm when it sped up and hoped it would heal.
About three years later, she was back in a hospital, at UCLA Medical Center. “I was one of the luckiest people in the world,” she said. “A heart was identified within 24 hours.”
She had the transplant Nov. 20, 1995.
“I went from this really frail heart barely pumping enough blood into my system to this new heart that felt like it would jump out of my chest.”
According to Lobashigawa, heart transplant patients typically have a reduced capacity for exercise. With a donor heart, he said, “there is no communication, the usual communication, between the heart and the brain.”
However, in Perkins’ case, “I’m convinced that exercise does provide perhaps some re-innervation, where some nerves grow back onto the heart,” he said.
All Perkins knew of her donor was that she was about 40 and had died when she was thrown from a horse. Her 1997 Whitney climb brought her some publicity, and the donor’s family read about the trek and figured Perkins had received the organ.
The woman’s daughter left a message on the Perkinses’ answering machine: “This may sound like a strange call; I think you have my mother’s heart.”
Craig heard the message, and with Kelly out of town, he contacted the donor’s family. Without telling his wife, Craig arranged to bring the donor’s ashes to Mt. Fuji in July 1998.
When the two got to the peak of the 12,388-foot mountain, Craig told his wife about his conversation with the daughter. Kelly started to cry. Then he pulled out a leather pouch with the donor’s ashes.
They released the ashes as Kelly wept.
Mt. Fuji may have been the most emotional climb, but the Matterhorn was the toughest. Much of the time they were using their hands and feet.
“It’s not a hike,” Kelly said. “It’s a very intimidating mountain.”
Perkins has been pushing herself harder since the transplant. “I have a file at home of things I want to accomplish. ... You don’t feel like you have the luxury to wait.”
Times staff writer Ray Herndon contributed to this report.