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 to prove that transplant recipients can live a full life — and then some, in Kelly’s case.
Kelly’s doctors at the UCLA Medical Center say she’s the first heart transplant recipient they’re aware of to scale Kilimanjaro. The Golden, Colo.-based American Alpine Club said its records indicate the same.
Accompanied most of the way by her husband, Craig, Kelly made it to Kilimanjaro’s 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 Laguna Niguel home this week. “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’ estimates, 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 a 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,” she said.
As her husband sees it, when Kelly 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, Kelly 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.
Brown also filmed blind climber Erik Weihenmayer’s ascent last May of 29,035-foot Mount Everest, in Nepal. That made Weihenmayer the first blind person to successfully climb the world’s tallest mountain.
Craig, exhausted from hiking just ahead of Kelly to keep the winds 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’s 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.
Kelly, a real estate appraiser, was dying from a virus that attacked her heart when she received her transplant. The donor was a 40-year-old woman killed when thrown from a horse.
She 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.
Kelly was cleared by her doctors for the Kilimanjaro ascent and had medical 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.”
“This is a monumental accomplishment, and it will spread the word of donor awareness around the world,” Dr. Kobashigawa said. “To the best of my knowledge, she’s the first transplant recipient to climb Mount Kilimanjaro — or Whitney, Fugi and Half Dome, for that matter.”
Kobashigawa said Kelly has 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.”
Because its nerves were severed for her transplant, Kelly’s 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.
She picked Kilimanjaro because the first heart transplant in the world was done in South Africa in 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard, and 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 Kelly 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,” said Kelly. “I’m still remembering how cold it was on Kilimanjaro.”
If there is another mountain, it wouldn’t necessarily be a higher one such as Mount Everest, 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.”