Comunidad y Cultura Local
Both Sides / Jay Bildstein
Diario de Xalapa
5 de mayo de 2008

Beyond Heart: Kelly Perkins

I have a new hero and her name is Kelly Perkins. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Kelly. She is one of the most astonishing, inspiring people I have ever had the pleasure of speaking to. After reading today's column, I believe you will think so too.

In 1992, Kelly was a healthy, vigorous 30 year old woman. She was married and enjoying her life, when calamity suddenly struck. Kelly contracted a virus. The virus attacked her heart. Ironically, this was a virus that could have gone to her gastrointestinal system and caused stomach discomfort. Instead, she ended up in bad shape, her heart under siege.

Over the course of three years, Kelly attempted to hang onto her diminishing health. At times, she was taking 28 pills daily. Her husband had to literally carry her up the stairs of their home at night. She called her life during this period, "a horrible existence". By 1995 Kelly suffered congestive heart failure, compromising her other organs and necessitating a transplant.

That year, Kelly Perkins received a heart transplant. We could stop this story here and it would be amazing enough. We could say, "Wow, this young woman got dealt a tough hand, went from being healthy and active to having a heart transplant, but 13 years later she is living her life; truly inspirational." As incredible as that would seem, it is just the beginning of her miraculous story.

At 34 years of age, Kelly had a new heart and a new start. She was immensely grateful for this new lease on life, but she needed to redefine her self-image. She wanted to build up her strength and get back to an active lifestyle. Most of us might think getting back to an active lifestyle -especially for a heart transplant recipient- would mean walking the dog, or doing some light gardening. Not Kelly Perkins.

Kelly always had a love of mountains and mountain climbing, though most of what she had done pre-transplant was hiking California's Sierra Nevadas. She was a recreational outdoorswoman. After her ordeal, she wanted to get back to the outdoors and use the activity to distract her from what she had gone through.

Post-heart transplant surgery, Kelly became a bona fide mountaineer. In today's increasingly sedentary world, lots of otherwise healthy people find walking up a steep hill challenging. How many people would ever consider mountain climbing? How many could imagine mountain climbing on a borrowed heart? Talk about a true example for overcoming life's obstacles.

Kelly and her husband have climbed some of the world's most prominent peaks, including Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Matterhorn, Mount Whitney, El Capitan, Mount Aspiring in New Zealand, the Cajon de Arenales region in Argentina, and Half Dome in Yosemite. We spoke about famous Mexican peaks, like Pico de Orizaba, and Kelly said she would certainly like to climb them as well.

Kelly chooses to climb mountains as part of her personal effort to raise awareness for organ, tissue and blood donation. For instance, she climbed El Capitan, a 910 meter vertical rock formation in California's Yosemite National Park. On its southwest face there is a natural heart shaped cutout. To make her way up this huge granite wall, Kelly utilized a technique called Jumaring, an ascension process utilizing ropes.

"We thought, how great would that be to climb straight through the heart of El Capitan... in a symbolic way we are tugging on the heart strings of people to be educated about organ donation", said Kelly.

The El Capitan ascent in 2005 saw Kelly on a portaledge, a deployable hanging tent system akin to a painter's scaffold, for six days. Listening to her speak about her amazing feats, I asked if there were any limitations on her training and climbing. She explained that transplant patients actually do better with training.

Upon telling Kelly she reminded me of Lance Armstrong -the world famous Tour de France cyclist- who overcame cancer and raises awareness for it, Kelly modestly stated, "Everybody is a Lance in some aspect of their life." Perhaps, this is the most impressive thing about Kelly Perkins. With all she has been through and all she has accomplished, she exhibits remarkable humility. And to hear her voice is to know the joy of being alive.

Kelly Perkins has written a book about her experiences entitled The Climb of My Life. To find out more about Kelly and her book you can click onto her website, www.TheClimbOfMyLife.com. Additionally, my interview with Kelly will be available, as a podcast, on www.DiaDay.com, which launches in June.

As always, you can reach us with your questions and comments at bothsidesdx@hotmail.com. We look forward to hearing from you.