Two years after her old heart gave out, Kelly Perkins put her new one to an amazing test: She scaled the nation’s highest peak outside Alaska.
No other heart transplant patient is known to have climbed 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, a daunting trek even for those with no health problems.
Perkins, a 36-year-old real estate appraiser, made the rugged, 22-mile round-trip hike over three days. She set out on Monday on the rocky, zigzagging trail, tearfully hugged her companions and blew bubbles to celebrate when she reached the top on Tuesday, and hiked out on Wednesday.
“You basically live in fear for so long that you’re afraid to try to push your limits at all,” she said.
“And so it’s very freeing to be able to push those limits and to succeed and know that you’re back.”
Perkins - 5-foot-3 and 95 pounds - had a go-ahead from her doctor because she was an experienced climber and had worked hard to rebuild her strength after her 1995 transplant.
But she also knew that of the thousands of people who try to climb the Sierra Nevada peak every year, many are forced to turn back. Sprains and other injuries are always a concern, along with altitude sickness, hypothermia, dehydration and violent changes in weather.
But the weather was perfect for Perkins. And her only problems were a slight knee bruise from a fall as she got out of her tent, and a mild headache.
As a precaution, her climbing team - including her husband, Craig, also 36, and four others - shared her load, carrying her blood pressure monitor and oxygen canisters. As it turned out, she didn’t use the oxygen at all, and her blood pressure was found to be OK during the periodic checks.
Perkins also drove from her sea-level home in Laguna Niguel, Calif., to the start of the trail a few days ahead of time to adjust to the high altitude, and started hiking slowly - a necessity because it takes a few minutes to get her heart rate up.
The heart is normally stimulated by nerves and adrenalin. But a transplanted heart no longer has nerves linking it to the brain. Perkins had to rely on adrenalin alone.
“It was really hard there at the end, and I really didn’t know if I was going to make it or not,” she said.
Perkins had climbed Whitney once before, when she was 25 and there was no hint of the obstacles ahead.
But in 1992 she was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, which made her heart race wildly. By 1995, her heart was failing and she was taking up to 30 pills a day. Her husband had to carry her up and down the stairs of their home.
Perkins got her new heart on Nov. 20, 1995, from a 40-year-old woman killed when thrown from a horse. By the following August, she had climbed 8,842-foot Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Mount Whitney became her next goal, but her husband had his doubts because of the altitude, which made him sick and kept him from reaching the summit when the couple first climbed Whitney 11 years ago.
This time, he said, he was prepared to turn back in the event of a problem. He said just making the attempt was enough of an accomplishment. “If we were able to make it to the top, it’s kind of like icing on the cake,” he said.
Perkins’ doctor, Jon Kobashigawa, is the medical director of the transplant program at UCLA Medical Center, the largest transplant center in the world. He said he knows of no other transplant patients who have attempted a high-altitude climb like Perkins’ Whitney ascent.
“She is physically quite active, she works out, and she has trained her new heart to achieve a high level of capacity,” he said. “She’s an inspiration to many other transplant patients, to show that they can get back to a good quality of life.”
Perkins is now looking for a new goal. “But it won’t be Mount Everest,” which is twice as high as Mount Whitney, she said. “That’s all I know for sure. I’m not that crazy.”