Kelly Perkins received a new heart in 1995 and could have settled into a quiet life, relishing her renewed health and extra years without a lot of excitement.
But that was never the plan for her, or her husband Craig.
“We wanted to do something remarkable,” she said.
In the two decades since, Perkins has become an inspiration in the transplant community and beyond.
She’s climbed mountains on five continents and told her story around the world to motivate people to make the most of their lives – and donate their organs to help others do the same.
“The body is so resilient,” she said. “I wanted to shake the image of being sick and show what a transplanted heart can do.”
Craig said the couple is grateful to the donor “for allowing us to live our lives to the fullest. If Kelly can be a beacon for others who are faced with challenges in their lives, we’d like that.”
Marking an anniversary
The latest episode in the Perkins’ story is slated for late this year, when they will travel to South Africa to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first heart transplant.
On Dec. 3, 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard made medical history by implanting a donor heart into Louis Washkansky. The patient lived just 18 days, but the unprecedented surgery shocked the world and sparked medical advancements that have made transplants common.
According to Columbia University, nearly 4,000 heart transplants are performed worldwide each year, more than half of them in the United States.
The anniversary conference at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital, where the first transplant was performed, will include a long list of panels and presentations on scientific and social issues.
Organizers said festive and ceremonial aspects of the international gathering are still being finalized.
Climbing back to the top
For Perkins, it will be a meaningful but bittersweet return visit.
A native Californian, she was an active, athletic 30-year-old woman who loved the outdoors when a virus attacked and damaged her heart.
Four years later she received a transplant and vowed to reclaim her old vigorous life.
She headed for the mountains. With her doctors’ approval and Craig by her side, she conquered the Matterhorn in Switzerland, Mt. Fuji in Japan, 10 summits in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, Mt. Whitney in California and Yosemite’s Half Dome, among others.
Each adventure promoted organ donation and the potential of a new heart. She also found symbolic meaning in each challenge.
“Half Dome is iconic because it is split in half, which is why it got that name,” she said. “For me it represents a mountain that stands so tall but it’s broken. Anybody with a heart transplant or a heart condition can understand the sense of feeling broken. To me, this mountain represents strength, so you can be broken, but you can still stand tall.”
In 2001 the couple planned to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak on the continent where the first heart transplant took place. The trip was to include a visit to South Africa to meet Barnard, but he died a month before they arrived, at the age of 78.
“We were sorry to miss him, but we still went,” she said. “We met his team and toured the hospital and saw the equipment they used in 1967. Things have come a long way since then. I think that equipment was more daunting than Kilimanjaro.”
In recent years, Kelly has written a book, The Climb of My Life: Scaling Mountains With a Borrowed Heart.
Along with her husband, she also founded Moving Hearts Foundation to encourage blood donation now and organ donation later.
The couple stopped climbing mountains five years ago, not because of Kelly’s heart, but, ironically, because Craig suffered a spinal cord injury unrelated to climbing.
These days they run the foundation from their seaside home in Laguna Beach, California, where Kelly is a real estate agent and scenic coastal trails provide plenty of exercise and inspiration.
“My new passion is connecting the seven inches between everyone’s brain and heart by identifying the perfect place for people to call home,” she said.