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A Lesson She Knows by Heart

June 16, 1997|ANN CONWAY

She'd hiked up Half Dome 10 months after a heart transplant.

But delivering a speech was going to be "much scarier," Kelly Perkins of Laguna Niguel said during a Friday benefit for the American Heart Assn. "I'm used to hiking."

Coming onstage at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel, Perkins, 35, took a deep breath and told guests: "If there's one thing you take home with you tonight, let it be an appreciation for your health. This was not my life plan . . . "

She had just turned 30, was happily married and physically active when she first noticed the odd, racing beats of her heart.

A general practitioner proclaimed her healthy. "You're fine," he told her. "It's probably just nerves."

But the racing continued. "I would lie down at night and feel it," she said.

During a fourth visit to the doctor, she begged him to again check her heart rate. "An EKG [electrocardiogram] proved nothing," Perkins said. "As I left his office, he gave me a card for a psychiatrist. 'I think you're stressed out,' he told me. But I had nothing to be stressed out about."

So life went on for Perkins and her husband, Craig. As always, they ran five miles a day--10 on weekends--and planned hikes with friends.

As the couple were planning a backpacking trip for the end of summer, Perkins decided to visit the doctor one more time.

The doctor found her "resting heart rate" at 200 beats a minute.

Her husband was called and she spent the night at a local hospital. The next day she was airlifted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

Diagnosis: an enlarged left ventricle due to a viral infection.

"My heart was way oversized," said Perkins, a petite blond with clear blue eyes. "And my left ventricle was scarred. The doctors explained that a person can get a virus and, instead of it going to your stomach, it goes to your heart and causes damage."

She spent more than three months in the hospital. Doctors kept her heart stable with medication. But her heart continued to decline. She developed congestive heart failure.

There was only one hope, she said: a transplant. "The doctors, my family--we all knew I needed one," Perkins said. "But the word was never said. One day, they came to me and told me they were transferring me to UCLA, and we all knew what that meant. It was our only option."

In November 1995, she received the heart of a 40-year-old woman killed in a horseback riding accident. After the procedure, "I was sitting up in 24 hours," she said. "It was wild."

Now, not a day goes by without Kelly and Craig giving thanks for the donor. "We pray every night before dinner for her," said Craig, 36. "We thank her for giving us the opportunity to be here."

Just eight months after her transplant, the couple began preparing for a trip to Yosemite National Park and a 17-mile climb up the back of Half Dome.

"Nobody had ever done it before with a heart transplant," Kelly Perkins said. "When we got to the top, we cried and kissed. And Craig gave me a gold charm of Half Dome. He had surprised me with a charm bracelet after my transplant."

On Friday night, the charm bracelet was tucked away at home. Perkins had something dressier to wear to the black-tie affair--a necklace hung with gold heart emerging from a silver one. "The silver represents Kelly's old heart," Craig said. "The gold represents the new one."

The silver heart is decorated with three small red rubies--one for Kelly, one for Craig and one for Dr. David Cannom, who "carried me over" Perkins said. "Without him, I would not have survived to get my new heart."


During the benefit reception, Dr. James Lindberg--president of the Newport/Mesa/Irvine division of the heart association--talked about what people can do to prevent common causes of heart disease and stroke.

"No. 1 is to stop smoking," said Lindberg, an internist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. "Second is a regular exercise program. Third is a low-fat diet," he said. "Those are the Big Three."

Guests bid on auction items, enjoyed a sit-down dinner and watched representatives of the St. Joseph Health System and the Times Orange County receive Legacy of Life Awards for their support of the heart association.

"Without the heart association's research to provide life-saving medical procedures, I wouldn't be here," Kelly Perkins said. "What happened to me can happen to anyone."

* Kelly Perkins can be contacted at

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