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Sacred Trek

Heart Recipient Climbs Mt. Fuji in a Mission of Gratitude to Donor, Effort to Help Other Patients

July 19, 1998|ERIC TALMADGE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ATOP MOUNT FUJI, Japan — On July 10, Kelly Perkins, a heart transplant recipient from Laguna Niguel, climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest peak, to perform an unusual and moving act of thanksgiving. Associated Press correspondent Eric Talmadge and photographer Junji Kurokawa were with her.

The climb was over. Kelly Perkins stood on the summit of Mt. Fuji, a freezing wind whipping through her short blond hair, tears and rain streaming down her cheeks.

She held the photo of a person she had never met, never spoken to, never seen.

She knew only a few things about this woman.

She knew that the woman was about 40 when she was thrown from a horse and had died somewhere in Southern California 2 1/2 years ago.

Perkins knew these things because she now carries that woman's heart in her chest. And as she stood on the rim of Mt. Fuji's volcanic crater, she also carried the ashes of this woman, whose death saved her life.

*

In November 1995, Perkins was at UCLA Medical Center, dying of viral cardiomyopathy. Three years earlier, a virus had somehow infected her heart, done its damage and vanished.

She first noticed the problem one night when her heart began to race. Her family doctor found nothing wrong. He suspected stress.

Perkins knew that wasn't it.

"I knew something was up," she said. "And I knew it wasn't in my head."

Before going on a backpacking trip, she had herself checked again. This time, tests showed her heart was running amok. She was taken to a hospital for a more advanced test, which showed the left ventricle was scarred and swollen to about four times its normal size.

A device was implanted in her side to shock her heart into the proper rhythm.

For two years, she learned to live with the problem and a very unpleasant side effect: The device tended to shock her when she laughed. So she learned not to laugh.

But a change in medication put an end to even that modicum of stability she had found in life.

To switch, she had to stay off her old medication for a full day. Without it, however, she was unable to function. Her heart ran wild; she collapsed. She was admitted to UCLA Medical Center and put at the top of the hospital's list for a heart transplant.

Somewhere, not too far away, a 40-year-old woman was thrown from her horse.

*

Perkins got her new heart and recovered so well that within a few months she was able to return to a favorite hobby--hiking in the mountains.

She and her husband, Craig, both of them 36-year-old real estate appraisers, started out on the gentle slopes near their home in Laguna Niguel. Soon they were making more serious climbs.

Just 10 months after her transplant, Perkins climbed Yosemite's Half Dome. The 17-mile hike to the 4,100-foot summit took her 11 1/2 hours.

Next came Mt. Whitney.

At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest U.S. peak outside Alaska. Perkins had done it before, with her old heart. "I wanted to prove that I could do it with my new heart," she said, "to prove that to myself."

With her husband and a four-person support team, she made the three-day, 22-mile round trip last September.

It put her in the national spotlight.

She was the first heart transplant recipient known to have climbed Whitney. She was sought out for interviews. She appeared on "Good Morning America."

Among the millions of people who read Perkins' story, one was particularly touched.

"The donor's daughter read an Associated Press story about Kelly and put two and two together," Craig Perkins said. "She found our number through information and called our home."

"It was totally unexpected. I was totally taken aback," he said of the message recorded on his answering machine.

*

While Perkins was making her Whitney climb, a debate over transplants raged in Japan.

For years, the Japanese medical community had urged the recognition of brain death, the condition that makes heart, lung and liver transplants possible.

But opposition was intense.

Critics contended that doctors shouldn't be trusted to make such a judgment, that transplant advocates would rush to harvest organs instead of struggling to save a dying patient. Others simply felt uncomfortable with the idea because of personal beliefs.

After being repeatedly shot down in Parliament, a bill recognizing brain death was about to become law.

Even so, Japan had virtually no infrastructure to carry out transplants. Legal obstacles threatened to make harvesting organs extremely difficult and potential donors were few.

For many Japanese in need of a transplant, going abroad remained the only real option.

"I had seen little Japanese kids at UCLA waiting for a transplant," Perkins said. "It's heartbreaking."

So, after Whitney, she decided to climb Mt. Fuji. Maybe, she thought, her climb could change the way some people in Japan felt about transplants.

*

The ascent was split into two legs.

It began at Station 5, a little base camp 8,250 feet up, complete with restaurants, lodges and a post office.

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