From Heart Transplant Recipient to Mountain Climber: Kelly’s Story

As a young adult, Kelly Perkins enjoyed a happy life with her husband, Craig, in beautiful Southern California, but still experienced some of the same types of concerns and insecurities many of us face, like wishing for longer legs, feeling like she didn’t measure up to her brothers’ athletic ability, and focusing more on shortcomings than achievements.

When she turned 30 and began a life and death struggle against virally induced idiopathic cardiomyopathy, which lead to congenital heart failure, she realized there was a lot more to living than having long legs or being a star athlete. (Just one of many reasons why we’re featuring her for Fit Bottomed at Any Age Week!)

In 1995, a month after turning 34, Kelly was the recipient of a heart transplant, and that’s when her current story, which she’s chronicled in a book called The Climb of My Life (available on her own website), began.

Kelly Perkins mountain climber

As the first heart transplant recipient to climb a mountain, Kelly not only rocked her own goals, but inspired people the world over. Credit: TheClimbOfMyLife.com

The First of Her Kind

Getting a new heart wasn’t like getting a new knee; it’s more complicated. “When a heart is transplanted, there is no way to reattach the nerves, so there is no communication between my heart and my brain,” Kelly explains. “This prevents my heart from receiving signals from the brain to speed up when I exercise.  I was told that, because my heart is ‘wireless,’ I needed to depend solely on physical exertion to release hormones (adrenaline) that would accelerate my heart rate.”

And her choice of physical exertion? Climbing mountains. More specifically, becoming the first heart transplant recipient to do so.

Now, at 52, she can look back at her life before and after her transplant and clearly see the differences. “Post transplant life is a blessing in many ways. Some of my greatest accomplishments in life are both after and because of my transplant,” she says.

“Having my body put restrictions on what I could not do, put what I could do into perspective … Once I got my heart, I felt total freedom to move beyond any self-imposed barriers and went for it,” she says. “In relation to what I had been through, I had nothing to lose!”

The Challenges of a New Life

When Kelly received her new heart, her husband gave her a charm bracelet … without a single charm on it. The purpose was to “memorialize the start of a new life,” she says. “I wanted to fill it with mountains I climb. Climbing came to be an outlet for exercise, travel and ultimately a call to action for moving people to be organ donors.”

And in case you think that training for and climbing mountains with a transplanted heart isn’t challenging enough, there was more to deal with when it came to people’s perception of what she was doing. “Many thought or accused me of risking my life to climb a silly mountain. But to me, it was all about myself perspective — my image of not seeing a frail sick Kelly, but a strong woman. It still carries me to this day,” she says, adding, “If and when I have a bad day, I look back at all my body has done, and I know it will pass.”

Kelly Perkins

Kelly Perkins, mountain climber and realtor extraordinaire.

Lessons Learned

Kelly, who now works as a realtor, has taken plenty away from her death-defying experiences, both in the hospital and on the mountainside. “I have learned to enjoy each day because it can turn at any time.  Today may just be the strongest I will ever be again so seize the moment!”

That’s not all. “It sounds jaded, but I do feel I have matured in a way that I don’t fuss about drama that is just drama. It’s such a waste of negative energy. I really don’t worry either. If something difficult is going on, I try to resolve it, or compartmentalize so it doesn’t take me down.”

And with those lessons and that positive perspective comes some perfectly Fit Bottomed advice for anyone at any age or stage of a fitness journey: “It’s better to try and fall, get up again, and if you fall a second time, make it a good story!”

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Kelly! And readers, if her story has inspired you to take on a new challenge, tell us all about it in the comments. We know you can do it! —Kristen



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