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First heart transplant patient climbs peak
( 2003-08-27 15:09) (Agencies)

After a grueling 12-hour climb that defied her wildest dreams, Kelly Perkins celebrated reaching the summit of the Matterhorn ! with a stranger's heart pounding in her chest.

Perkins became the first person with a heart transplant to scale the 14,686-foot peak despite a medical condition that can even make stairs seem daunting.

"It's great," said the slight, 42-year-old from Laguna Niguel, Calif. upon returning to her hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland on Tuesday. "Physically I was amazed at how well I held out. I felt really strong."

"The closer we got to the climb, the more unrealistic it all became. I went from being completely confident to completely discouraged ... to simply doing it," she said, bubbling with enthusiasm after Monday's climb.

The medical and mountaineering communities both praised her achievement.

"I believe this feat is extraordinary for any person, especially a heart transplant recipient," said Dr. Jon Kobashigawa, medical director of the UCLA Heart Transplant Program and Perkins' cardiologist. "Kelly is truly a role model for all patients who are afflicted with serious illnesses."

Heart transplant patients have no nerves connected to their hearts. This means that the brain cannot automatically send messages to speed up the supply of blood during strenuous activity like climbing.

Perkins and her husband Craig fell under the magic of the Matterhorn while on a trekking vacation to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in 1992. Although they were both in their physical prime, neither ever imagined they would one day stand atop one of the world's most famous peaks.

Then Perkins' heart was attacked by a virus. In November 1995 she was rushed to the local hospital in Orange County which could not help her and so airlifted her for treatment in Los Angeles. During the helicopter flight, the pilot banked over Disneyland in an attempt to let the critically ill passenger get a glimpse of its Matterhorn replica.

"It was one of those moments which just stayed with us," said Perkins of the pilot's gesture.

She was lucky. She had to wait only 24 hours for a new heart ! from a woman who died while being thrown from a horse and whose family she subsequently got to know. For weeks her body tried to reject the foreign organ. To try to boost her morale, her husband bought her a charm bracelet and promised to buy her little silver models of any mountain she managed to climb in the future.

"The Matterhorn is my fifth," she declared proudly. Her other ascents included the Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California's Mt. Whitney, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro and Japan's Mt. Fuji ! where she scattered the ashes of her donor in an emotional ceremony.

The Matterhorn was also her toughest challenge. Its striking pyramid shape has proved to be the downfall of numerous climbers who underestimated the difficulties of the exposed surface and rapidly changing weather conditions.

"It's a true Alpine climb," said guide Jean Pavillard who has made the ascent at least 70 times. "You have to be up and down the mountain quickly, otherwise it's dangerous," said Pavillard who alternatively coaxed Perkins with glucose tablets and tea and bullied her into speeding up ! and finally pronounced that she was "exceptionally good."

The party set out in darkness just before 5 a.m. ! the most difficult part according to Perkins ! and reached the cloudless summit by 10 a.m. after ducking falling boulders and jostling with other climbers on a congested rope permanently fixed in the mountain. The descent took longer because Perkins was tired and she found it "really scary."

In most industrialized countries, there is a chronic shortage of organ donors. In the United States, there were nearly 25,000 transplant operations last year, but more than 82,850 people are currently on the waiting list. According to the LifeCenter Organ Donor Networks, 17 people each day die before an organ becomes available.

Experts say the main problems are reluctance of doctors to push grieving families into a decision and failure of people to take an advance decision and carry a donor card in case of sudden death.

Dr. Clyde Yancy, associate professor of internal medicine at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said he hoped that Perkins' achievement would encourage more organ donation and dispel misconceptions that transplant recipients are condemned to a miserable life of inactivity and medication.

"With sufficient donors, more people would have a really high likelihood of being able to go back to work, care for their families, climb the Matterhorn or simply go fishing," he said.

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