In the midst of what she calls "a fairy tale life," complete with a great job, a loving husband and a hometown that truly felt like home, Kelly Perkins at age 30 suffered literally from a broken heart.
A virus ravaged her heart muscles so severely that, at one point, she was given just a week to live. For three years, she struggled and was in and out of hospitals.
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But, in 1995, she was given a second chance after receiving a donor heart. In the years since, she has made a mission of promoting blood, organ and tissue donation. She highlights the issue by climbing some of the world's highest summits in the hopes of inspiring others who struggle with health issues. She and her husband, Craig, have climbed many of world's tallest summits including Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro and the Matterhorn.
Perkins, author of The Climb of My Life: Scaling Mountains on a Borrowed Heart, will speak at the 40th-anniversary celebration of the Kentucky Blood Center. (For more information about her work, go to www.theclimbofmylife.com.)
The Herald-Leader talked with her about her life and her cause.
Q: Having heart disease at such a young age must have been a shock.
A: We both had really good jobs, we loved our community. I caught a virus and we were completely taken out of the game. I was so healthy, that's the crazy part of it.
We backpacked and had a completely healthy lifestyle. My college friends would call me "Temple Kelly" because of what I ate. For me to be the one to get this virus, I kind of felt like it was a slap in the face. It turned out to be a blessing.
Q: When did you decide to become a crusader?
A: I almost saw it as an opportunity that landed in my lap. I was doing something that I loved (climbing) and a newspaper did a story and the response was overwhelming. So many people are thirsty for hope. I found that just through my climbs and sharing my story that I could hold somebody's hand through their own process.
Q: So, you were a climber before you got sick?
A: I was. Not so much peak oriented. I was more of a backpacker. We were super outdoorsy. Now I want a milestone, something that is real significant. Just being able to go climb it just further distances me from the medical in my world. When I am out in that environment it is just so different. It allows me to focus on my capabilities. (Although she is healthy, Perkins deals with the consequences of taking immune suppression drugs to maintain her heart transplant.)
Q: What's the connection between organ donation and the blood center?
A: It goes back to just donating. It's critical to keep people alive. Blood is critical is so many different ways. I just look at it as life sustaining.
Q: What are some of the misconceptions people have about organ donation?
A: A lot of people think their loved one's body might be destroyed in some manner. There are some things that people believe that, religious-wise, it might not be the right thing to do. People have mysterious thoughts about what could go wrong. People think that organs come with some kind of memory or some kind of personality from that donor.
The biggest problem lies in that we as a society don't like to talk about death. I'm included. Who wants to talk about that? But when it comes a time to make a decision to donate, and families haven't discussed it, it makes it that much more difficult. If it could just be discussed, than it is a much easier for families to follow through with it.
Q: Do you know who your donor was?
A: I do and I am going to share that story the night of the Blood (Center) event. It's a really heart-warming story. Basically what happened was we just got a mysterious phone call. My donor has a daughter. Basically, the daughter called and said "I hope this is the right Kelly Perkins, I think you have my mother's heart."