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Panic at the Pump

Heart-transplant recipient Kelly Perkins scales peaks to prove a point.

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As she celebrated her fifth wedding anniversary by skiing the Swiss Alps with her husband — a fellow San Francisco State alum — Kelly Perkins noted that it was "a perfect day": Of course. That's how many real-life scary stories often start. "We schussed down wide-open runs dotted with stone huts strategically placed to entice adventurers in," she remembers. "Craig and I smiled at one another as an elderly couple, probably in their eighties, skied past us. I said, 'That will be us at their age.' Not missing a beat, Craig nodded in agreement." Days later, they hiked the trails at the foot of the Matterhorn, which Lake Tahoe native Perkins calls "the grand mountain."

But a month after returning home, she felt unwell. After an electrocardiogram revealed her heart racing at 190 beats per minute, doctors deduced that Perkins had contracted a virus that had infected her heart and damaged it beyond repair. She spent the next three and a half years in and out of hospitals, on death's door — until a heart transplant at UCLA gave her back her life. Since then, she's become a transplant activist, climbing the world's most famous mountains to demonstrate the importance of organ donation. In 2001, she became the first heart transplant to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro; in 2003, she repeated that feat on Mt. Fuji — hoping that her ascent "might in some way lift the country's cultural veil and brighten the future. ... Archaic Japanese laws regarding death had just been altered. At last recognizing brain death, they no longer considered a stopped heart the sole determination of death. This tremendous change meant the possibility of renewed life for countless existing and future Japanese citizens whose only chance for survival would be through the gift of a new heart."

Part of Perkins' activism is a memoir, The Climb of My Life: Scaling Mountains With a Borrowed Heart, which she will discuss at at the Livermore Public Library, Civic Center (1188 S. Livermore Ave., Livermore) on Sunday, August 3. (It's dedicated to her donor.) Another part is advising the public about heart health. Although her virus was random bad luck, much heart disease is the result of bad habits. Perkins' main advice? "Make exercise your number-one priority. Book it like an appointment." At the very least, "walk every day." Better yet: "Add some type of resistance exercise. Strong muscles pluck oxygen and nutrients from the blood much more efficiently than weak ones, which means less stress on your heart. Strong muscles are better at sopping up sugar in the blood and helping the body stay sensitive to insulin. This keeps the blood sugar in check, thereby controls and helps prevent type 2 diabetes." But hey, she urges: "Keep it fun." 2 p.m. Livermore.lib.ca.us

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