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NEWPORT COAST — Kelly Perkins might be new to Laguna Beach, but she could look familiar to anyone who has turned on the television or flipped open a newspaper in the last decade. She gained international recognition in the mid-1990s as the first woman to mountain climb with a donor heart.

On Sunday, Laguna Beach residents are celebrating the newest member of their community with a party at renowned architect Pierluigi Bonvicini's Newport Coast estate.

Mike Spindle, a Realtor with Prudential in Laguna Beach, sold Perkins her new home and immediately took a liking to her and her husband, Craig.

When he and his business partner, Paola Porrini Bisson, met them, they said to each other: "We have to adopt this woman."

Spindle thought the Sunday get-together would be a great opportunity for Perkins to meet people in the community and spread the word about her nonprofit, Moving Hearts, which promotes and raises awareness for organ donation.

"She does all these great things and she is just the sweetest, nicest person," Spindle said. "It's just to spread the word about her."

Bonvicini was quick to agree.

"When asked, he said, 'Absolutely. I want to have it at my house,'" Spindle said.

Bonvicini has designed retail spaces for companies, such as Max Mara and Benetton, commercial spaces and various residential projects in luxury neighborhoods like Bel Air, Palm Desert and the Hollywood Hills.

Perkins is looking forward to the event and the chance to talk to her new community. She's also excited about her move. It's a meaningful one for her and Craig.

"We had wanted to live in Laguna forever … for the last 20 years," she said. "We ended up in Laguna Niguel temporarily and that's when I got sick. We were kind of driven off our life plan. We had so much downtime with medical expenses. We had to regroup and put our life back on track."

On Nov. 20, Perkins will celebrate her 15th year with her new heart.

In 1995, she went in for a doctor visit when she thought her heart was racing irregularly. The doctor said she was fine and sent her home.

Perkins, known for her perseverance, went back the next day and a doctor took her pulse. Her resting heart rate was 200 beats a minute — four times her normal rate. She was admitted to Mission Hospital. But at 5 a.m. the next day she was told she would need to be airlifted to Los Angeles.

The doctors said a virus had infected her heart, scarring the surface and causing arrhythmias.

"I was super healthy," she said. "I was a runner at the time. I had no family history of heart disease. As you can imagine, it came as quite a shock."

An organ donation from a middle-aged woman saved her life.

"My mom's name is Carol and my donor's name is Carol," Perkins said, explaining that the donor suffered an aneurism after an equestrian accident. "I think that's kind of … fate."

Perkins was 35 when she received the transplant. Not long after, she was off and climbing again0.0

She and her husband had been climbers before her transplant, but it was the added desire to test her new organ that renewed her enthusiasm.

"The first climb was Mt. Whitney," she said of California's high peak. "I had done that with my native heart, and I wanted to test how my body functioned with my donor heart. For that mountain, I was the first person to climb the mountain with two separate hearts."

Perkins joked that it isn't a record most people want to set.

Most of Perkins' climbs are symbolic. For example, Japan enacted a law that doesn't recognize brain death. The heart must stop beating in order for someone to be considered legally dead.

"If the heart stops beating you can't donate it," she said.

So Perkins and her husband headed to Japan to climb Mt. Fuji to show what organ donation offers people. Japan changed the law.

During Sunday's event, Perkins will talk about organ donation.

"We don't ever expect we'll be in the shoes where we'll need [organ donation] to survive," Perkins said. "If I was in the position I was in 1995, when I needed a heart to live … if I wasn't a donor I would feel so guilty accepting someone else's heart.

"It's like winning the lotto without buying the ticket," she said.

She will speak to guests about the dwindling numbers of donors in California. There are about 7.5 million donors in the state, which means about 80% of residents are not donors.

On her website, movinghearts.org, she has a link where prospective donors can register. It's important that donors complete the online registry as well as the organ donor forms at the Department of Motor Vehicles because the little pink sticker on a driver's license isn't foolproof. Not only can it fall off, but it doesn't get entered into a computer so if someone doesn't have a wallet when admitted to a hospital, there's a chance the hospital won't have any idea. The DMV sticker can also be overturned by family.

"If you don't sign up, your family has to make that decision and that's a burden," Perkins said. "Oftentimes another life can be saved and it's not, because the family can't quite go there."

She is looking forward to spreading her message in the community and is thankful to her new friends.

"[Mike and Paola] have really embraced my foundation and helped me get the word out locally in the community," she said. "[Laguna] could not be kinder and more generous as far as opening their doors. It's all about connections in life. That's part of the reason I wanted to move to Laguna Beach, for that community."

For more information about Kelly Perkins, visit her foundation's website at movinghearts.org. Her book about her journey is titled "The Climb of My Life," and is available in bookstores.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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