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Weakened heart gets a rare workout

Published Aug. 27, 2005

It was late morning and most of the rest of the Gasparilla 5K race entrants were enjoyingpostrace orange juice and energy bars when Lee Perkins _ racer No. 14273 to almost everyone else _ and his contingent rested in the shadow of the overpass that leads to Davis Islands.

To Perkins' right loomed Tampa General Hospital, his home for the past seven months. His wife spends much of her time with him in a personalized room on the eighth floor, where they await someone else's tragedy, which could change his life.

Behind him was all but about a quarter-mile of the 3.1-mile race course winding along Bayshore Boulevard. As he caught his breath in the shadow, Perkins posed for pictures with his grandchildren, gazing straight ahead and giving a warm, crooked smile.

What he saw was a finish line where people awaited him, and a whole lot of uncertainty when he finally did.

Perkins suffers from ischemic cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the muscles of the heart, and as a result he has been on a waiting list for a heart transplant for five years.

The long wait is why he persuaded his nurses to let him get out of bed at 6:30 and take a walk Saturday morning.

"I wanted to make people more aware of transplant and donor programs," said Perkins, 60, of Tampa. "I've been in the hospital for a long time and I just wanted to do this to raise some awareness."

Perkins, a maintenance supervisor at CF Industries until four years ago when the heart problems forced his retirement, was joined in his trek by his son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons, three nurses, five co-workers and Don Olson, a technician called a cardiac profusionist who works with heart and lung machines. Olson toted a backpack full of extra batteries in case the 2{-pound titanium device that helps pump blood through Perkins' body started to lose power.

After a minute or so Perkins, who was out of the hospital for only the third time since July, left the shadow of the overpass and walked the final few yards to the finish line. It didn't matter that it had taken him just about an hour and half to do so. He finished.

As he crossed the line and the chirpy computer registered the electronic chip on his shoe, Karen Wollenberg, a cardiac nurse practitioner in a red TGH jacket, leaned forward and placed Perkins' Gasparilla medal around his neck.

It was the beginning of a series of hugs and congratulations Perkins received as he tried to move out of the way of some other finishers. That was followed by his second-hardest task of the day: picking where to eat lunch.

"We're going wherever he wants," said transplant coordinator Lori Anderson, who followed Perkins through the race. "This is his opportunity to get out."