Jackson hole botanist thrives despite heart defect

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JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Born with a heart defect, Charmaine Delmatier has beaten the odds to stay alive.

Since being diagnosed in her mid-30s and having five consecutive pacemaker-defibrillator devices implanted in her chest, Delmatier is going public with her health challenges to convince others to live life to the fullest, she said.

"I may be the only person in the world with five," Delmatier said.

Her sixth device is scheduled to be inserted next year. She has had 14 heart procedures and 42 stints in the hospital, she said. During those hospital visits, her heart has stopped beating and required shocking back into action six times.

"I have dedicated this year to coming out," Delmatier said, "encouraging others to volunteer, to not fall into the depths of despair with human fatal conditions. Keep going, keep living. What I want to come out of this is inspiration."

A Jackson Hole botanist who has authored or contributed to many rare plant guides, Delmatier also has worked as a wildland firefighter and wilderness ranger. She swing dances, plays the recorder, prefers to ride horses bareback and this week is on a six-day backpacking trip into the Wind River Mountains in honor of her late friend Finis Mitchell.

"He and I logged lots of miles," Delmatier said. "Everything I've accomplished, I don't take credit for, it's based on all my mentors, the people who have been great Wyoming legacies."

Although she usually journeys solo into the backcountry, Delmatier has company this week on her trip to the Upper Titcombe Basin: valley residents Elizabeth and Greg Gerhard. Skinny Skis also is sponsoring the trip to help raise funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Growing up on the outskirts of Chico, California, as a child Delmatier would walk out her front door and head into the hills with the family dogs. It was a rural neighborhood full of corrals and horses she rode bareback.

"I didn't get my first saddle or reins until junior high," she said.

She was competitive in fast-pitch softball and field hockey through college at California State University-Chico while completing a music degree.

Right after Delmatier's graduation, the U.S. Forest Service hired her as a wilderness ranger supervisor for five other rangers in the Uinta Mountains along the Wyoming-Utah border. Fascinated by the plants, shrubs and trees she encountered at elevations up to 12,000 feet, she began studying them. While living in Green River for 22 years, she gave birth to a daughter, Elissa Refsdal, who started joining her on hikes into the backcountry as a young girl. She raised her without a partner since Refsdal was 5.

Her daughter's first backpacking trip involved an added difficulty: a swollen river she couldn't cross.

"I had to take off my pack, take her across river, go back and get my pack, go over get her pack, go back over and get the dog," Delmatier said.

Her love of wilderness has been passed on. Even now, with Refsdal grown up and living in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, "all of our vacations are to somewhere remote," Delmatier said.

In the 1990s, Delmatier headed to Laramie to complete a master's degree in botany.

In 1999, Delmatier and a team of two other women took on the task of documenting every native plant species at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Along with Amy Taylor and the late Heidi Gansen, Delmatier identified the plants on Rendezvous Mountain: 466 species, up from the formerly known 175. Her favorite one grows in Cody Bowl: purple mountain saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia).

She's co-authored the Wyoming Rare Plant Field Guide and the Utah Rare Plant Field Guide, plus contributing to similar guides for Montana and Colorado. She helped found the Wyoming Statewide Rare Plant Conference and served as president of the Wyoming Native Plant Society. She helped manage invasive species for seven years in Texas.

For more than a dozen summers, Delmatier also used her plant knowledge to predict how fire was going to travel, working as part of a private initial attack crew on wildfires. Often the crew would be flown in by helicopter to remote areas with dangerous fires.

"The flames reach hundreds of feet into the air," Delmatier said. "You have to have nerves of steel."

Her plant wisdom is sought even in social settings.

"I love to dance, at the Wort or Stagecoach, every week I'm in town," Delmatier said. "I'll get people coming in with plants, asking me what this is. A lot of people bring just a twig or leaf. We call that forensic botany, trying to identify something from practically nothing."

One of Delmatier's favorite things to do when she is in a big city for health care is to visit children in cancer wards, she said.

"You see the despair in their eyes, the overwhelming sadness that they have something wrong with them," Delmatier said. "I tell those kids they don't have to give up, they can live."

Until recently, Delmatier kept her heart condition to herself so others wouldn't cater to her.

"I didn't want to be treated differently," she said.

Now, with a sixth major heart operation looming that Delmatier realizes she may not recover from, she hopes her story will inspire others.

"I'm thankful for my life," Delmatier said.

She keeps a quote from her doctor, Byron K. Lee, in the front of her mind.

"My doctor said 'My job is to keep you alive, your job is to live life,'" Delmatier said. "And I do live life to the fullest."

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Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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