Yahoo! Exclusive: Transplant doctor takes on epic journey to the South Pole

For the past six years a group of Canadian doctors and transplant recipients have challenged and conquered some of the world’s most dangerous terrain, climbing mountains in Nepal and braving the treacherous wastelands of the Arctic to raise awareness for cardiovascular health.

Dr. Heather Ross is the director of the Cardiac Transplant Program at Toronto General Hospital and the head of the Mount Sinai Hospital’s Heart Failure Program. In an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Canada News, she discussed the group’s next mission: to reach the South Pole.

Dr. Ross, The Only Woman on the South Pole ExpeditionDr. Heather Ross chats with Yahoo! Canada about being the only woman on the Test Your Limits expedition to the South Pole.

Yahoo! Canada News When you first entered medical school, did you see your career leading you to the South Pole?

Dr. Heather Ross Well, no. But I have always been a bit of an adventure seeker and adventure admirer. I grew up with two older brothers. My first big adventure was when I was 12 and my older brother and I biked from Montreal to Vermont. Now looking back it wasn’t such a big deal, but at the time, when you were 12 it was the most epic adventure. I grew up reading Lord of the Rings and was just very excited by it.

Y! Can you walk us through your South Pole expedition?

Ross We are leaving on December 30 and fly to Punta Arenas on the tip of Chile. Then we take a Russian jumbo military jet called the Ilyushin. It lands on the continent of the Antarctic; it is about a four-hour flight. You really land in the heart of the Antarctic continent. From there a Twin Otter bush plane, flown by Canadian pilots usually, will take us to the last degree. From the last degree they dump us and we ski. So it is nothing like (Roald) Amundsen or (Robert Falcon) Scott obviously, but that last degree brings us some challenges.

Y! What kind of challenges?

Ross The main challenges we face are weather. Traditionally we can expect anywhere from -30 C to -50 C. You can well imagine skin freezes pretty quickly. The other big concern is the katabatic winds. The winds are pretty unpredictable so when they blow they can blow long and hard, and bring in flecks of snow and ice. It is not just the cold, but you can have significant skin trauma with the blowing.

The second issue is the pole itself sits at just over 9,000 feet, so you are skiing uphill pulling a 100 lb. sled. It is not like climbing a mountain… it is just steady climbing.

Y! And how long is the trip up the hill?

Ross Trip up the hill, I love it! I might put that in the blog. The trip up the hill. Basically we will have 14 days to do the piece that we need to do after landing. If we get done sooner, if we have blue bird days where there are no issues and people are feeling well, I imaging we could get it done in less time.  But that totally depends on what we are up against.

Y! You have been to the Antarctic previously (to climb Mount Vinson), as well as Nepal and the North Pole. What were some of the most memorable experiences on your previous trips?

Ross There is a number of epic moments. There was a moment on Mount Vinson and there was a moment in the North Pole that forever remain in my mind and make me emotional. On Vinson I got high altitude pulmonary edema, a climber emergency, and almost died on the mountain. As I was coming down with one of the guides and Dale (Shippam), a transplant patient, I remember the look in his eyes look at me because I was almost dying. Having been in the reverse situation when he was dying waiting for a heart, I remember just seeing — it is hard to define the look in his eyes at that moment.

At the North Pole, we got pinned down by the weather. We were pinned down in the tent for about 60 hours. We were very low on fuel and very low on food, and we didn’t know when the storm was going to let up. I remember looking at Dale on that trip, and he was so very calm. He said, “Now you know what it is like to wait and not know if help is going to come in time.” In his mind, waiting for a heart was, I guess, the most extreme example of waiting. But it made him incredibly calm in the North.

Y! I wanted to ask you about Dale Shippam, the heart transplant patient who has gone on these trips with you. How did your relationship start?

Ross He was referred to me with advanced heart failure in consideration for a transplant (in 1998). He had been a marathon runner, a firefighter. He was an amazing guy. He probably had a viral infection in his heart. It was pretty clear he was on the sicker side. During one of his admissions he got quite unwell. He arrested in the elevator and … I can remember getting onto his chest and straddling the gurney.

Incredibly he suffered no neurologic damage and he was able to survive that episode. Very shortly thereafter he got his transplant. He has been just the most incredible man. But in fairness, I think that about all the patients. You think about what all of them has gone through, they are all incredible for having survived it.

Check out the South Pole Expedition 2013’s website for more details about Dr. Ross and the rest of the Test Your Limits team.