After 11 days of skiing north in bitter temperatures, over uneven sheets of ice, and into piercing, gusting winds, a Toronto cardiologist and a heart transplant patient have made it to the North Pole.
Dr. Heather Ross and Dale Shippam reached the northernmost point of the globe early Thursday morning. The pair, who took on this extreme trek to inspire more people to donate their organs, called the Star at 4 a.m. to share their feelings about attaining their goal.
“We’re here, the first ever transplant patient that we know of who’s ever stood at the top of the world,” said Ross, director of the cardiac transplant program at Toronto General Hospital.
“It’s an incredibly emotional experience to be here after days of really hard work and effort and a lot of extreme weather and circumstances,” she said, the whipping winds blurring her words and her voice shaking with emotion.
“This has been an incredible adventure.”
The 47-year-old cardiologist hopes the expedition to the North Pole will save lives by raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for heart disease research. The campaign, dubbed Test Your Limits, had already raised more than $300,000 before she left Toronto on March 30.
For Shippam, a 58-year-old firefighter from Thunder Bay, skiing to the North Pole was a way to pay tribute to the stranger who gave him a heart and a way to show Canadians that transplant patients go on to have extraordinary lives.
“To have adventures like this after a transplant just proves that organ donation does work,” said Shippam, who received a transplant in 1999 after a viral infection severely damaged his own heart.
“It doesn’t seem real to experience an adventure like this after a new heart. Really, I thought that if I was even lucky enough to survive and get a transplant that my life would be more sedentary,” he said.
“Getting here, it is a miracle.”
The five-member trekking team, made up of Ross, Shippam, two guides and Dr. Michel White, director of the Montreal Heart Institute’s heart failure research program, reached the Russian ice station Barneo on April 4. That afternoon, after a helicopter dropped them at 89 degrees north latitude, they strapped on their skis and headed north.
The team was warned the approximate 100-kilometre trek to the North Pole, located at 90 degrees north latitude, could have taken between eight and 14 days. Extreme weather and drifting ice were their biggest challenges. Ross, who posted daily accounts of the expedition on the Test Your Limits website, described how the team would wake up in the morning to find themselves two miles further south than when they went to sleep.
Standing at the North Pole, Shippam was overcome with gratitude for the doctors who saved his life and for the family who gave him their loved one’s heart.
“In the end,” he said, taking a long pause before he could find the words to go on, “we have to thank all the families who say ‘yes’ to organ donation when asked that tough question at the hospital.”