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Ontario man hopes to become first heart transplant recipient to summit Mount Chimborazo

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An Ontario man hopes to become the first heart transplant recipient to reach the summit of a peak in Ecuador.

When Dale Shippam, 71, of Thunder Bay, Ont. was brought to Toronto General Hospital 25 years ago, he feared he was going to die. He was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and needed a new heart.

"Every day when you go to sleep, you don't know if you're going to wake up," says Shippam. "It was very serious."

At one point, Shippam went into cardiac arrest. 

"We were doing chest compressions in the elevator on our way into the Coronary Care unit. It was like something you might have seen on a TV show, but it truly happened," says Dr. Heather Ross.

And that was Ross's introduction to the patient who would one day become her partner in adventure.

Shippam got his new heart in 1999. Seven years later, in 2006, Ross and Shippam went to Antarctica, marking their first of 10 excursions they would take together.

They explored the North and South poles, biked to Mount Everest's base camp, conquered one of the world's most challenging trails - the Snowman trek in Bhutan - and more.

They will climb Mount Chimborazo during their upcoming journey to Ecuador. Its position along the equator makes it the closest point to the sun on Earth.

During this trek, Ross and Shippam will have to climb during the night hours, in part because the heat of the sun during the day makes the snow soft and prone to avalanches.

How does a 71-year-old man with a heart transplant manage such a high-altitude climb? With good training, good equipment and good teammates, say Shippam and Ross.

With this trip to Ecuador, Shippam is trying to become the first heart transplant recipient to reach an altitude of 6,310 metres.

Like their other excursions, the climb is part of Test Your Limits, an organization to raise awareness and funds for cardiac research.

Ross, who heads the Department of Cardiology at the University Health Network, says they've raised about 4 million dollars over the years for pioneering technology to help cardiac patients.

In 2006, when Health Canada had approved but not yet issued funding for mechanical hearts, Test Your Limits helped purchase the device for patients.

"Since that time, Test Your Limits continued to fund innovative and disruptive technologies that can sometimes have difficulties getting traditional funding," says Ross.

This year's climb aims to fund the development of wearable, artificial intelligence-driven devices that can predict cardiopulmonary performance, especially in patients with heart failure.

She points to Shippam as evidence of the progress that research and technology can lead to.

"Dale is just an incredible human, right?" she says. "But it also speaks to the wonders of science."

As for Shippam, his message is simple: "Organ donation works. That's what Test Your Limits is all about." 

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