How a Cana­dian Ex­plorer Gives Back: The Doc­tor Is All In

One woman finds her just right life

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Tara Losin­ski

I’VE BEEN BE­HIND the cur­tain. I’ve seen the stack of flats of pop just inside the door of Dr. Heather Ross’s of­fice at Toronto Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal. “A big Coke fan,” I re­mark as she es­corts me briskly through her de­part­ment at the Peter Munk Car­diac Cen­tre. “Diet Dr Pep­per,” she cor­rects. Ross, 54, is di­rec­tor of the hos­pi­tal’s car­diac trans­plant pro­gram. And the skip in her steps comes from more than just a jolt of cola.

“My mom says, even as a kid, I was al­ways on,” Ross says, re­flect­ing on her pace. She still had four or more hours ahead of her as we parted late in the af­ter­noon. A world-renowned car­di­ol­o­gist, she works 10- to 12hour days see­ing about 25 pa­tients be­fore 2 p.m. Add to the list her pro­fes­so­rial du­ties at the Univer­sity of Toronto fac­ulty of medicine and be­ing head of the Ted Rogers Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence in Heart Func­tion. I get the caf­feine habit.

It’s a tell that when I ask what’s her favourite part of the day, she re­sponds, “The be­gin­ning.” Ross loves her job. She didn’t have a rea­son why car­di­ol­ogy, ini­tially. But when her grand­mother had a mas­sive heart at­tack and died of heart fail­ure while hold­ing Ross’s hand, her spe­cialty was ce­mented.

She fol­lowed a med­i­cal de­gree from the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia with car­di­ol­ogy train­ing at Dal­housie Univer­sity. Then it was off to Stan­ford for a post-doc­toral fel­low­ship in car­diac trans­plan­ta­tion. She also has a master’s in bioethics from U of T. Pro­fes­sion­ally ac­com­plished, yes. She’ll be fêted at a trib­ute gala this month.

And then, there’s what Ross does in her off time. Scales moun­tains. Rides rapids. And skis to the South Pole. Wouldn’t be for ev­ery­one but that’s how this self-pro­claimed adrenalin junkie takes a break.

To­gether with trans­plant survivors, Ross has com­pleted six ex­pe­di­tions for the aptly named Test Your Lim­its ini­tia­tive. Ross started it in 2006 to raise aware­ness and money – $2 million so far – for heart dis­ease and heart fail­ure. Af­ter we go to press, she, two trans­plant re­cip­i­ents and three col­leagues will em­bark on a 1,300-kilo­me­tre cy­cling trip from Lhasa, Ti­bet, through the Hi­malayas to Kath­mandu, Nepal.

“Peo­ple may not think I have work­life bal­ance.” Ross says. “But then I get to go off for a month and have th­ese amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.” Across five con­ti­nents, she has checked off an im­pres­sive bucket list. In 2015, Cana­dian Na­tional Ge­o­graphic in­cluded her on its list of Top 100 Cana­dian Women Ex­plor­ers.

But per­haps most im­pres­sive – she didn’t quit af­ter the in­au­gu­ral trip to Antarc­tica. Ross de­vel­oped high al­ti­tude pul­monary edema dur­ing a sum­mit at­tempt of Vin­son Mas­sif, the con­ti­nent’s high­est peak. Oxy­gen lev­els drop as fluid builds up in the lungs. The symp­toms can be sim­i­lar to heart fail­ure. And the con­di­tion can be fa­tal – even for oth­er­wise healthy climbers.

Ross de­tailed the ex­pe­ri­ence in a blog she posts daily dur­ing every trip to the Test Your Lim­its site (­wh­fon­ She would get within 200 me­tres but wouldn’t sum­mit and nei­ther would Dale Ship­pam, Ross’s for­mer patient and a heart trans­plant sur­vivor. He was fine but re­fused to con­tinue with­out Ross. Her eyes glass over as she re­flects on it. “I’m lay­ing there, and Dale is look­ing at me, and I knew he was think­ing, ‘You saved me. Now, I’m here to help save you.’” Ac­com­pa­nied by a guide, the two de­scended safely and Ross was suc­cess­fully treated.

She ex­plained with a smirk that col­leagues seem to make them­selves scarce when she starts plan­ning the next trip. Not ev­ery­one wants that much ex­cite­ment. It was a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But it didn’t slow her down. Nei­ther did dis­cov­er­ing she has a patent fora­men ovale heart de­fect, re­ferred to com­monly as a hole in the heart. It was dis­cov­ered dur­ing a phys­i­cal in prep for a sub­se­quent ex­pe­di­tion.

Even va­ca­tions with friends have an el­e­ment of ad­ven­ture. “They know I need to start with a day or so of get­ting my ya-yas out,” she tells me.

Of course, Ross’s day-to-day de­mands bal­anc­ing as well. “You can be a part of some­one’s life every day, for months. You’re see­ing them through their worst days. It’s hard,” she ad­mits. I ask how she copes. “Ex­er­cise,” she replies. I shouldn’t be sur­prised. “I go do an hour or so at the gym and burn it off.” Cy­cling, swim­ming, hik­ing and get­ting up to the cot­tage all help, she says – phys­i­cally and men­tally.

“You must have missed the bag of Soma cho­co­lates on my desk,” she adds with a chuckle as we make our way out through the maze of of­fices and cu­bi­cles. It’s the lo­cal choco­latier’s dark va­ri­ety, she as­sures. We nod over the ben­e­fits of that. I point out that it’s high in mag­ne­sium, “which can help you re­lax.” She turns, mo­men­tar­ily, to smile at the irony.

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