Aaron Knox – A Heart Transplant Recipient

A Tale to warm the heart. Aaron is to tackle Antarctica’s highest peak.

March 2006
Aaron Knox trains in the Columbia Icefield for a three-week expedition to Antarctica’s Mount Vinson Massif he plans to make in December. Knox received a new heart a year ago.

Aaron Knox found hope in Antarctica as he waited for a new heart.

The 30-year-old Mississauga man, whose sick heart was supported by a mechanical pump for 560 days as he waited for a donor organ, even carried a copy of the Lonely Planet’s Antarctica guide as he was wheeled into surgery on Feb. 28, 2005.

Climbing Mount Vinson Massif – the frozen continent’s highest peak at 4,900 metres — was a dream Knox and cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross shared before he got his new heart. That dream will become reality this December as Knox and Ross, medical director of the cardiac transplant program at the University Health Network, prepare for a three-week expedition that is part science, part education, part fundraiser and part celebration of life.

Antarctica was a touchstone for Knox as he waited for a new heart, giving him the strength to hang on as his own heart failed.

“You don’t know what is going to happen. The reality is organ donation is not as popular as it should be,” Knox said, citing the need for more public education.

He hopes the Antarctica trek will teach a vital lesson: “People who are transplants can go above and beyond like anyone else.”

EXPEDITION TO BOLIVIA

Ian Delaney, chairman of Sherritt International Corp. who is bankrolling the trip, and cardiac anesthetist Dr. Patricia Murphy are also part of the four-member Antarctica team.

The trek was inspired by a similar expedition Ross took to Bolivia in 2004 with two transplant recipients — one had received a heart, the other a kidney.

“When people think about transplants, strangely enough, there’s a lot of people who think it’s science fiction or they live only a couple of years,” Ross said. “There’s still a lot of misconceptions.”

Although Knox, along with the rest of the team, is working hard to build his endurance and leg strength, Ross said he will face some unique challenges.

Transplanted hearts have no vagus nerve to regulate the heart rate at the start of exercise, so Knox will need to warm up carefully.

He must also ensure he eats and drinks fluids to balance his complex anti-rejection medications, even though he may lose his appetite and thirst in higher altitudes.

During a recent training trip on the Columbia Icefield on the border of Banff and Jasper national parks, Knox said his greatest challenge was slowing his pace.

“You tend to forget you are a transplant,” he said.

The Antarctica trip will allow Ross to study how a cold climate affects heart recipients — the temperature will be -20C “on a nice day.” That is vital information for transplant doctors in countries like Canada, Russia and Sweden.

For this contribution to science and education, Knox praised his donor family.

‘MAKING HISTORY’

“They’ve done a lot, not just save someone’s life. It’s making history,” he said.

The trip aims to raise an ambitious $1 million for alternatives to transplants, including mechanical hearts and research into regenerative medicine.

There are 500,000 Canadians suffering from heart failure, 50,000 with advanced disease. Doctors perform just 180 transplants in Canada each year.

For more information, see http://testyourlimits-antarctica.ca

Update 2008: Unfortunately on the test day of the climb(in Canmore, Alberta) Aaron’s LVL went to high and the organisers thought it would be to dangerous for him to be at the bottom of the world and to have something happen. However, the climb still went ahead with another transplant patient and they raised a million dollars by selling products with a logo that Aaron had designed (to see the logo it is below in right hand corner).
Thank you to Melanie Rivest and Aaron Knox for giving me permission to post this heart warming story.

Coming soon: Melanie and Aaron’s story of baby Aimee-Lee who was born with a CHD.

Aaron with the team holding the logo that he designed