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Mercer’s protege carries out expeditions with new heart



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COLUMBUS — One of John H. Mercer’s most famous Ohio State University students was Lonnie Thompson, who has led 60 expeditions over 40 years, many to high-mountain regions, in search of ice that yields clues about the Earth’s climate history.

Now — as if that sort of career isn’t adventurous enough — he’s doing it with a new heart.

Mr. Thompson, 66, led an expedition to mountains in west-central Tibet in May, 2013, less than a year after receiving a heart transplant on June 1, 2012. And he recently traveled to South Korea.

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Mr. Thompson wants to be an inspiration to all people who receive organ transplants. He also wants to show insurance companies and employers that they should not discourage organ-transplant recipients from trying to resume their lifelong passions.

“If I can work at 20,000 feet above, other transplant people should have no problem with a normal job working at sea level,” Mr. Thompson said.

In October, 2011, as he and his ice-core drilling team were finishing up an expedition in the Swiss Alps, Mr. Thompson, then 63, gasped for breath. A fever of 105 degrees set in.

His brother was en route for what appeared to be an impending funeral.

The fever went away. Mr. Thompson was stabilized.

But he learned his original ticker was giving out because of a genetic defect.

“I looked at [my doctor] and said, ‘You’ve got to be crazy. For years, I’ve been climbing mountains all over the world and this heart has been working beautifully,’ ” Mr. Thompson said.

Doctors installed a heart turbine, a device to artificially pump his blood, while he awaited a heart transplant.

Looking back, Mr. Thompson said he realizes now he was in denial about his symptoms. “The reason I didn’t want to believe it was because if you put congestive heart failure on your medical form, there’s no way you'll get a permit to go run an expedition in some remote country,” he said.

He draws an analogy to his denial about his health to society’s denial about climate change. “You can’t ignore the symptoms of the change that’s taking place,” he said. “Carbon dioxide levels have been going up. Climate change is in the here and now.”

Mr. Thompson and his wife, Ellen Mosley Thompson, are part of OSU’s Byrd Polar Research Center. Mrs. Thompson — the center’s director — has led 16 ice-core expeditions to Antarctica, Greenland, and Peru.

Both hold many of the highest medals awarded to scientists by the United States and by governments of other countries, but had another one coming — the Benjamin Franklin Medal, one of America’s oldest and most prestigious medals for science and engineering. The Thompsons became the only married couple to get the medal — other than Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, who were awarded it for chemistry in 1909.

Ironically, he removed himself from the potential recipient list in April, 2012.

Mr. Thompson accompanied his wife to Philadelphia to accept the award, but had to remove himself from the recipient list because he was more than two hours away from the Columbus hospital where he was to receive his transplant. He got a call days after he came back. A successful transplant was made of a 22-year-old heart.

In January, Mr. Thompson was awarded the highest medal the Chinese government bestows upon foreign scientists.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.

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