Kimmaliardjuk knew she wanted to be a surgeon from the age of six. Photo: Courtesy of The University of Ottawa Heart Institute.
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Donna May Kimmaliardjuk discusses working at U of O’s Heart Institute

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk knew that she wanted to be a surgeon from the age of six. Her parents always encouraged her, but warned her that she would have to work hard and face many challenges along the way. Now, Kimmaliardjuk, or Dr. K to her patients and colleagues, is Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon, working at the University of Ottawa’s Heart Institute.

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Ottawa, Kimmaliardjuk says that she has not forgotten her roots in Canada’s north. With extended family in Rankin Inlet and Chesterfield Inlet, her parents have always made it a priority for her and her brother to visit and talk about their Inuit culture.

“I have always identified strongly as Inuit,” Kimmaliardjuk explained.

Her passion for medicine stemmed from a conversation she had with her father at the age of six. “I asked him why my grandfather died when my dad was very young,” she said. “I remember it making me really sad. I don’t want to lose my parents to illness and I don’t want any other children to. I want to help people.”

Upon beginning her studies in medicine at the University of Calgary, Kimmaliardjuk says she knew she wanted to be a surgeon but was unsure of her specialty.

“I fell in love with the heart,” Kimmaliardjuk said. “I loved learning about it, studying it, everything about it. It’s the powerhouse of the body.”

In a typical day as a resident, Kimmaliardjuk works 8-12 hours a day. “The University of Ottawa Heart Institute has been so welcoming. It feels like a second home. I really feel like I can be myself and joke around with the people there.”

Being seen as a trailblazer for her community, according to Kimmaliardjuk, is “very flattering, but definitely an adjustment.” Although she admits that she didn’t think that she would ever get so much attention and media requests, she says that she is happy to be a voice for her community. “If I can shed a positive light for someone in this way, then I am happy to do it.”

Kimmaliardjuk notes the pressure of the job, especially while still being a trainee, but being a surgeon she tends to “thrive off of pressure and high intensity situations.”

She is thankful that the attention she has garnered recently for being Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon has not affected any of her relationships with her patients.“My patients care about if I can do their surgery or not. Being seen as the first is not important for me and it doesn’t affect how my patients see me.”

Kimmaliardjuk’s advice for other young people, who may come from marginalized backgrounds is to “go after your goals and dreams.”

“Even if you are intimidated, even if no one has done it before. You might face unfair or unique challenges, but use those to strengthen you and it will better prepare you.”