Canada’s first Inuk cardiac surgeon gets to the heart of the matter
How Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk took command of the operating room
This story is part of our Breaking Barrier series, which profiles prominent Canadian women in male-dominated industries. Breaking Barriers is brought to you by American Express Canada, a proud supporter of the next generation of female talent.
When Donna May Kimmaliardjuk was still a baby, she was taken to her great-grandmother’s bedside. Speaking in Inuktitut, she blessed the infant and predicted her future.
“My mother tells me that I was listening very intently to her,” says Dr. Kimmaliardjuk, chief resident of cardiac surgery at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. “My great-grandmother said, ‘Those hands are going to do wonderful things. They’re going to help people and save lives.’”
Thinking of it now “gives me the chills,” she says. “To have felt that kind of love and confidence in me from a family member, even at that age, was a great support.”
Today Dr. Kimmaliardjuk’s hands are sewing tiny blood vessels on still-beating hearts, repairing torn coronary tissue and taking the surgical lead in the operating room as she completes the sixth and final year of her residency in Ottawa.
The 30-year-old is not only the first Inuk heart surgeon in Canada, she is one of only a handful of female cardiac surgeons to do a residency at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute – milestones she says she couldn’t have reached without the support of her family.
Both Dr. Kimmaliardjuk’s parents faced their fair share of barriers growing up. Though the differences between their worlds were vast, they both experienced difficult childhoods, and shared a common desire to ensure their children never went through what they once did.
Her father, the son of German and Ukrainian immigrants, was raised by a single mother who worked as a dishwasher at a hospital to support them after his father passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Dr. Kimmaliardjuk’s Inuk mother grew up in the northern community of Chesterfield Inlet in Nunavut, where life was difficult and financial resources were scarce.
They met while working for the Air Forces in Winnipeg, where Dr. Kimmaliardjuk was born. The family lived briefly in Nunavut before moving to Ottawa so the children could have a better education – one Dr. Kimmaliardjuk describes as equal parts sports, music and rigorous academics.
An avid piano player who once thought she’d become a concert pianist, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk decided she wanted to be a doctor at the age of six, after she learned her paternal grandfather had passed away when her own father was just a boy.
“That was a conversation that scared me a little bit because I didn’t want anything to happen to my parents,” she recalls.
Years later, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk was drawn to her specialty while taking a course on hearts and lungs in medical school at the University of Calgary. “I thought to myself, this is as badass as it gets. Everything about the physiology just made sense to me. Every organ is so important in the body, but I really do feel the heart is the most important one.”
“I love being challenged, otherwise I get bored very easily,” Dr. Kimmaliardjuk says. “There’s not much room for error when you work on the heart – you need really fine motor skills.”
It’s also a field that is 89 per cent male, according to the most recent statistics from the Canadian Medical Association. Despite finding a supportive and welcoming environment in medicine, the field initially shook Dr. Kimmaliardjuk’s self-confidence, she says. “To be seen as a leader incommand of the operating room and of patient treatment after surgery, I felt I needed to act and speak in a certain way that just wasn’t my personality.
“I’m chatty and bubbly, I cry and laugh with my patients and can be very sensitive that way. I found myself trying to be more like my male colleagues, which didn’t feel right internally because that meant I wasn’t being myself.”
A few senior colleagues warned Dr. Kimmaliardjuk to be particularly careful of how she presented herself to other women in the field.
“I was told that women might have a harder time taking instruction from me,” she says. “I sometimes feel I have to be careful how I choose my words because I get worried people will take it as, Donna’s being bossy,’ or ‘Donna’s being aggressive,’ rather than being assertive.
“Heart surgery can be difficult enough so I don’t want to add interpersonal drama on top of that. But somehow I don’t think my male colleagues have had that same briefing.”
Along the way, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk learned that she could let her true self shine through and still be successful at what she does.
These are hard-won realizations she openly shares with the young women she meets, many of whom are still deterred from becoming doctors, she says.
“They’re told, ‘You won’t have a family or ever see your kids.’ [It’s} really negative and not necessarily true.
“If a young woman out there wants to be a surgeon, then she can be a surgeon and she doesn’t have to be a certain way to be good at it,” Dr. Kimmaliardjuk says.
“Maybe some of my colleagues have questioned whether I have what it takes. But when staff sees me with patients and how comfortable [the patients] are with me, they see me as a competent leader and they trust me. They just give me the needle and let me sew.”
Photo credit: Blair Gable