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Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon reflects on her path to the operating room

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, Canada's first Inuk heart surgeon, can piece a vital organ back together but she can’t create more hours in a day.

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk is Canada's first Inuk heart surgeon. She has family in several Nunavut communities and briefly lived in Chesterfield Inlet as a child. photo courtesy of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute

Yet, despite the incredible demands of her work and education schedules, she somehow finds time to grant numerous media interviews and she has already begun offering guidance to another young Inuk who aspires to enter the medical field.

"I was very fortunate to have very strong role models, being my parents, but I realized that perhaps not everyone has a role model in their life. So if my story can be a source of positivity, or, dare I say, even an inspiration for just one person out there then to me that's worth it for talking about myself and my journey," she said of the incredible media interest in her feats.

Word of her accomplishments prompted one mother to contact Kimmaliardjuk and ask if she would be willing to talk to her Inuk daughter, who is also aiming to become a doctor. They arranged to meet.

"She's very keen and eager and has a good head on her shoulders," Kimmaliardjuk said of the teen, adding that they set a date to meet again months later. "I feel incredibly honoured and privileged and excited to be somewhat of a mentor for this young person."

Now in her fourth year of residency at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Kimmaliardjuk attained her medical degree at the University of Calgary. She has a little over two years of residency remaining to become a fully-qualified heart surgeon and then she plans to pursue a specialty within the field that will require another two years of training.

Nunavut connections

Kimmaliardjuk was born in Winnipeg and, as an infant, lived briefly in Chesterfield Inlet.

"The majority of my family is in Chesterfield Inlet or Rankin Inlet, but I do have family in Iqaluit, I have family in Arviat, Baker Lake ... I've been up (to Nunavut) to visit a few times since," she said. "My mom can pretty much tell you, oh yeah, we have a cousin or an auntie or a great aunt or great uncle in a community."

She and her family moved to Ottawa while she was young so she and her brother could attend elementary and high school.

"They wanted my brother and I to have better educational opportunities," she said.

The passion to be a health worker was sparked at age 6 when she asked her father why she'd never met his dad. Her father explained that her grandfather died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease – when her father was still a boy.

"I remember having the thought, I don't want to lose my parents to illness. I don't want them to die, and I don't want other kids' parents to die. Kids should have a Mom and a Dad," she said. "So I just felt this need to help people and prevent people from getting sick. And it worked out that I really enjoyed science and math and I was good in those subjects. That just stuck with me, that calling of wanting to help people."

Upon earning her high school diploma, she relocated to Kingston, Ont., to attend Queen's University, where she graduated with a bachelor of science degree.

At age 28, she has spent much of her life in learning environments, which she has found much to her liking, although there were some significant adjustments between high school and university in terms of the larger class sizes and not knowing the professors as well as her high school teachers.

Medical school, on the other hand, felt like a great fit.

"When I learned about the heart, I fell in love with it. I loved everything about it. I loved seeing open-heart surgeries. I loved the ability to be able to have an immediate impact on someone's life, hopefully for the better," she said.

Kimmaliardjuk said she hopes that other young people will strive to find their niche in whichever field brings them gratification.

"To do something that makes you happy and that is fulfilling your full potential, I think is so valuable and will get you so far in life," she said. "It doesn't mean far as in financially wealthy, necessarily, or famous or recognized, but doing something that's meaningful and makes you happy is what's important."

Fact file

A typical day in the life of Donna May Kimmaliardjuk:

-Arrives at hospital at 6:30 a.m to do rounds

-Meets with operative team at 7:30 a.m. to go over a checklist and review roles

-While surgical patient is being prepared for surgery and put under anesthesia – about an hour – she grabs a quick bite to eat, visits a few more patients and mentally prepares for the operation

-First surgery begins around 8:30 a.m. and, depending on the complexity, usually lasts four to six hours

-A second surgery is often performed each day, preceded by another team meeting, checklist review, patient visits, looking through emails and a meal

-Work in the operating room wraps up between 6-8 p.m. most days

-Before leaving hospital, she spends an hour to 90 minutes meeting with the next day's two surgical patients and/or reviewing their medical records

-Goes home and squeezes in at least an hour of reading and studying

-Surgical residents are on call five to seven days per month, meaning they may need to rush to the hospital during a night emergency or on a weekend

-A "light" work week is 60 hours; most entail close to 80 hours and she has put in up to 110 hours of work in a single week

-"I'm (at the hospital) between 12 to 14 hours per day, five to seven days per week, so I don't have a lot of time for social life or extracurriculars, but you learn to adjust and make it work," Kimmaliardjuk said.