Everyday Hero: Ottawa doctor becomes Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon

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Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk knew she wanted to save lives since she was only six years old. As a result, pursuing her dream has forged a new path for others. Dawna Friesen introduces you to this week's Everyday Hero – Mar 29, 2018

Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk knew she wanted to save lives since she was only six years old.

What she didn’t know was that pursuing her passion would mean making history.

The daughter of an Inuk mother, Kimmaliardjuk’s roots are in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut. It’s a small community on the shores of Hudson Bay, where her extended family still lives.

Her parents moved south to Ottawa when Kimmaliardjuk was a baby, so their children could pursue education.

Kimmaliardjuk found her passion in medicine.

“I just loved the physiology of the heart,” Kimmaliardjuk said. “It’s a system that makes sense to me. It’s quite intuitive. Really, in my eyes, it’s the powerhouse of the body.”

Now it’s her life’s work. She’s a cardiac surgery resident at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

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And that happens to make her Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon.

This month, Kimmaliardjuk went from the operating theatre to centre stage in Winnipeg to receive an Indspire youth award, recognizing her achievement as an Inuk woman.

And she realizes she’s not just a heart surgeon. She’s a role model.

“I would really hope that if [young people in the North] have a dream, pursuing some goal– even if it’s something as crazy as being a heart surgeon, where you don’t know anyone else who is doing that–that they won’t be deterred.”

Her drive and energy are inspiring a new generation.

National Inuit Youth Council president Ruth Kaviok calls Kimmaliardjuk’s story powerful.

“The emphasis on first Inuk heart surgeon is like, ‘Wow!’” Kaviok said. “We’re already at this level where we can become all these professional people: lawyers, doctors, surgeons, everything. And it’s because people like her make us believe.”

Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon is a title Kimmaliardjuk never expected, but is embracing all the same.

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“It’s really important for Indigenous Canadians and non-Indigenous Canadians to see Indigenous folks achieve really remarkable things and seeing us in these positions of leadership,” she said.

Because surgical skills are only part of patient care.

“There’s always some personal, familial and social ramifications to a patient undergoing cardiac surgery,” said Dr. Marc Ruel, who is division head of cardiac surgery at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. “Diversity allows one to bring the needed perspective around that. Donna brings a unique flavour to that.”

Kimmaliardjuk may have left the North, but her heart is still there. And her mother, Julia, knows she is on the right path.

Her daughter’s achievements often make her think back to a memory from long ago, when as a small child, Kimmaliardjuk visited her great-grandmother, whom she was named after.

“She took my daughter’s hands,” Julia Kimmaliardjuk recalls. “My daughter was totally mesmerized and she was like really still like, ‘I really need to listen to what you’re saying.’”

And what her great-grandmother said was that Donna May’s hands would save lives.

“If your elder is giving you that gift…never question it,” Julia Kimmaliardjuk said. “Always, always believe in it no matter what. And if you do, you will see it happen.”

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For following her passion, using her hands to heal and guiding the next generation, Donna May Kimmaliardjuk is this week’s Everyday Hero.​

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