Queen’s alum becomes Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon

Kimmaliardjuk is in the midst of her heart surgery residency in Ottawa

Eleven years ago, Donna May Kimmaliardjuk was a first-year Queen’s student hoping to enter the Life Sciences program. Today, she’s midway through a heart surgery residency at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, achieving a dream she’s had since she was six years old. 

Recently, Kimmaliardjuk has garnered national media recognition for becoming Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon and one of the few female Indigenous surgeons in the country.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Queen’s in 2011, Kimmaliarjduk enrolled in medical school at the University of Calgary. In an interview with The Journal, she credited Queen’s with providing both a positive undergraduate experience and a solid foundation for her postgraduate studies. 

“It was a lot of fun. I think Life Sciences was a really good program for me in terms of what I was looking to study and also to really prepare me well for medical school,” she said. “I’m really thankful for my experiences and the program that I took.” 

Beyond the day-to-day struggles of being a university student, Kimmaliardjuk spoke to The Journal about the barriers faced specifically by Indigenous students across Canada. 

During her first month at the University of Calgary, Kimmliardjuk said a fellow medical school colleague made a comment she hasn’t yet forgotten. 

“There was a person in my class who [said] ‘Donna got into med school the easy way,’” Kimmaliardjuk said.  “I’ve always been very vocal about my identity ... and I never would have thought that in medical school ... there would be a person questioning or downplaying my abilities.” 

“[They were] basically invalidating all the hard work that I’ve put in since the age of six, when I decided that I wanted to be a doctor,” she continued. 

Kimmliardjuk said it serves as a reminder of the progress that still needs to be made in supporting Indigenous students in Canada.

Despite this, her perseverance has paid off. After developing a passion for heart-centric medicine while at school in Calgary, the former Queen’s grad decided this would be her focus of practice as a surgeon. 

“It came to our heart and lung course in [medical] school and I just fell in love with the heart, I loved learning about it. It was so romanticized to me in my mind,” Kimmaliardjuk said. “The surgeries are so fascinating, they can be challenging and complex ... it just felt like it could be a really good fit.” 

In regards to the media attention, Kimmaliardjuk said she appreciates the opportunity to serve as an example to other Indigenous youth. She wants them to know it’s possible to achieve their goals, no matter the obstacles. 

“If you surround yourself with the right types of people that will [support] you, it is completely possible to get where you want to be in life,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated by your dreams just because you don’t know anyone else in your family or your community who has done what you want to do. Don’t let that deter you away from going after what you want.”

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