Nfld. & Labrador

Canada's first Inuk heart surgeon returns from U.S. to take job in St. John's

Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk is the first Inuk cardiac surgeon in Canada, with a plethora of awards and designations behind her, including a 2018 Indspire Award for Inuit youth.

'It just felt right. I'm the kind of person who likes to listen to her gut,' says Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk

Inuk cardiac surgeon Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk is now working with Eastern Health Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, Canada's first Inuk heart surgeon, has taken a job in Newfoundland.

At 31, "Dr. K," as she's known, has a plethora of awards and designations behind her, including a 2018 Indspire Award for Inuit youth. Now — as cardiac surgeon at Eastern Health Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John's — she has a platform that comes with new opportunity and new responsibility. 

Born in Winnipeg, Kimmaliardjuk received her degree in medicine from the University of Calgary and trained in Ottawa. She spent the last year working in the U.S., but always planned to return to Canada, she told CBC News.

"I interviewed, and to be honest I had such a good feeling about the group," she said. 

"It just felt right. I'm the kind of person who likes to listen to her gut."

Kimmaliardjuk said she lived "very briefly" in Nunavut, which is where her mother's side of the family is from, but has called Ottawa home since her family relocated there when she was a child for educational opportunities. 

At six years old, Kimmaliardjuk told her parents she wanted to be a doctor. They've supported her since Day 1. 

Meaningful work in being a role model

Being the first Inuk heart surgeon in Canada is an opportunity that also brings added responsibility, she said. 

Kimmaliardjuk says she chose to work in Newfoundland and Labrador because 'it just felt right.' (Ted Dillon/CBC)

"I'm really honoured. I'm really humbled. I'm really flattered and I'm happy to actually have this platform or this opportunity to kind of share my story, because I recognize the importance of young people having role models in their life," Kimmaliardjuk said. 

"I had very strong role models. I know a lot of people don't.

"So if my story can be inspiration or motivation or something that just one person can connect with, then that's meaningful to me."

The underrepresentation of Inuit and other Indigenous health professionals has been documented along with reports that students from those communities often face barriers to the same educational opportunities as other students in Canada. One of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action was to increase Indigenous health professionals.  In recent years, medical schools in the country have been working with the Indigenous Health Network to increase those numbers. 

Kimmaliardjuk said she first drew attention for being Inuk while she was completing her residency. Now at the top of her field, she said she's used to it — and is happy to do something meaningful and positive for others. 

Outside the operating room, Kimmaliardjuk is researching Indigenous and women's heart health.

She's a part of the Canadian Women's Heart Health Alliance, which is working with the Canadian Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons to form committees that will study ways to improve Indigenous health outcomes and add an Indigenous health curriculum into residency programs. 

"I've had a lot of great opportunities presented to me because of attention like this. Hopefully, again, it's meaningful work that I can contribute to," she said. 

Kimmaliardjuk said she feels a "very strong" connection to her family, her ancestors and their values.

"I feel very fortunate that I was raised with our culture very much part of our day-to-day life," she said.

"It's a very much important place in my heart, and I'm excited to hopefully get up to Labrador."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jeremy Eaton