Dr Donna May Kimmaliardjuk
Yotakahron Jonathan, a Mohawk Bear clan from Six Nations of the Grand River territory, is a medical student in her last year at McMaster University and currently the National Officer of Indigenous Health for the Canadian Federation of Medical Students. She had the pleasure of having a conversation with Dr. Donna Kimmaliardjuk, a trailblazing Inuit, well known as the first Indigenous heart surgeon in Canada who is finishing up her residency in a matter of months before going to the Cleveland Clinic for fellowship.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
When I was six, I was having a conversation with my father asking him why I didn’t know who his dad was. He explained to me that his father died of ALS and I was scared that this would happen to other family members. This motivated me to become a neurosurgeon to help cure ALS, not knowing what it would all entail. This stuck with me all throughout elementary school, high school and university. When I got to medical school, I was still thinking of the field of surgery. I liked the idea of working with my hands, the results are very tangible with the payoff being immediate. I don’t think I do well with delayed gratification, so it felt like a good fit. Then we came to our heart and lung course in medical school and I absolutely loved everything about the heart. I loved the physiology, and we had a lecture about cardiac surgery, so I thought that I needed to see more of this. I was able to shadow some surgeries and felt that this was my calling, this was what I was meant to do.
Were there any other sorts of factors that crossed your mind when you were considering surgery? For example, there is the perception that surgery is a more male dominate field.
I was aware that it is a male dominated field. To this day in Canada, nearly 90% of staff positions in surgery are held by men. Not to say that there aren’t more females that are coming into surgery, but it is completely male dominated. I was aware of it, but it didn’t deter me away. I was very fortunate to have very positive experiences with all the surgeons that I shadowed and did electives with, which were all male. I work with good people who weren’t really the stereotypical image that you might have of surgeons from 50 years ago. They were all very supportive and encouraging about women going into cardiac surgery. It was funny because people who were not in cardiac surgery were the ones who would make comments like, “you’re never going to find a job”, “you will never see your kids”, “you’re never going to have a family”. It’s people who aren’t in the field who are saying that. To this day, it really gets under my skin when I hear physicians speaking of a field that they don’t work in, saying what the work environment is like, what the jobs are like or what your life is going to be like. In my opinion, they are completely not qualified to give that advice because they are not that surgeon. The guys I worked with were super supportive and encouraging so I didn’t feel bothered that there weren’t a lot of women in the field.
As a female medical learner, we often are told that residency is the “best time” to have children because it’s the only time that we will have paid mat leave, that narrative where we feel pressured as women in medicine where we have to do things a certain way. Have you ever felt that?
Definitely, yeah. It is true, protected time and paid mat leave. There is a huge benefit and it crossed my mind, but I am not going to let that dictate my personal life in terms of a family, which is a huge decision, right? For sure you can feel certain pressures like that, but I think the important thing is to do what you know is best for you.
Did you have access to any mentors who were Indigenous women or other women who helped guide your direction in medicine?
In medical school, one of the emerg docs I worked with knew I wanted to do surgery and connected me with a female general surgeon to shadow a couple times. It was great but I realized the life of a breast surgeon is very different than the life of cardiac surgeon. It was nice to see that you can balance the life of being a surgeon, a mom, running a practice and being an academic. But it didn’t really resonate with me. In cardiac surgery, there were no Indigenous folks at all and I didn’t know of any Indigenous surgeons in Calgary. I didn’t do everything myself because to be successful in anything you are always are going to have support and guidance from some people but there wasn’t any specific guidance from a female cardiac surgeon or an Indigenous surgeon, a physician that I really kind of clicked with and looked to for guidance. I just kind of really went with my gut and with what felt right for me.
Did you ever consider family medicine?
I never really wanted to be a family doctor, going into medicine I wanted to be a surgeon. But I knew pretty quickly that being a surgeon at that time, I wouldn’t really be able to be up North. I knew if I wanted to work frontline in communities with Inuit and really be making a difference with my people, the best way to do that is to be a family doctor. I felt guilty that I didn’t want to be a family doctor and I thought I wouldn’t be able to have that kind of impact. There was a non-Indigenous family doctor who went up North monthly that I asked about this, I was kind of looking for reassurance, am I doing the right thing. He reassured me, he said you have to do what you love and by doing what you love you are going to be able to inspire others and still have an impact on your community.
You did a campaign where they called you a trailblazer in medicine because you are the first Indigenous female cardiac surgeon. How do you feel about that?
To be a trailblazer is so cool and badass. I have such admiration for people like that, not only in the medical field but all aspects of life. When you read history textbooks or hear about things about your ancestors, I am so fascinated by the courage, strength, and determination to be that type of person. So, when I see that writing associated with me, it’s like, whoa okay. Because for me, I am just doing what I want to do. Especially as a resident, which is incredibly humbling, and you have so much to learn. So there is a bit of a disconnect, or it doesn’t totally sink in. So, I mean it is a huge compliment and I am very flattered. And I guess I just have positive thoughts towards it. But these are just things that I don’t often think about to be honest because my life is so consumed with surgery and studying for my royal college exams, which is for those people who might listen or read this who aren’t in medicine or don’t know, it is the equivalent of your board exams to become a certified surgeon so my life is so consumed by that so I don’t really stop and think about it.
In this campaign, your mother shared an amazing story from your childhood, do you mind sharing it?
Sure. My mom told me that when I was only a few months old she brought me to meet her grandmother who was very ill at the time. My great-grandmother was holding me, speaking to me in Inuktitut and my holding hand while saying these hands are going to do great things, they are going to save lives or help people. My mom says as an infant my eyes were glued to her, listening intently to what she was saying. That was her blessing onto me. I don’t think I consciously used that to make any decisions in my life but who knows if subconsciously that had an influence as to where I am now.
Where are you right now in your rotations?
The rotation that I am on right now is pediatric cardiac surgery, at the Children’s Hospital here in Ottawa and I will finish in June. Then I will be going to the Cleveland Clinic for a fellowship with a focus on septal myectomies. The neat thing is there is no such thing as a septal myectomy fellowship. So one of my mentors has this goal for me to be one of the first fellowship-trained surgeons in this type of surgery. To actually be going there now, I am really excited!
Have you had experiences with discrimination during your training that are specific to being an Indigenous person?
When I think of a resident, no. Which I am super thankful for because I know that may not be the case for everyone. As a medical student, the biggest thing that stands out in my mind is a few weeks after we had started medical school. I am a person that will very easily disclose or talk about my culture and mention that I am Inuit because I am proud. And where I grew up, it was so well accepted. My peers were informed and they weren’t racist, they were accepting. So anyways, I am super proud of my culture and it was a few weeks after med school had started and one of my friends had told me that one of our classmates had said to him, “well you know Donna got into med school the easy way cause she’s native.” And that is referring to how med schools have either seats held for Indigenous students, or a certain percentage, or they treat it differently, not a different application process but you are only compared amongst that pool, or whatever their process might be. And I just remember thinking, that is such a nasty thing to say. Back then, it didn’t really upset me, I think that I was so excited to be in med school that I didn’t even think about it. But now, as I reflect on it, as someone you know who has gone through the whole process and know there are other young Indigenous people thinking about going into medical school, it is so belittling because it just totally dismissed all the hard work that I did to get to med school. I went to a top university, took all the pre-med courses, wrote the MCAT, got all the references letters, did all the interviews. I did everything else that that non-Indigenous person had to do, and I did well. I earned my spot here. And yet, because of my identity, I am diminished to that I am just here because I am native. How infuriating.
What is your advice for future generations of women in medicine?
It sounds so simple and generic but just do what you love. Despite what other people say, like when I had other doctors who tried to deter me away from cardiac surgery, or despite the pressures that you might feel, whether it be feeling like you need to work or give back to your community in a certain way, or the pressure to have babies, despite all that, do what you love in medicine. And along those lines, just be who you are. I know that sounds so generic, but I still get that advice from other surgeons. It is so true. Just being yourself, you are doing to be happier, you’re going to do well. Be true to yourself. I struggled when I was transitioning from a junior resident to a senior resident in the beginning because I was trying to be more like my male colleagues or trying to act a different way than what or who I am. It showed that I didn’t know how to be a leader, wasn’t comfortable or confident. When I was reminded to just be myself, my skills, confidence and style was able to flourish. So definitely do what you love, be who you are, you don’t have to be a certain way in order to be a good surgeon, or a good emerg doc, or radiologist, or family doctor. Or whatever it is. And surround yourself with good people, you know supportive people because you are going to meet folks who don’t want the best for you, or are competitive, or going to try to bring you down. And so just surround yourself with great people that are there for you and take care of yourself. That is something you easily forget about, especially as a surgical resident. And so it is important to check in with yourself and take care of yourself. It is a marathon that we are in for, and not a sprint. I think that is it for all the motherly kind of advice I have, but it really rings true.