The Heartbeat of a Dream: The Story of Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk’s Heartfelt Ambition
Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk knew she wanted to be a surgeon since she was six years old, but she thought she would be a neurosurgeon. She was inspired towards her career after a conversation with her father about the cause of her grandfather’s death: Lou Gehrig’s disease. She wanted to invent a surgery to cure ALS, not understanding that’s not how it works. That motivation helped her do well in school so she would qualify to become a doctor. You might say her aspirations started in the head and landed in the heart.
“It is a little crazy and a little intense, but I love it. I really do feel like this is what I'm meant to be doing.”
Her family is from Chesterfield Inlet Nunavut but they moved south in search of opportunities, like the education that would ultimately lead to Dr. Kimmaliardjuk’s amazing career: highly specialized heart surgery. Dr. Kimmaliardjuk spends her days doing open-heart surgeries, coronary artery bypass grafts, replacing or repairing heart valves, doing heart transplants, and doing something called mechanical support. The road to get there was a testament to her resilience.
“I know we all face barriers, but it's even hard for me to think of barriers because I just feel like that's something that's part of life and you're going to have challenges and you're gonna have roadblocks, or you're gonna have things that you have to work through and you just have to work through it.”
After high school, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk only had enough money to apply to three universities and was pleased to get in, ultimately selecting Queens University. She picked it for geographic reasons and because of its school culture, choosing to do an undergrad in life sciences before applying to medical schools. Dr. Kimmaliardjuk was accepted to a few but selected University of Calgary.
When in Calgary, she observed heart surgeries that got her inspired about that specialty. She decided to pursue a cardiac residency and was accepted to Ottawa, where her parents were. Instead of continuing for a full fellowship there, she went to the biggest and busiest heart center in North America, Cleveland, Ohio to train for her sub-speciality. The facility she trained at was named top heart surgery center 26 years in a row.
“This job will push you to your limits: physical, mental, and emotional.”
Dr. Kimmaliardjuk worked hard to achieve her dreams, pulling all nighters, spending time in the library until one or two in the morning, packing in volunteer work and extracurricular activities. Beyond the frenetic pace, she was doing her schooling (other than her residency) in cities where she didn’t know anyone, far from her family. Because of the pandemic, she’s estranged from her family again while she works on her training in the US.
“I really do feel like if you are determined to achieve your goal of whatever it may be, whether it be music, art, science, technology, engineering, education, whatever, then you will be able to work through those challenges.”
The friends and family she’s estranged from have been her support network through the long road to her dream job. She credits surrounding herself with good people who want her to succeed, don’t question her abilities and aren’t competitive with her to her success.
With the distance between her and the people she cares for, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk has turned to technology to bridge the gap. To fill her time, she’s exploring hobbies. After 14 months of reading exclusively heart surgery textbooks, guidelines and papers, she’s enjoying the simple pleasure of reading. She also enjoys yoga and working out to help manage the stress after a long day. It’s hard work, but she’s finding her way.
“If you really want to go somewhere else, because it feels right for you, just make it happen. Don't let doubters or other people tell you, “you can't do it” or, “it's scary” or, “It's too hard.” Irrelevant. They're not the ones doing it. You are.”
As she looks back on her journey, she has words of encouragement for youth considering leaving home in pursuit of their goal. “It is scary to be alone. It's scary to go to a city you don't know. Coming from the North, there is quite a difference in culture and customs and that too can be a big adjustment. But if you feel it in your heart and in your gut that you want to be X, Y, or Z ... and in order to do that, you need to go to this place somewhere far away to get those skills or get that training or get that experience, do it, as intimidating as it may be,” she suggests.
To make it happen, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk suggests leaning on your support system, applying for financial aid and reaching out for support when you’re feeling alone or helpless or overwhelmed. Making a dream happen takes work, but support can be helpful. “Nothing in this world is going to be handed to you. Nothing was handed to me. I worked my butt off for everything that I've done so far,” she encourages, “Do it, do it, do it. There are ways to go about making it happen.”
When asked what she would say to her younger self, she said, “Give yourself some credit and have a little more confidence in yourself because you earned it; you deserve it.” She had a lot of encouragement and positive reinforcement from her family but also a lot of stress and anxiety.
While she has achieved incredible things, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk remains humble, reflecting, “I'm just me, I'm just a person doing what I want to do, very selfishly following my dream. So the fact that it can be something positive for somebody is really amazing and kind of overwhelming and hard to kind of accept or process for me.”
With passion pulsing through her veins, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk is forging a path forward towards happiness for herself and wellness for her patience. The journey to a satisfying career would take her across the country, across the border and past her own expectations for making an impact on the world. The heartwarming story of a heart-fixing surgeon from the North is an inspiration not just for youth but for anyone with a dream in their heart, with warm words of encouragement for someone who is an expert in hearts and experienced in chasing dreams.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.