Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, Cardiac Surgeon

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk is an Ottawa-based resident doctor and the first Inuk cardiac surgeon in Canada. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

Stacy Lee Kong

Donna May Kimmaliardjuk; @DKimmaliardjuk

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to Queen’s University for undergrad, where I studied Life Sciences. Then I went to the University of Calgary for medical school. I’m now at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute completing my residency training in cardiac surgery.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

As a resident doctor, you’re continuously learning and improving, so it’s hard to see myself as having a “big break.” However, I must say receiving the Indspire Award for Inuit Youth this past year has given me a tremendous platform to share my story and introduce me to exciting new opportunities for my career—in and out of the operating room.

What would you say has been your most significant setback, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

Struggling with self-confidence in the operating room, especially as I transitioned from a junior level to a senior level. As a woman in heart surgery, I realized my attitude and the way I communicated is different than that of some of my male colleagues—I was quieter, less likely to speak up for what I wanted, less aggressive in going after operative cases—and I think this was seen as a negative or a weakness from some of my bosses. Bouncing back took some guidance from a trusted surgeon, some self-reflection and even practicing after-hours in a lab to get my confidence up and ensure my skills were top-notch. But when I returned to the cardiac operating room, I felt ready and I showed my bosses that I had the skills.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Don’t be intimidated by your dreams. Just because you don’t know anyone doing what you want to do, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You can. Work hard, stay humble and be kind to others.

Who is your favourite person to follow on social media from your industry? What do you love about their social feeds?

Dr. Gigi Osler (@drgigiosler), the new president of the Canadian Medical Association! She’s a surgeon, a mother and a woman of colour, and  she’s an advocate for diversity, equity and healthy physicians. That sounds so basic, but it is really kind of ground-breaking in medicine, and refreshing to see that a leader acknowledges the importance of these issues.

What’s the most pressing issue facing women in your industry right now? What would fix it?

I think it’s equal representation. Yes, the number of women in medicine has increased and, in some schools, there are more female students than male, but there are women MDs who are still getting paid less than men, and fewer women in leadership positions in medicine. For this to change it requires a supportive environment, and in some instances a change in attitude—to stop penalizing women for taking maternity leave, and create workplaces free of harassment and discrimination.

Do you think you earn a similar wage as your male counterparts in your industry?

As a resident, yes. We all get paid the same for our year of training, regardless of sex or specialty you’re in. I don’t know how it is as a staff surgeon, but you hear and read of the gender pay gap in medicine, so, time will tell once I’m staff.

Looking to the future, what excites you the most about your career?

I’m excited to become a staff surgeon and feel somewhat more settled. Getting to this point has meant going through a lot of uncertainties—not knowing for sure where I’d go for undergrad, medical school or my residency, it will be nice to get settled somewhere and start my career as staff. Operating is a lot of fun, and I look forward to being able to do what I love for the rest of my life.

And  worries you the most about your career?

I am a little worried about how I will balance my career and my personal life once I have a family. There are still these expectations for mothers that are different than for fathers. I want to be involved and present in my family life, but with a career that demands a lot of your time (we work 70 to 100 hours per week, easily), it will be a balancing act, something that seems challenging when I think about it.

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