An Ottawa woman being hailed as Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon hopes to inspire Indigenous youth across the country to follow their dreams.

Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, 28, is in her fourth year of residency at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

“It’s very flattering,” Kimmaliardjuk says of the accolade. “I’ve been so fortunate to have such love and support from family, friends, co-workers and strangers.”

Known to her colleagues as “Dr. K,” Kimmaliardjuk was inspired to become a doctor after learning about the death of her grandfather, who died before she was born. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that typically causes patients to lose their ability to move, speak and swallow.

Kimmaliardjuk says she discovered her specific medical interest when she went to medical school in Calgary.

“We learned about the heart and lungs and I just fell in love with the heart,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. “I got to shadow some open heart surgeries as a medical student and I thought it was fascinating.”

Kimmaliardjuk grew up in Ottawa, but her mother’s family still lives in Nunavut. As a student, she travelled to Nunavut to complete a medical school elective, and got a first-hand look at the challenges health care professionals in the North face on a daily basis.

“I got to see really both sides of care, from the patient perspective and from the health-care providers,” she said. “I can really empathize with both sides. As patients it can be really intimidating and difficult to go to a health care centre in a very small community where everybody knows everybody’s business.”

“On the other hand, as a health care provider, it is difficult sometimes to make the right diagnosis with such limited resources.”

Now, she has some advice for anyone living in a small community with ambitious dreams: “Go for it.”

“Don’t be intimidated by your dreams of being whatever you want to be even if you don’t know anyone else in the field.”

In March, Kimmaliardjuk will be one of 13 recipients of a 2018 Indspire Award, an honour given to outstanding First Nations, Inuit, and Metis individuals.