Sept. 6, 2016

Unique approach to fighting kidney disease leads to Killam professorship

Brenda Hemmelgarn is named a Killam Professor in 2016 for her dedication to finding ways to help patients and their families improve their self management of kidney disease.

This the second of a five-part series profiling the University of Calgary’s 2016 Killam Annual Professors. 

Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Dr. Brenda Hemmelgarn never imagined she’d be a nurse, let alone become a physician researching new ways to help people suffering from kidney disease.

“If somebody would’ve told me in high school that I would be doing what I’m doing today, I probably would’ve told them they were crazy,” she says. “One thing just led to another, thanks to the mentorship and support of so many great people.”

As an MD who is also a PhD, Hemmelgarn has grown used to juggling several roles at once. Not only is she a teaching professor and researcher who is head of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, other duties include being the vice-chair of Alberta Health Service’s board of directors.

She gets to wear yet another hat as one of five academics at the university honoured with a Killam Annual Professorship for 2016. “She is a very inspiring mentor who has developed her own career path,” says Helen Tam-Tham, a PhD candidate who is training under Hemmelgarn. “As a researcher, kidney doctor and decision-maker, she has a unique approach on patient care and research.”

Disease affects one in 10 people 

Raised on a farm near St. Walburg in west-central Saskatchewan, Hemmelgarn’s first career choice was to be an accountant, only to decide her true goal was “to help people,” she says. She became a nurse, living and working in aboriginal communities in northern Saskatchewan and Baffin Island. “You really appreciate the challenges people are facing on a daily basis,” she says.

Intrigued by the potential of research to further help patients, she decided to pursue a PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics from 1991 to 1995 at McGill University, only to miss being in contact with patients. She decided to also become a physician, earning her degree from McMaster University in 1998.

As a nephrologist who studies kidney disease and treats patients, she says the illness affects about one in 10 people, rising to about a third of those with diabetes. Kidney disease is particularly severe in aboriginal people, who suffer rates three to five times as high as other Canadians.

It can lead to complete kidney failure, with patients requiring hemodialysis in four-hour sessions three times per week just to stay alive, she says. Early detection of the disease is important because it has no symptoms in its initial stages, says Hemmelgarn, who is also part of the Cumming School’s Department of Medicine, as well as a member of the faculty’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

Creating tools and strategies to help patients 

She is using things such as administrative patient data to research potential predictors of the disease, as well as looking to see if programs and care delivery can be modified to promote better outcomes, such as the use of an online clinical pathway for chronic kidney disease. Hemmelgarn also wants to create “tools and strategies to help patients and their families improve their self management of their kidney disease to slow the progression and ultimately to avoid kidney failure.”

As one of the next generation of researchers, Tam-Tham says she has benefited from Hemmelgarn’s mentorship. “Being a part of a team led by Dr. Hemmelgarn has really been instrumental in my professional development, especially as it pertains to a career in health services research.”

  • Our series on the University of Calgary's 2016 Killam Annual Professors ends Friday with a look at Raafit El-Hacha's search for smarter bridge-building materials, and Barry Saunders upcoming journey to contemplate black holes and quantum computers. 

The University of Calgary is proud to be one of only five universities in Canada supported by the Killam Trusts. Established in 1965 by Izaak Walton Killam and his wife Dorothy J. Killam, the Killam Trusts fund scholarships at the graduate and postgraduate levels. These are among Canada's most prestigious awards for lifetime achievement in Health Sciences, Natural Sciences, Engineering, Social Sciences and Humanities.  

The University of Calgary is uniquely positioned to find solutions to key global challenges. Through the research strategy for Infections, Inflammation, and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment (IICD), top scientists lead multidisciplinary teams to understand and prevent the complex factors that threaten our health and economies.