Sikh doctor shaves beard in order to keep serving COVID-19 patients

Dr Sanjeet Singh Saluja makes the difficult decision to shave off his beard in order to wear the necessary protective mask and continue treating COVID-19 patients in the MUHC Emergency Department
“I know I made the right decision,” says Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja about shaving his beard in order to keep working on the COVID-19 frontlines. “But there is still tremendous sadness – the saddest thing I’ve ever done.”

Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja and Dr. Karl Cernovitch are co-Associate Directors of Emergency Medicine at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) – the literal frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Montreal. “We don’t send many people home at this point,” says Dr. Cernovitch of the current situation. “Most are hospitalized.”

The fluid nature of the pandemic, in which so much is still unknown, is unsettling. “People are stressed,” says Cernovitch, “which makes it all the more important to have Sanjeet here. He has a great sense of humour – which is really important [in Emergency]. Great under pressure, doesn’t crack. He’s the guy I want with me on the frontlines. He’s empathetic, caring and decisive.”

Existential question

The latter – Dr. Saluja’s decisiveness – was put to the test recently when he was faced with an existential problem that threatened to knock him from the very frontlines where he is so needed.

Dr. Saluja is a devout Sikh and, as such, adheres to Kesh, one of the strongest pillars of his religion in which one’s hair is allowed to grow out of respect for the perfection of god’s creation.

Sikh men do not cut or even trim their hair or their beards. “It is an essential part of being a Sikh,” says Dr. Saluja. “It is an essential part of my identity.”

But his beard prohibited Dr. Saluja from properly wearing the N95 masks healthcare professionals are required to wear when dealing with COVID-19 patients.

“To work effectively, the N95 needs a proper seal [to one’s face]. Having a beard, even the slightest facial hair, doesn’t work,” explains Dr. Cernovitch. “During this pandemic, we all have to shave every day, right before starting our shift.”

A calling to serve people

Dr. Saluja could have simply refused to see COVID-19 patients. But that would go against Seva, another pillar of Sikhism, which is service to humanity. “I have always viewed my work at the MUHC as a chance to fulfill my faith’s expectations of service,” says Dr. Saluja.

There was the option of ordering a specialized protective mask but that would mean a delay of several months before it was delivered. With overtasked healthcare workers falling ill, remaining staff was shouldering an ever-increasing load. Waiting was not an option.

“I had to set an example for my group [at the MUHC]. Here I am in a leadership position and I’m not able to do the job fully,” says Dr. Saluja. “I felt a sense of obligation to my colleagues. It wouldn’t be fair to put the burden only on them. I had to do my part.”

He consulted friends, family and members of the Sikh community and, after weeks of soul-searching and more than a few sleepless nights, Dr. Saluja did something he had never done before. On March 30, he shaved his beard.

“It was the hardest thing we ever did,” said Dr. Saluja, whose brother, a neurosurgeon, also shaved his beard. “But we did it because we have jobs to do – to serve patients.”

Healthcare is a team sport

Dr. Saluja is also a member of medical staff for the Montreal Impact professional soccer team, a position the avid soccer fan has held for 11 years. When he sent the team an email explaining his decision, his colleagues were touched.

“His email gave me shivers,” says Karam Al-Hamdani, Head Athletic Therapist for the Impact. “It literally brought a tear to my eye because I realized right there how good and honourable a man he is and how selfless he is.

“It is such an important part of his identity. It really shook me,” says Al-Hamdani. “It is an honour to be able to call him my colleague and friend.”

Al-Hamdani was not alone. Members of the Impact’s leadership group, Al-Hamdani included, produced a video in which they all shaved their beards in solidarity.

It was Dr. Saluja’s turn to be touched. “Healthcare is a team sport and the team really stepped up for me,” he says.

The Impact also produced a second video (see below) in which Dr. Saluja reads the email explaining his decision to shave his beard. “At first, I didn’t want this to be made into a big deal, but after what the team did for me, I wanted to highlight how incredibly supportive people have been,” says Dr. Saluja.

Do the right thing

“I know I made the right decision,” says Dr. Saluja in a phone interview just before heading back for another long shift in Emergency. “But there is still tremendous sadness – the saddest thing I’ve ever done. More than a month later, I still have trouble looking at myself in the mirror.”

“The first day back [after shaving] was actually really good,” says Dr. Saluja. “People knew how hard this was for me and they were very respectful. Most didn’t say anything, no one treated me differently. We just got to work.”

For Dr. Cernovitch, however, Dr. Saluja’s actions say everything you need to know about the man. “He is committed to the art of medicine and committed to his patients. When faced with this very difficult decision, he chose to serve people.”

In the video below, Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja reads the email he sent to his colleagues at the Montreal Impact telling them of his decision to remove his beard

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J Singh
4 years ago

The article’s tone suggests the doctor had no other option other than the N95 mask.
But this is factually incorrect, because a viable and more effective alternative DOES exist. It is the PAPR respirator.
The author of this article ought to have done a basic fact-check on this

4 years ago
Reply to  Neale Mcdevitt

That’s also incorrect. There are many Sikh doctors on the frontline, all Dr. Saluja had to do was reach out and explore his options. He could have contacted one of the many Sikh organizations and they would have helped him out.

Tom Bates
4 years ago

A treasured memory from when I practiced pediatrics was when I entered the exam room and met a turbaned gentleman and his son. I greeted the young fellow with in introductory question I sometimes used, “Hello, are you sick?” He answered without hesitation, “No, I’m a Sikh”.
Tom Bates, M.D.,C.M., 1962.
Charlotte, VT

Susan Stern
4 years ago

Thank you very much.

4 years ago

I don’t really know you but you have made me cry while watching this video. May your sacrifice be blessed with auspiciousness and peace.

Rebecca Carter
4 years ago

Dear Dr. Salina,

I am not a Canadian. I am an American. I friend posted your story on Facebook in his feed. I was so emotionally touch by the humanitarian man that you are who would be willing make such a monumental decision pertaining to your faith. You are a blessed human being and I respect and commend your great sacrifice on behalf of those in need of your medical knowledge and skills. ?

Grant Logan
4 years ago

Thank you for your humbling sacrifice. I wish more were strong enough to put their worldly entanglements aside for the mercy of others

4 years ago
Reply to  Grant Logan

Religion and practising it, is not a worldly entanglement. Giving. Religious man no other option is a worldly entanglement.

Heide Hannabass
4 years ago

That’s a powerful message to us all. He chose to do what my God would have done. He certainly is a gift to our world and has made a grave sacrifice to
Service mankind. Alls I can say the quality in this man doesn’t get any better. Amen

Manjit Singh
4 years ago

The pillar of seva is to serve the Guru, which is the Word of God. Sikh history is full of sacrifices for keeping hair and remember those in our daily prayers. They had choices but made the wrong choice. I am an engineer by profession if my employer couldn’t accommodate me, I would say that is not the right profession and it is their loss. I rather be a janitor or pizza maker or open my businesses than lose my hair.

4 years ago

Looking at him really saddened me. It really asks me as a person about how the hospital is caring for its doctors. Letting someone take step like this extreme only suggests that no one cares for your more than they care for themselves. I have seen many post giving explanation of how one can use N95 with facial hairs. Secondly we have forced air mask available as well. We are spending billions of dollars for fighting with this situation can’t we spend some additional bucks so that people can contribute more to the society without giving up their religion. BTW… Read more »

4 years ago
Reply to  Saurabh

I am saddened and very grateful that Dr. Sanjeet Singh Saluja and his brother made this difficult sacrifice. Thank you.

Saurabh, my understanding of the article is a little different than yours. You imply that a decision was made not to spend dollars to buy the appropriate protective equipment for doctors with beards. The article clearly states that acquiring the appropriate equipment would have taken several months – a supply problem. Can you please explain your rational in stating that spending additional bucks would have provided the doctors with an alternative solution. Thank you.

4 years ago
Reply to  Saurabh

Please forgive my very limited understanding of the Sikh faith in making the following comment. I don’t understand your comment “Kesh (hair) is integral part of our body cutting them is as good as you are cutting part of your body. ” I infer from your comment that the severity of “cutting part of your body” will result in physical irreparable damage. Shaving your beard does result in any physical damage to one’s body. Once the pandemic is over, the doctors can regrow their beards without any issues. It’s obvious that from a physical damage perspective shaving one’s beard is… Read more »

4 years ago

Someone mentioned that “he did what god would have wanted”. I don’t know if I should laugh at this or cry! How do you know what god wants? GOD created many variations of people and many ways to practise their faith in him, people are trying to push Christian values here. Most of all, god would have many options other than cutting the beard and most importantly he wouldn’t make someone sad after sacrificing his belief. This doctor is going to look back one day and regret that he made a hasty decision when there are other alternatives, and if… Read more »

4 years ago
Reply to  P

You claim that people are trying to push Christian values here. I have reviewed the comments several times and have not seen any indication that someone is pushing Christian values. I understand that we all have different perspectives when we read/see things. With that in mind, can you please specify the comment(s) that you believe are pushing Christian values and explain why you think that is the case. Your view point is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

4 years ago

He made a personal choice, what he felt compelled to do…not my place to judge. As a Sikh myself, this does sadden me but at the end of the day your relationship with your faith is personal. I just hope his choice is not politicized by certain segments or sets a standard/expectation for those who cannot in good conscience make the same compromise. The choice should always be personal and not imposed on by government; an employer; or the majority.

4 years ago

You state “This doctor is going to look back one day and regret that he made a hasty decision when there are other alternatives…” I have two questions that might provide some additional insight on your statement. 1. I have never met, read about, heard of any person regretting that they have saved many lives. I can only assume that you have given your statement. Perhaps you can share that experience with the rest of us.. 2. You mention that there are other alternatives. Could you please identify those alternatives and how you know that were readily available to the… Read more »

JD Bowen
4 years ago

Please be kind with your comments and refrain from making judgements about this. This doctor was faced with two key pillars in his faith that for the first time in his life were at odds. It is a huge crisis to deal with. Be of service or honor the body as it is. I do thank to live that faith to know how hard it is to have to come to a decision that will violate one of those pillars. It was a Sophie’s choice. He prayed, he sought counsel, he wrestled with it for days. What strength and commitment… Read more »

3 years ago

dear doctor- I do not know you, and I am not Sikh, but.. I am sure, very deep in my heart, that God knows you’re shaving for this and God does not mind at all. I have never felt faith like this before. Thank you.