British Columbia·First Person

I'm first and foremost a Sikh — then a family physician

For Asian Heritage Month, Dr. Birinder Narang shares how his faith inspires and motivates his approach toward health care.

My faith guides me in my approach to health care, writes Dr. Birinder Narang

Dr. Birinder Narang is part of a group of South Asian doctors who have been requesting more information from the B.C. government about how COVID-19 is affecting different ethno-cultural groups. (Birinder Narang)

A friend asked me recently why I have "Sikh" listed first in my biography, ahead of mentioning that I'm a family physician.

As a Sikh, I have always believed that my primary allegiance is to my Guru and that is how I try to approach my work, my relationships and my life.

Also, there is no point trying to shy away from my religion — I wear a turban, so most people should be able to identify me as a Sikh anyway.

Then there was the time after I completed my residency training in 2016 in family medicine, when I was at a loss career wise because I hadn't found inspiration in my nine-to-five job. I had tried various temporary roles but wasn't sure what came next.

It turns out the answer rested in my faith, which guided me to stay in family practice. 

I grew up in a Sikh home. My father and maternal grandfather, who are also both physicians, inspired me. But I had moments of self-doubt. Growing up in Halifax, I would wear my patka (head covering) and would often be teased in school. 

"Are you a girl or a boy?" kids would ask. 

Maintaining unshorn hair is an important visible part of being Sikh, and I wasn't alone in my struggle with that. 

My mother would sit me down and tell me that my identity was my choice. If it was difficult for me, or if bullying became a continuous problem, they would support any choice I made.

Seeing their strength and wisdom, and the faith that my parents had, made keeping my hair an easy choice.

Here are some ways how Sikhi inspires me every day:

Continual learning

Sikh means "to learn." When I became a physician, I chose a career with a commitment to lifelong learning. A doctor's education is never complete. This pandemic, during which all health-care workers have continually been learning, is a good case in point. 

Oneness

Sikhs also believe in the principle of "oneness" — a divine light, energy or force that connects us all. 

At the risk of sounding nerdy, let's say this divine energy is like the Force in the Star Wars series. It's something in all of us, it binds us all together, and it's sort of analogous to the concept of "God."

In Sikhi, the attributes of the Divine are presented in the opening lines of the Guru Granth Sahib scriptures you see upon entering a gurdwara:

"There is One, who is not visible, whose name is Truth and is the Creator, who lives without hate and without fear, is timeless in form, is unborn and self-existent."

Since this divine force lives among us all, there is no difference between the Divine and us as humans. I try to approach my work with that lens. 

The College of Family Physicians of Canada outlines the four "principles of family medicine." One of them — "family medicine is a community-based discipline" — resonates with me in particular, because as a Sikh, I am encouraged to actively participate in my community.

Even in my most difficult patient encounters, I am guided by my faith to see the light within all. 

Such was the case with one patient who had a substance use disorder. Initially, it was hard to prioritize their immediate needs because there were so many things at play aside from their medical conditions, such as lack of stable housing, poverty, strained familial relationships and spiritual disconnection. 

But after months of treatment, we began to see a change. This person recently came to an appointment and was well put together, looked nourished and was reading a newspaper while waiting for me. I couldn't help but smile.

Seva

Over the past six months, through the South Asian COVID Task Force, there has been ample opportunity to demonstrate the Sikh concept of seva, also known as selfless service. 

Team members, many of us Sikhs, have spent countless hours working on COVID education and media engagement and we recently launched the #ThisIsOurShotCA campaign to champion vaccine confidence in collaboration with other grassroots organizations. 

We do this because we have the privilege, medical knowledge and inspiration from our faith to tackle these areas of need.

Chardi Kala

A goal of a Sikh's life is to find Chardi Kala, or the sense of eternal optimism. Just like my parents empowered me to make my own decision about keeping my long hair, Sikhs are taught we all have our own paths on this journey to connection with the Divine. 

As a result, I try not to tell my patients what to do. Instead I present them with guidance that is informed by science and engage in a shared decision-making process. Empowering patients enables them to be active participants in their health care. They may not always agree with my recommendations, but providing a safe space for dialogue is an effective, patient-centred strategy that builds trust.

To witness people thrive after suffering through pain and isolation is the embodiment of Divinity.


Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us at bcvoices@cbc.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Birinder Narang is a Sikh family physician working in East Vancouver at REACH Community Health Centre.

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