Six picks from a surgeon and health activist
What inspires the inspiring? The Gates Foundation Goalkeepers are a community of change-makers who are advancing the Sustainable Development Goals in diverse and innovative ways. But what inspires them to reimagine and work toward a better future for all? We asked Dr. Sukhmeet Singh Sachal for his six sources of inspiration.
If you ask most 5-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, the answer usually lies somewhere between fantasy and aspiration. But for Dr. Sukhmeet Singh Sachal, it was a declaration that never wavered. On his fifth birthday, his father took him to Pingalwara—a foundation in India for children who are orphaned or have disabilities. There, Sukhmeet recalls seeing another 5-year-old, with a broken arm. “I saw who was treating this child and it turned out to be a doctor. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.
As Sukhmeet grew older, he learned more about himself and his religion, which crystalized his chosen path. “As a Sikh, our whole philosophy in life is to serve others,” he says. “That is really the main tenet.”
Following his purpose came with growing pains. In 2002, his family emigrated to Canada for more opportunity. Sukhmeet left behind his familiar life in Amritsar, India. In Canada, he was intensely bullied because of his accent and culture. But Sukhmeet didn’t let those experiences silence him. He used them as a launchpad to advocate for others—first as an activist in high school and later as a public health advocate in medical school. His desire to make a positive impact led him to create the Sikh Health Foundation in British Columbia during the COVID-19 pandemic, through which he leveraged his philosophy of “simple solutions to solve complex problems” to help hundreds of thousands of people.
Sukhmeet is a Goalkeeper, part of a Gates Foundation–led community of collaborative changemakers. As a speaker at the 2022 Goalkeepers event, he discussed the Sikh concept of seva, meaning “selfless service,” which guides his mission as a health advocate and as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon.
Sukhmeet shares six of the things that inspire him and fuel his passion as an advocate for people in his community and around the world:
1. Black and Blue Sari: The true story of a woman surviving and overcoming years of abuse, torture and fear in her marriage by Kamal Dhillon
In high school, I was part of a women’s empowerment club that organized an event on domestic violence in the South Asian community. Kamal Dhillon came to speak to us that day. She’s since become one of my role models and mentors. The night I read her book, it gave me goosebumps. Black and Blue Sari talks about Dhillon’s journey through gender-based violence, how she escaped it, and how she found faith in a time of darkness. It’s a book that can really change people’s mindsets and help them reexamine things in life. It made me do a lot of thinking.
2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This is a book that everyone told me to read, but I never had the chance. So I read it after finishing medical school and before starting residency, and I’m so glad that I did. Dr. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who started writing this book when he found out he had terminal lung cancer. He wrote about being a doctor who took care of patients, but also about being a patient himself. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching text.
The book shows the impact that doctors can have on the lives of their patients. As a plastic and reconstructive surgery resident, I’ve learned that the specialty is about so much more than aesthetics. It includes hand injuries, craniofacial injuries, and skin cancers. Plastic surgeons work head to toe to not only fix human anatomy, but also to restore function, form, and beauty and also self-confidence. One of my goals is to change people’s understanding of what the field entails and help those who have experienced burns, acid attacks, and craniofacial injuries.
3. Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe (This Life Is Dedicated to You) – a film by Harjit Singh
This documentary tells the story of Bhagat Puran Singh, the founder of Pingalwara—the organization that changed my life at the age of five. It’s an incredible film about a humble, simple man who grew up in poverty and dedicated his entire life to serving humanity. When he was growing up in India, the caste system often deterred people from interacting with so-called untouchables. But after converting to Sikhism, he began transporting orphans and children with disabilities to a facility for medical treatment and found money to get more people treatment. It’s a beautiful story of how he evolved into a humanitarian. His organization is still changing lives every day.
4. My elementary school principal, Mr. John Rogers
Mr. Rogers was my elementary school principal in Canada. My dad and mom created a scrapbook of all my accomplishments and everything I had done in India. When he showed it to Mr. Rogers, Mr. Rogers looked at me and said, “I don't know what it is, but I just see something in your eyes. There’s something about the way you conduct yourself that lets me know that you are going to make a difference in the world one day.” This was around the time I was facing extensive bullying. When kids like me hear awful things about themselves, statements like the one Mr. Rogers made can make a resounding impact.
I met up with him two years ago, and he still follows my Facebook and Twitter. He’s the first to comment on anything. He said to me, “I just feel so proud of the fact that you’ve gotten to where you are today.” It was a very humbling experience.
5. “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown
I love the line in Brené Brown’s TED Talk where she says that “vulnerability is…the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” I used to be very hesitant to share my story. When I was in grade 12, I participated in a TEDx Talk and told people about my life. After that, I realized that people cared about what I had to say. All the stories of me being bullied are literally the birthplace of the changes in my life and my environment. When I share the failures and obstacles that I had to overcome to get to where I am today, I’m being true to who I am.
6. Gender equality data from the 2023 Goalkeepers Report
The gender equality data in the annual Goalkeepers Report drives me. Melinda French Gates says that “gender equality depends on women having power, not just ‘empowerment’.” That’s a concept I want to continue following in my practice as a plastic surgeon. I don’t want to be a savior in any way. I’ve never looked at a problem and said, “Let me go to a different country and fix all the problems.” For me, the most important thing is to hear the stories of women who have gone through violence and how that’s impacted their lives. Is it something that they even want to fix? Would they want plastic and reconstructive surgery options to help with burns and acid attacks? Every community is different, so really tailoring solutions to meet the needs of the people is the most important thing.
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