Dr. Sanjeet Singh-Saluja after shaving his beard.
CNN  — 

Two Canadian doctors of the Sikh faith have made the difficult decision to shave off their beards – a pillar of their faith – to continue treating Covid-19 patients.

Their decision has sparked a conversation among Sikhs, especially health care workers, who say there are alternatives to shaving.

Dr. Sanjeet Singh-Saluja, an emergency doctor and physician at McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in Montreal, said he and his brother, also a doctor, shaved their beards so they could properly wear N95 face masks that offer protection from the coronavirus.

“One of the pillars of the Sikh faith is Seva, which is service to mankind. I have always viewed my work at the MUHC as a chance for me to fulfill my faith’s expectations of service,” Singh-Saluja said in a video explaining his decision.

“However, another pillar of the faith, as many of you know, is Kesh, which is the practice of allowing one’s hair to grow naturally out of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. In this time of pandemic, I am faced with an existential crisis as the latter has severely limited my ability to serve.”

The brothers had to choose between not seeing Covid-19 patients until suitable protection was made available to them or shaving their beards, Singh-Saluja said in the video. To honor their oaths as physicians and their religious duty to serve, the two doctors chose the latter.

“This is a decision made after many weeks of soul searching and many sleepless nights. This is a very difficult decision for us, and one we feel is necessary in this time of need,” Singh-Saluja said.

“This is a decision that has left me with great sadness, and I truly mourn the loss of something that has been a major part of my identity.”

MUHC declined to comment, saying the brothers made “a personal decision.”

Sikh community rallies for alternatives

The brothers’ decision to shave their beards has struck a chord with Sikhs across North America.

As the pandemic continues, other Sikh health care workers may face similar decisions, simply because many hospitals lack adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) that could be used in place of face masks.

Controlled air purifying respirators (CAPR) and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR) are two forms of respiratory protection equipment designed to accommodate facial hair while protecting a worker’s head, face, eyes and ears.

But with hospitals already struggling with shortages of gowns, gloves, N95 respirators and goggles, CAPRs and PAPRs – which are more expensive – are even harder to come by.

Still, Sikh community organizations want health care workers to know there are alternatives to shaving.

On Tuesday, the North American Sikh Medical and Dental Association (NASMDA) wrote a letter to members announcing that they’ve partnered with the Sikh Coalition, a rights group, to provide support and legal guidance to health care workers who are worried that they may need to shave their beards to continue practicing medicine.

“It has come to our attention that many are discussing the decision of a Canadian Sikh doctor and his brother choosing to shave their beards in order to wear certain personal protective equipment (PPE),” NASMDA said in the letter.

“As fellow Sikh providers who are also facing this pandemic, we are deeply saddened to learn of anyone who feels like they must make this false choice and that they are not in a position to practice their faith fearlessly.”

NASMDA said they do not wish to pass judgment on the brothers, but what they decided should not impact what other Sikh health care workers do. The letter also said the Sikh Coalition could help workers obtain other forms of PPE, such as PAPRs and CAPRs.

“Sikh healthcare workers should not be forced to make a choice between their career and their faith. Forcing people to compromise their constitutionally-protected beliefs is unacceptable,” Dr. Jaspal Singh, a professor of medicine at the Atrium Health and the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, told CNN.

“Hospitals and medical practices have to recognize that Sikhs have a constitutionally and statutorily protected right to freedom of religion in the workplace. Asking Sikhs to shave is not, in legal terms, the ‘least restrictive means’ to allow them to maintain their religious beliefs and serve in their profession. There are multiple alternatives that Sikhs and others can and should be provided.”

The Sikh Coalition has asked that any Sikh medical professionals facing similar decisions reach out for help.