By 30, Dr Sharminithevi Paramalingam was working as a general surgeon and lecturer at Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC). She loved surgery and working at a teaching hospital like UMMC where training, while grueling, was second to none. But, as much as she loved her job – “to help people feel better” – Dr Sharminithevi was deeply dissatisfied.
“I enjoyed teaching and serving my patients but at the same time I felt I was in a rut. I felt as if I was nurturing only one part of me and I didn’t have the time to do a lot of the other things that I love. I love to travel, meet people and learn new things. But my routine at the hospital … where we practically work every day just didn’t allow me to do any of those things. I felt stifled and was restless,” says the 36-year-old from Petaling Jaya, frowning ever so slightly as she explains her frustrations.
Earlier this year, Dr Sharminithevi made the difficult decision to leave her job at the hospital. She knew it was the right thing to do especially after volunteering at a medical camp in Laos.
“A team of us went to 30 villages in Laos and treated about 3,000 villagers. I had to set up a makeshift surgical theatre in the villages and perform minor surgeries on people who had little access to such treatment. It was invigorating … a really positive experience and it assured me that I was making the right decision to leave,” shares Dr Sharminithevi.
Her parents supported her decision, fully confident that she would land on her feet regardless of the path she chose.
“My parents were trailblazers in their own ways. They were always independent and charted their own lives based on what they wanted to do. So I suppose I am a product of them. I am strong-willed and this can sometimes be troublesome,” muses the doctor.
After resigning from her job, Dr Sharminithevi travelled around Southeast Asia on her own. While on holiday, she received a message from a friend recommending that she help set up a new social enterprise that provides jobs for the homeless community in Kuala Lumpur.
The offer came out of the left field.
“I had absolutely no experience working with the homeless community and I knew next to nothing about setting up a social enterprise. But something made me apply for the position anyway,” she says with a bashful smile, still somewhat amused by her impulsiveness.
The next thing she knew, she was at a meeting with young professionals from around the globe, being briefed about social entrepreneurship.
“I was shell-shocked in the beginning, completely out of my comfort zone. But pretty soon, I began to really enjoy the challenges the task entailed. I gave my medical input and learnt about business, human resource management, managing accounts, street engagement. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity had I not left the hospital,” she shares.
In March, Dr Sharmini started work on Inclue, a social enterprise to help the homeless find employment. In four months, her team of six international fellows had to draw up a feasible and sustainable model for the social enterprise, get it off the ground and then present a plan on how it can be developed further.
“In just four months I learnt so much. I knew next to nothing about the issue of homelessness. I had a lot of preconceived notions about the homeless … that most of them were drug addicts or those with mental health issues. But all that changed within weeks. In no time, I realised that people could end up on the streets for many reasons. There were those who simply can’t pay the rent, foreigners who have been cheated and have nowhere to go … there were so many stories, all of them different and not at all what I’d imagined,” she shares.
Apart from the nuts and bolts of setting up the enterprise, Dr Sharminithevi ran medical “clinics” for the homeless people who worked with Inclue. She not only saw to their medical and physical issues but also to their emotional and psychological welfare.
The experience has been fulfilling.
Now that Inclue is up and running, Dr Sharminithevi is ready for her next adventure.
“My goal in life is to be a better person. No matter what situation I am in, I want to always have a purpose and do something good. My ultimate dream would be to work with an organisation like Doctors Without Borders, offering my expertise in areas that need emergency medical services. That would be perfect … I’d get to travel, experience new things and practise medical and help people all at once. But until that opportunity arises, I will see what opens up for me,” she says. Medicine, however, will remain her passion. No matter what she does next, it will centre around her innate desire “to heal and help”.
“My mum was a nurse and I remember tagging along with her to work at the hospital. I used to be so amazed watching the doctors and nurses performing their duties, tending to the sick and injured. My mum would also always come home and talk about her day at work. Taking care of people is a nice job to have,” she says.