Let your dreams be bigger than your fears: how I overcame adversity to become a surgeon

Surgeon Sala Abdalla believes young people from disadvantaged backgrounds shouldn’t think a career in medicine is beyond them. She shares her inspirational story and how she’s supporting other young women from under-represented groups to pursue a career in surgery.

I wanted to become a doctor from as early as I can remember.

I spent my early childhood in a country where quality healthcare remains a privilege of the wealthy and this fuelled my desire to help people irrespective of their income.

I was born in what is now North Sudan. My mother was a primary school teacher and my father worked as a civil servant. I had a reasonably comfortable and happy early childhood and would spend weekends playing in my grandmother’s orchard and summer afternoons picnicking on the lush banks of the river Nile.

However, life quickly changed. My father, who had been an outspoken critic of the then government, was imprisoned and paid a heavy price for freedom of expression. Upon his release, my family sought refuge in England.

I arrived here with my parents and younger siblings at the age of 10, as a political refugee seeking asylum. I didn’t speak any English and we were subsequently housed in a deprived part of East London.

My parents struggled to find work, so we relied on welfare benefits for a long time.

I sought solace in education. I was determined to learn English and made it my mission to study hard and fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a doctor.

I threw myself into my studies and went on to achieve the highest GCSE grades in the region, win a national award and secure a place at a top medical school.

Settling into Imperial College was hard, especially for a kid from my background. Imperial College blew me away. It wasn’t just the environment of excellence. I was, for the first time, surrounded by ambitious young people. Everybody had a goal, and I was going to join that tribe.

I became interested in a career in general surgery towards the end of medical school. I found the combination of problem solving with technical prowess in caring for acutely unwell patients rewarding.

However, the lack of representation was one of the first challenges I encountered. Surgery is a male-dominated specialty with few female consultants and even fewer women of colour.

I didn’t meet another black female surgeon until I was much further along in my training. It felt like I was travelling this road alone for a long time.

Representation is fundamental. You can’t be what you can’t see. I believe that seeing someone who looks like you, that you can see yourself becoming, is essential. Having female role models is crucial to make a surgical career more attractive for women.

I now work in Ealing Hospital, which serves a large multi-ethnic population in north-west London with a high level of deprivation. I actively mentor junior trainees, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in a way that would have benefited me in the early days of training.

In 2020, I set up a charity called Operation International UK, which provides free surgical care to underserved communities around the world. To date, this charity has performed hundreds of free lifesaving and function-restoring surgeries in West Africa. It is one of my proudest achievements and one of the many opportunities afforded by a career in surgery.

As I reflect on my journey, I am full of gratitude to everyone who has helped me get here, from my supportive schoolteachers to my trainers and supervisors who saw my potential and nurtured it.

My advice to younger people wanting to pursue a career in surgery is to remember that although it is hard work, the rewards will be far greater than you could imagine.

Sala Abdalla, Consultant General and Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeon, London North West University Healthcare Trust

Sala Abdalla is a Consultant General and Upper Gastrointestinal Surgeon based at the London North West University Healthcare Trust.

She is an advocate for women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and has made significant contributions to medical education.

She is faculty on several royal college of surgeons accredited courses and is the author of numerous publications in the field of surgery, including two textbooks.

She has a passion for humanitarian work and is director of a surgical charity that performs lifesaving and function-restoring operations in underserved communities around the globe.