By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Dinesh Palipana, a Sri Lankan born Australian, was the first person with quadriplegia, caused by a spinal injury, to graduate from medical school in Australia.
He is a legal professional, disability advocate, and all-round superhuman who overcame all life’s obstacles.
We spoke to Dinesh, about his life, ambitions, and tireless advocacy for a better quality of life for those with disabilities.
Q. In your second year of med school, you suffered a grave accident that altered your life. Could you recount the details of the night of 31 January, 2010?
When I was driving back to my place from my parents’, an hour-and-a-half away, I hit something on the road. Perhaps it was a water puddle, but we’re not sure.
My car aquaplaned, I lost control, and then it mounted an embankment. As it was coming down, the nose hit the tarmac and the car began to roll, nose to tail.
When it finally stopped, I tried to get out of the car, which was when I realised I couldn’t move my legs or fingers. I couldn’t feel them either. It was a horrifying moment.
I was eventually cut out of the car and taken to the hospital.
Coincidentally, the doctor that accompanied me in the ambulance to the hospital was a doctor that lectured me as medical student.
I only recently met the firemen that attended the scene. There told me that the fire truck also lost control when it approached the site of the accident. There must have been something on the road that night.
Q. Your recovery process wasn’t easy, during rehab it was a difficult time for you and your family. Was there a time you wished to just give up and resign to a presumed fate?
No, I don’t think I ever felt like giving up. There were times I just wanted to hide and tune out for a bit. However, even in the darkest times, I always had a glimmer of hope for the best.
Q. You are a thriving example of how one is not defined by their disability. How does it feel to have achieved so much after all you’ve been through? Do you think your life would have taken a different path had it not been for that one life-defining moment?
This is an interesting question. I honestly haven’t thought about any achievements, or focused on them.
I’ve just been pursuing a passion and doing things that are fun. With this in the background, my focus has been on something bigger than myself. That is, trying to be of service to my fellow human beings. That combination makes me want to be better every single day.
My life certainly would have been different without that life-changing moment. I often ask myself, if I could go back in time and not get into the accident, would I do it? The funny thing is I don’t know if I would. I would lose all the people and experiences that have made my life rich since the accident and giving that up would be a big price to pay, despite the challenges I had to face.
Regardless of this curveball, I’m still very grateful for my life.
Q. You speak of mastering simple tasks carried out by doctors or nurses – for instance, learning to insert an intravenous cannula was a struggle for you. How has it been having to work that much harder to achieve something when your peers put in a fraction of the effort you do?
A hard lesson that I learned early on after the accident was that one shouldn’t compare themselves to others. This was a result of how, initially, I had to watch everyone around me move on with their lives while I was stuck in a hospital bed for months.
However, this was one of the best things that I have learnt, because it has allowed me to set my own standards. When you set your own standards for life, you can shoot for the stars and ignore everything else.
Q. How do your patients respond to you? It’s not a perfect world and people have their prejudices, so what’s your experience with your patients like? Do you have to make an effort to build a rapport and trust?
My patients were amazing. I have not had a single negative interaction with a patient because of my condition. They’ve been uniformly positive. I’m grateful for the opportunity to play a part in their journey. My colleagues were fantastic as well.
The prejudices are actually institutional. A lot of the barriers come from the very organisations that you would expect to be progressive.
Q. How has your journey been as an advocate for medical students with disabilities? When did you decide to become one and were there any milestone moments or breakthroughs in your trials?
We are making baby steps. The US has been doing a lot of work in this area, and continues to make a lot of progress with campaigns like #DocsWithDisabilities. I recently spoke with the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom, which was conducting a campaign called “Valued and Welcomed” for doctors with disabilities.
In Australia, we are starting to achieve incremental changes, but still have some way to go.
The biggest milestones in my trials were graduating from medical school, starting work, and, hopefully soon, commencing a specialist training programme.
These milestones will hopefully act as a precedent and lay the foundation for future medical students in similar circumstances.
This is something I want to advocate for because being treated differently due to a physical difference is one of the most deeply hurtful things a human being can undergo.
Q. You’ve been working towards discovering and advancing technology that would enable people with spinal injuries recover and walk again. What does this process entail, how does it feel knowing you’re one step closer to making a major breakthrough?
I’m lucky to be based at the Griffith University where we are doing two projects that hold a lot of hope for those with spinal cord injury. The one I am most directly involved in is a project that uses electroencephalograms (EEG), electrical stimulation, and medication for thought-controlled rehabilitation in spinal cord injury. Some of the early evidence shows that this type of rehabilitation can reprogramme the spinal cord and restore some function.
The second project involves stem cell transplantation. The type of stem cell transplantation under investigation by our university has restored function in animals, and a Polish gentleman.
We are getting very close. We just need to keep working hard with people that believe in the dream.
Q. Finally, any words of wisdom you’d like to impart to anyone feeling too weighed down by disability to achieve their dreams?
Disability is a social construct. It’s only in our minds. There are people with full physical capacity that ultimately don’t live up to their full potential. There are people like Stephen Hawking who change the way we think about the universe.
Don’t think about the limitations. Think about the possibilities.