Real Life

REAL LIFE: Meet Australia’s inspiring quadriplegic doctor, Dinesh Palipana

It's a very human job
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Dinesh Palipana, 37, from the Gold Coast, Qld, shares his story with Take 5’s Mitchell Jordan:

Looking up in the ambulance, I saw a familiar face.

“You lectured me not long ago,” I said to Dr Stephen Rashford.

Before he could reply, I began to panic: How would I become a doctor now?

Aged 25, I’d been driving home from my parents’ place in Brisbane when my wheels hit a puddle and I lost control.

The car flew through the air, and when it landed, my body was soaked in blood.

I couldn’t feel a thing and was unable to grab the door handle to try to get out.

Luckily, a driver stopped to help me and I was cut out of my vehicle and put in an ambulance, where I’d spotted my former teacher.

Dinesh’s car after the accident (Image: supplied)

Seeing the terror in my eyes, Dr Rashford tried to comfort me.

“Everything will be okay,” he said. “If you want to get back to medicine after this, you’ll find a way.”

I repeated similar words to my mum when she came to visit, but later when I was alone, I broke down completely.

“I’m crippled!” I cried, noting the many tubes coming out of me.

With each day that passed, the realisation I was now quadriplegic following the cervical spinal cord injury hit me like a sledgehammer.

I’d gone through depression earlier in my 20s and studying to be a doctor had given me purpose.

I didn’t want to lose the thing I was passionate about.

After eight months in hospital, I was discharged, having regained some upper limb function and the ability to sit up again.

Dinesh Palipana with his mum before the accident (Image: supplied)

I had no movement in my fingers and it was unlikely I ever would.

But despite everything, over time, I began to love what had happened to me.

The accident had given me an opportunity to grow into a better person.

I could still enjoy life.

An old friend even organised for me to go for a spin in a Lamborghini for my 29th birthday!

Getting back into a car didn’t frighten me at all.

As time passed, academics at uni contacted me.

“If you want to come back, now is the time,” one told me.

Dinesh and his mum now. (Image www.lananoir.com)

Returning to study after five years away was a challenge.

For motivation, I listened to the song Juicy by The Notorious B.I.G, which told the story of a man making good from the worst of circumstances.

Hearing lyrics like: “Don’t let ’em hold you down, reach for the stars,” gave my mental health a boost.

I had some great support from a volunteer named Tien, an academic and neurologist, who promised to help get me back to speed.

Whenever I got something wrong, he pushed me to think more.

In 2016, I passed my exams but – unlike my colleagues – couldn’t find a job.

It seemed like being in a wheelchair was a problem for many potential employers and it wasn’t until the media rallied behind me that I was offered a position at Gold Coast University Hospital.

Once I had a job, I made enquiries about specialising in a particular field of medicine, only to be shot down by a colleague.

Dinesh was determined to become a doctor (Image: Fraser Smith)

“I have so many concerns about you coming to this specialty,” they said. “Can you even type?”

I’d learned to type 60 words per minute with my knuckles, but this wasn’t going to change the doctor’s mind.

“We can’t have someone with a spinal cord injury here,” they said.

They weren’t the only doctor to hold such a view.

“You should consider a career outside of here,” one told me. “Leave those things to people who have the physical capacity to do it.”

Despite this, the patients themselves never expressed any doubt or concern about having me as their doctor.

In fact, one man in a wheelchair even confided in me that he was pleased.

“You understand what I’m going through,” he said.

Dinesh with his partner, Chiara (Image: supplied)

Having seen how upset Mum was by my accident also helped me to empathise with other mothers who had children in hospital.

Because, although I can do everything from ultrasounds, administering needles and inserting cannulas, the most important part of being a good doctor is having a heart.

It’s a very human job, and for the last six years, I’ve been at my happiest working in some of the country’s busiest hospitals.

I even found love with another doctor, Chiara, who I met when she was fiddling around with the printer one day at work.

Chiara has a fire inside her and has allowed me to grow.

Making at entrance at Fashion Week (Image: supplied)

Best of all, Mum thinks she’s great.

I’d love to become a dad one day, though my next personal challenge is to learn how to fly a plane that’s been modified for people with spinal injuries.

Now, I’ve shared my story in my memoir, Stronger, to show that my disability hasn’t stopped me from soaring through the sky or reaching the top of mountains… this year I even scooted down the catwalk at Fashion Week in my wheelchair!

I’ve done things I never dreamed of, so I really can’t say I’m paralysed.

By living life to the fullest, I now say that I’m unparalysed.

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