The co-founder of Doctors with Disabilities Australia shares his harrowing but inspiring journey to becoming Queensland’s first quadriplegic doctor
Warning: This article contains confronting details and images of a car crash. Reader discretion is advised.
Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM became the first quadriplegic medical graduate and medical intern in Queensland following a car crash that left him with a spinal cord injury.
He shared his story as part of the Alan Russell Oration, sponsored by PDL, at the Australian Pharmacy Professional Conference (APP2021) on Thursday.
Dr Palipana was born in Sri Lanka and grew up during a time of political turmoil.
“When I was growing up, it was a place full of violence, suffering and corruption. It went through a civil war for many decades, and there was a political war as well,” he said.
“Parents used to take separate buses to work so that if one of them gets blown up, the other will be able to make it home for their kids.”
From this difficult start in life, Dr Palipana’s family began a new chapter when they migrated to Australia in 1994.
“On my tenth birthday, we landed in Australia. It was amazing, coming to this new place where traffic flows in one direction and people are in their own lanes, and to see these big supermarkets with toys and other goodies, the change of seasons and eating a lamington was one of my most special memories,” he told delegates.
Dr Palipana originally attended law school but eventually moved into medicine.
He said his mum’s philosophy was: “By helping one person, you may not change the world, but you’ll change the world for them.”
“That’s why I decided to become a doctor,” said Dr Palipana. “When I found that ‘why’, something that resonated with my heart, I had so much energy, I had purpose. That changed my life.”
In 2008 he started medical school and knew from the beginning he had “found his tribe”.
However in 2010 it all changed.
Dr Palipana was driving from his mother’s house after a visit, when he was involved in a car accident.
“It was raining that day so the road was wet,” he said. “And I always think of these sliding doors moments, I always think that it’s fate. I wasn’t going to go home that weekend, and then I wasn’t going to stay back that late.
“I ended up leaving the house at this particular time, I missed a couple of turnoffs, and ended up in this very specific stretch of highway.”
His car hit a road slick and lost control.
“The glass was exploding around me, the metal was being crushed. I took stock of what was happening and realised that there was nothing I could do at that time. I only had control of my thoughts,” said Dr Palipana.
“I wanted to get out of the car. I tried to open the door handle, but my fingers weren’t obeying my command anymore. At that point I knew what had happened.
“I can’t really begin to tell you how that felt, that horror, it was like my whole soul was wrapped up in it and I couldn’t breathe. I knew what had happened and I knew my life had changed forever in those seconds.”
A fire truck eventually came to cut him out of the car.
Dr Palipana recalled that a physician attending the scene with emergency services had actually given him a lecture at medical school just a few weeks before the accident.
“That was my first experience being a patient. I was a student doctor, suddenly I was a patient,” he said.
“I learned something really important that day.
People will not remember what you do for them, but they will remember how you made them feel.
“They won’t remember what doses of drugs we dispensed or prescribed, what medical interventions that we did. But they will remember if you made them feel better, and that’s the important thing.
“I spent seven months in hospital, another few months in hospital later after complications in the ICU, and most of my interactions with health professionals were not that great.
“It’s really ironic, I hate going to hospital still as a patient. It’s so disempowering.”
Having acquired a spinal injury during the crash, Dr Palipana overcame many difficulties to progress through university.
Despite everything that had happened, he graduated from his medical degree in 2016.
He was the first medical student with quadriplegia in Queensland to graduate, and the second in Australia.
He now works at a hospital emergency department in a job he loves.
“The thing I love about medicine is people. People are so important and we’re all connected and we all form this fabric of our society. It’s the connections you make and the simple ways you can touch someone.
“I can tell you right now that the pharmacists I’ve had play a role in my journey, as a patient with a spinal cord injury, have made a massive difference in my life and enabled me to do things – not only through medications I get, but also medications through my research projects.
“And particularly when I was an intern, they saved me from making mistakes,” said Dr Palipana.
“I have become involved in a spinal cord research project. One of my big dreams is to stand up again and hug my mum. We are doing some cutting-edge research … where we’re using drug therapy and electrical stimulation and thought to control rehabilitation to restore function to people with paralysis.
“My community pharmacist has played a really important role in getting the drug we needed manufactured, navigating the TGA process and making that happen, which has been an amazing thing.”
Following his ordeal, Dr Palipana has since co-founded Doctors with Disabilities Australia and worked with the Australian Medical Association to create national policies for inclusivity in medical education and employment.
He is also a doctor for the Gold Coast Titans physical disability rugby league team.
In 2021 he was the Queensland state recipient for the Australian of the Year 2021 prize.
Dr Palipana encouraged delegates to start looking outward.
“It’s about what we can give back to the community – how can we leave this world a better place? As health professionals we all have that opportunity and it’s been a massive privilege.
“It’s been 4,127 days since my accident, but I wouldn’t take any one of those days back, because I get to give back to the community and the people that have been there for me,” he said.
“Keep reminding yourself of your ‘why’.
“Pharmacists can make a difference in someone’s life. They’re the front-facing part of so much of medicine.
“As community pharmacists, you play a massive role, not just to your patients directly but also to the communities you serve. You carry out an important role and it’s an important privilege, and I thank you for all the work that you do.”