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In this episode we will discover just how Dinesh became a quadriplegic, the effect it had on his family, why he fled back to his native country Sri Lanka, and what drove him to come back and finish his medical degree and become a doctor.
Dr Dinesh Palipana, is founder of Doctors with Disabilities Australia and has been named as Queensland’s 2021 Australian of Year.
Produced by: Black Me Out Productions
Growing Bold with employment and having the courage to face your fears
Pete and Tristram: Welcome to the Grow Bold with Disability podcast brought to you by Feros Care, a podcast dedicated to smashing stereotypes and talking about the things people with disability care about most. To help us live bolder, healthier, better connected lives. I’m journalist Pete Timbs and I’m Tristram Peters. I work for Disability Service Directory, Clickability, and am a wheelchair user living with spinal muscular atrophy.
PETE: Today’s episode of Grow Bold with Disability is growing bold and employment. And our guest is Queensland’s first quadriplegic doctor, Doctor Dinesh Palipana. In this episode we will discover just how Dinesh became a quadriplegic, the effect it had on his family, why he fled back to his native country Sri Lanka, and what drove him to come back and finish his medical degree and become a doctor. Dinesh, welcome to Grow Bold with Disability.
DINESH: Hello. How are you? Thanks for having me.
PETE: Thanks for joining us.
TRISTRAM: So, Dinesh, let’s start with your accident. What happened on the night of January 31, 2010?
DINESH: I was driving back from visiting my parents. I used to live on the Gold Coast where I was going to medical school and they lived in Brisbane. So, I visited them that weekend, as I often did, and I was driving back at about 8:30 p.m. that night. It was one of those days where it was raining through the day and the roads were a little bit wet. There was also a bunch of road works that were happening along the highway intermittently. Anyway, I came up to this particular stretch of highway and I saw this little black slick or something on the road. But by the time I came up to it, it was too late to avoid it and I hit it. And as soon as I hit it, my car lost control and it started spinning and spinning. And then it went up an embankment, came back off the embankment, and then it started spinning through the nose to tail. It was one of the most violent experiences I have had. It was wild. And when the car landed, I tried to get out and I realized I couldn’t move, and my fingers weren’t working anymore. I tried to open the door and they just went obeying my commands, and then I put my hand on my leg and I couldn’t feel my legs. So that was when I realized what had happened.
PETE: So, you were two years into your medical degree. What was your first initial thought? Because obviously, you’re a bit more advanced with this sort of stuff than the normal person. Did you realize that you were either paraplegic or quadriplegic, that you’d broken your spine?
DINESH: Yeah. Yeah, I knew straight away. And it’s a funny thing because you think about it medically but then you just come back to being a normal person, you know? And you’re just scared and terrified. And you just know that your life has changed forever, and I can’t really explain that thought. It’s just one of those really horrifying, sickening thoughts and feelings.
TRISTRAM: Absolutely. And so, tell us about your recovery and rehab, you know, how did you start that and what progress you made.
DINESH: I went to the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane and I was there for seven or eight months in total. And I hated it. It’s so funny saying that because I work as a doctor in the hospital every single day. But I hate being a patient, and I hated being a patient then. I think one of the reasons is that you’re so disempowered, you know. I understand the reason for needing some sort of routine. But I didn’t get to choose when I went to bed, when I woke up, when I ate, when I had a shower. And a lot of that was dictated through the day for about eight months. And it was a really difficult thing. But after a period of time, you become institutionalized. And I was scared to be discharged from the hospital by that point because I was used to that routine, and I was used to the security of the hospital and security of that and this new life. But it was a hard process physically because initially I couldn’t speak a full sentence like this because it was a spinal cord injury. Because your lung functions are really affected with a high-level spinal cord injury. You see guys with ventilators, but for me, my lung function is affected as well. And it took me a while before I could speak a full sentence like this. Previously I just had to stop, take a breath, stop, take a breath and speak again. I was on oxygen for a long period of time. So, it took a while for me to even get basics like that and to learn to be upright again took a while as well. I initially was just passing out every time I sat up, so it was just going on this tilt table and learning to be upright and just incremental steps, you know. And even eating, I was only on this jelly for a period of time. And then finally, the speech therapist said, okay, you can eat some solids. And I had a steak. It was good.
PETE: Let’s just go back a little before the accident. Where were you in life? Now as far as I know, you’ve got a law degree. You’re halfway through a medical degree. You’re on the path to being a very successful young man. Where were you in life? Were you, was everything happy, and then bang this happened?
DINESH: Yeah, you know, I never grew up wanting to be a doctor. So, when I finished school, I just wasn’t one of those guys that, you know, grew up wanting to be a doctor or always want to be a doctor. I just wasn’t. I finished school. I went to study law. You know, I didn’t really have a particular passion. And I think Law was just something that I thought would be good doing. But I became depressed, and I ended up finding my way into medicine, which I absolutely loved. Like I knew from the moment I started that it was just where I was supposed to be. So, I found my passion in medicine and life was really good. Just before the accident, I used to wake up and I live in the Gold Coast and just look up and see the ocean and the sun and everything that was happening. And I just loved life. I was thankful for it every single day. So, I was at this point where I felt like life was at a peak and everything was perfect. Yeah, and that’s where I was.
TRISTRAM: Yeah, absolutely. And obviously was such a life changing experience. What did the future hold in regard to your medical degree? At what point did you realize you can go back to your studies and continue that career path?
DINESH: You know, there’s a lot of people that said that I couldn’t be a doctor anymore. And I remember being in the hospital and all these people coming and going, and some of them were supportive but there was a lot that said you can’t be a doctor anymore, you should find something else to do, you’ll never be able to finish your clinical rotations, you’ll never be able to finish med school. All that kind of stuff. Even one of my close friends, a couple of my close friends were like;
“Hey, what do you want to do? This is going to be really hard. We care about you. You should probably think about something else to do rather than go back to med school.” And I had this interesting conversation with a doctor who worked in the hospital where I was a patient after the spinal cord injury and he said,
“Man, you know, when you were a patient there, I remember having this meeting and we were talking about this guy who wants to go back to med school. And all these people from around the table, the doctor said that’s ridiculous. There’s no way that can happen. So that there was a lot of that. But fortunately, I had enough people that said let’s give this a try.
PETE: Amazing. Now this accident had a big effect on your family as well. Tell us about that.
DINESH: Yeah, and a lot off accidents and a lot of injuries and a lot of illnesses do. I work in the E. D. as a doctor at the moment. And all the time I see families that have fallen apart because of something like this happening. I see so many single parents come through with their kids or whatever. Marriages falling apart. So, I think when a significant incident like this happens in someone’s life, it really tests the relationships and the bonds that you have. For me, my mom, she always been one of the most important people in my life. She’s taught me so much and helped me with so much. She really stuck around, and she’s been there for me every single day since this happened. So, we’re 10 years down the track now. But it wasn’t so for the rest of my family. I think my dad found it really hard. I started seeing him less and less, and I haven’t seen him for years now. I guess that’s just the way people handle things. And him and my mom split and got divorced, but I had other family members as well, distant family members that I haven’t seen for a long time. And, uh, it’s not because of any particular conflict or anything, I think it just tests people, you know? And I think what I’ve learned through this time is that blood doesn’t necessarily make family. I’ve met so many people, there are people that have only known me after the spinal cord injury, who might have never seen me walking, and they’ve been there for me. And they’ve helped me through some hard times, and I count them as family now. So, I think you make the family on this planet and family is who sticks by you.
TRISTRAM: Yeah, for sure. And the other aspect of disability that often isn’t mentioned and obviously your accident predates the NDIS, is the massive financial toll. In terms of getting accessible cars, power chairs, that must have been a big challenge at the time.
DINESH: Yeah, absolutely. The financial toll is huge. You know, and it was pre NDIS. Things were a bit different then and a lot of this equipment costs a lot. I use a power assisted wheelchair and the wheels that go on in the power assisted ones, they’re like $12,000 or something. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And the seating itself is $7000. I think when you attach either a medical or a disability label to things, the price just skyrockets.
PETE: So, you also said at the time of the accident,
“I cared about how the world saw me. I didn’t want them to see me in a completely different, vulnerable physical state. I always hated being vulnerable.” How did you deal with now being so vulnerable after the accident?
DINESH: I had this eye-opening moment just recently where I saw a little kid who had a spinal cord injury. Which is tragic. I think their age was just in the single digits. And I was thinking, you know, I was 25 when this happened, So I’d had a chance to explore the world. Hanging out with girls and play sport and whatever else, travel. But this little kid hasn’t experienced life at all. And anyway, um, the mom was telling me that they didn’t look in the mirror for months after this happened, and I was the same. I didn’t look in the mirror for probably a year or two. Before the accident, I really cared about what I looked like. I cared about what I wore, and I cared about how my hair looked and whatever else. And I never liked being vulnerable to the outside world. So even if I had a cold, I’d usually just close myself away from the world. I don’t know why that is. It was just the way I was. But suddenly, after the accident, I was on a bed completely naked with tubes coming out everywhere, getting help with eating and washing and everything. That’s just complete vulnerability and emotionally as well. You’re just in this state where you are trying to come to terms with what’s happened, and you’re upset and crying and whatever. So, going into that state, I had no choice but to be vulnerable. And that was a pretty difficult thing, but it took me a long time to start feeling comfortable with the world seeing me again. And in fact, after the accident, I went away to Sri Lanka. I was born in Sri Lanka, but I hadn’t been there since we moved here. So, it had been decades, 15 years actually since being back. So, me and mom went back to Sri Lanka, and I actually just hid away there for a long time because I just didn’t want the world to see me in this different way because your whole body has changed. You’re using a wheelchair now. And the body image thing I is a significant thing to come to terms with. But these days I’m back to being my vain, confident self, I think.
PETE: And not crying.
DINESH: Yeah, and not crying.
TRISTRAM: You mentioned Sri Lanka, that it was there any sort of epiphany that you had in Sri Lanka? What did you find there? What did it help you realize?
DINESH: It was a good time to heal my soul. I got a chance to hide away a bit. I met a bunch of really cool people there. I started getting back out into the world and society. But I also realized how lucky I am to be Australian, because in Sri Lanka, I met all these people with spinal cord injury. And I went to a hospital where they had people with spinal cord injury. And the resources there are significantly different to what we have. And the support systems and the structures and whatever else is significantly different as well. So, all these people that were having spinal cord injuries and were going back out in the community. But they wouldn’t survive for that long. They’d just die. And they certainly don’t have a chance to get educated or employed. So, the outcomes were really dire. So, I felt super lucky. And I think I also felt a duty to make the most of what I have, which has kind of driven me until today because I feel, you know, I thought, you know what? Despite this thing happening, I’m still damn lucky. And I’ve got to live a pretty good life. So, it gave me a bit of perspective that I think was really valuable.
PETE: Yeah, definitely. So, you then decided you wanted to come back and finish your medical degree? There would have been a fair few challenges for that to happen. What were some of the challenges that were in front of you?
DINESH: I think the challenges were a lot off attitudes because people were like,
“how’s this dude who can’t use his fingers going to be a doctor.” And even in my head, I had a few thoughts like how am I going to do this? How am I going to work this out? Even doing long days you, it’s tricky when you’re have a spinal cord injury. And when you need to time certain things and have a routine, so it can be a bit tricky. But I just thought, I remember I had a chat to two close friends, right? And I remember these two conversations really well. I told one off them, you know, I’m gonna go back to med school and give it a go, and he said, man, stuff that you will go and win. Like go in with the attitude that you’re going to go and win, like none of this giving it a go or whatever. All right, all right. Whoa, whoa. All right. And I had a conversation with another close friend of mine. I said, you just need to treat this like you’re an athlete, like you’re an Olympic athlete. So, you need to have your training routine, so to speak and have that same level of commitment and do it. And then that’s the attitude I ended up taking. So, I went in. The med school was pretty supportive, and they let me sit in this lab and figure out how I’m going to do things. How I’m going to hold a stethoscope. How I would put a cannula in someone which I was able to do. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I could with a bit of help. I figured out how to do it. There are things like rectal and vaginal exams, which I can’t do. And I think that’s a perk.
PETE: I love how you use it to your advantage. I can’t do that.
TRISTRAM: There is always a silver lilning.
DINESH: Hopefully no one has caught onto the fact that I usually don’t say I can’t do stuff but for this particular thing – yeah sorry.
TRISTRAM: So, in terms of overcoming these challenges that you mentioned how did this make you feel, given what you’ve experienced over the past couple of years? What relief or what feelings did you have when you’re overcoming them?
DINESH: It was awesome. I remember the moment I put that cannula in and it’s something that people do every single day. But it just felt like I’d walked on the moon because it’s such a big step. And it was so satisfying. And just recently actually with one of my bosses, I learnt how to suture. Again, with a bit of help, but I learnt how to suture. And we just sat back after and like that, it was probably the first time it’s ever been done in the world by a doctor with a spinal cord injury. Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
PETE: Yeah, kicking goals.
TRISTRAM: Have you ever worked alongside some of those doctors who said that you wouldn’t be able to go back to medicine? Have you ever rubbed shoulders with them?
DINESH: Yeah, I have. There is this particular one when I was a medical student and they kicked up a heap of fuss when I came back. They said, I don’t think patients would take you seriously, a lot of this kind of stuff. And I really wasn’t looking forward to it because I had to do some time with them. But after I finished, they said, well, you’re one of the best medical students I ever had, and just to hear that, you know. There was also another doctor that was terrifying, right? He’s one of those intimidating, confident guys. Amazing doctor. But he generally scared people, and I was very scared. And I was one of his junior doctors through this rotation, and when I finished it, he sat me down and he said, you know, I’m a little bit ashamed of what I thought at the start, because I had so many concerns about how this would work and whether we could make it happen and how you’d go. But now I sit here, and my idea of what medicine can look like has changed. And to have that moment where this guy was being honest and sharing that, I just thought this whole thing has been worthwhile even just for that one conversation.
PETE: Yeah, beautiful. Well while you were studying, there was the medical deans of Australian New Zealand are creating a policy document that closes the door for medical students with different ranges of challenges, you know, be it sensory, emotive, pyschological, auditory issues. Why are they trying to do that? What are they scared of?
DINESH: I don’t know why that happened. I remember it was in 2015, just after I came back to med school. The most annoying part of that whole thing was I saw this email that was shared with me from a guy that was on that committee that wrote the policy. And that email, and this guy knows me as well, he wrote in this email that this policy should allow us the legal protection to exclude someone with a disability from studying medicine or exclude someone already in medicine with a disability from continuing or something along those lines. And that just annoy the hell out of me. And it also hurt. It’s like all those things like racism or whatever, when you’re attacked for something that you can’t change about yourself. It’s pretty hurtful. Ah, so I don’t know how that came about but the nice thing is I’ve been a part of the process. And I’ve been able to give input to the committee that’s rewriting that policy to be more inclusive. And that’s going to come out this year hopefully or next year.
PETE: Good work.
TRISTRAM: So, on that we’ve spoken about changing other doctors’ perceptions and that from when you graduated from medical school in 2016. What was the response from the actual patients? What was their reaction to being treated by yourself?
DINESH: This is the coolest thing. Not once has a patient said anything negative. Ever. And that I think is so damn cool because I didn’t even expect that, you know. I thought maybe at least once someone will say,
“what the hell are you doing here” or like something I don’t know. But I’ve never had that response, and every single person has been so positive and supportive. And I’ve had patients who have had disabilities come in and say, you know, I’m really glad that you’re my doctor because I know you’d understand. And I’ve had, um, interactions with patients’ parents, whose kids are going through significant medical issues or disabilities. And they just said, you know, seeing you there as a doctor now, after having gone through what you’ve gone through, gives me hope for my kid. And that kind of stuff has been really special to me. And despite all this hardship that we’ve gone through and the challenges, I think it’s those things that make it worthwhile. It’s not the medical stuff and the tangible. It’s the intangible, those special moments that make it worthwhile.
PETE: Yeah, fantastic. Now, one last question, actually we’ve got two last questions. I’ll let Tris do the last one. But I’ll ask you this one. What do you like most about being a doctor?
DINESH: It’s the best job in the world for me. I love everything about it. I love the people most of all. You know, like I said, those moments that you have, where you connect with people and you play a part in their journey and you share that special moment where it’s just awesome. But there are a lot of other things about it that I like is well. It’s challenging. It’s unpredictable. It’s varied. I don’t do the same thing every single day. I really feel like I’m doing something where I can just help the community, which is a privilege. So, I love all those things.
PETE: Yeah, fantastic.
TRISTRAM: Brilliant. I love it. So, Dinesh, as you know, our podcast is called Grow Bold with disability. We always like to ask our guests what does growing bold mean to you?
DINESH: Wow, that’s a big question.
PETE: Gets them every time. And don’t you cry.
DINESH: You know it’s really about … we have so many barriers in our heads, right? We have fears, whatever fear it might be. And we have so many barriers in society. And you don’t necessarily have to have a disability, but it’s more pronounced when you do. You have all these fears, and you have all these barriers and whatever else. I think being bold is about having the courage to face those fears and to push through it. To live the life you want. I think that’s boldness. I think it’s not thinking about your own fears and it’s not thinking about everyone else’s fears and to be living the life you want. To do something valuable and to give something back. I think that’s being bold. I think we all need to be doing that.
PETE: Fantastic. Well Dinesh, thank you so much for joining us here today on Grow Bold with Disability brought to you by Feros Care. And our listeners can find out more about Dr Palipana in the links provided in today’s episode show notes. Mate, thank you so much. That was such a great chat. T
DINESH: Thanks so much, guys. I really enjoyed it.
PETE: This podcast is brought to you by Feros Care, an NDIS partner delivering local area coordination services in Queensland, South Australia, and the Australia Capital Territory. Feros Care is a people care organization committed to helping people leave bolder lives. We call it growing bold and for over 30 years Feros has been making it real for both older Australians and those living with disability. To find out more head to Feroscare.com.au
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The content and views discussed in this podcast series are those of the individuals involved. They are not necessarily condoned by, or, are the views of Feros Care or its employees.