Dinesh Palipana was the first person in Australia with a spinal cord injury to graduate as a doctor. At 35, and with two degrees, law and medicine, this disability advocate is not resting on his laurels. He spoke to F2L.
Tell us about your disability
I have a cervical spinal cord injury. It occurred as a result of a car accident in January 2010. It has affected all function below my chest and my fingers. I have had to make a lot of adjustments to my life. Apart from using a wheelchair, the effect of a spinal cord injury on the invisible things like the cardiovascular system and gastrointestinal system is significant. All these things have to be accounted for every day. Even things like controlling my body temperature can be tricky. I have a great team that helps me on a day-to-day basis.
Tell us about your family
After the accident, it just became my Mum and I and she has been a huge source of support. Our family left. I understand though, because it has not been an easy journey. Families fall apart when events like this happen, but mum and I now have people in our lives who we consider our new family. In fact, today there are people close to us who are more of a family than anyone linked by blood has been. I have an incredible fiancé who I met at work too. Life is good.
What about your education?
I went to nearly 10 schools because we moved around a lot. Most of that time was spent at Byron Bay high school in New South Wales. I got a degree in law at the Queensland University of Technology before finishing my medical degree at Griffith University, Queensland. I have completed an advanced clerkship in radiology at Harvard University in the US and am now at the tail end of a graduate diploma in legal practice with The College of Law in Australia.
And your work life?
I currently work 75 per cent as a senior resident in the emergency department at the Gold Coast University Hospital. It is the busiest emergency department in Australia at the moment. The culture is fantastic. Since I was a medical student, the department has been welcoming and supportive. When I was struggling with the state’s health body to start work, the emergency physicians there offered up their salary to pay for mine. It was a really touching gesture. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that but it speaks volumes about the incredible people I work with.
The other 25 per cent of my time is spent as a researcher in spinal cord injury at Griffith University. We are developing thought-controlled rehabilitation therapies boosted by drugs. There has been a lot of promising research preceding our work that has restored some levels of function in people with chronic paralysis. Outside of this, I do a few other things.
Do you give back to the community?
Everyone has to give back to the community. That is what we are here for. Values like altruism, benevolence, generosity and mutual caring are more valuable than wealth or external success. The trees that grow out of those seeds will last generations. No amount of money can buy the satisfaction that a smile on someone’s face brings. We are on earth to make a difference in each other’s lives, for the better. I try to give back as much as possible but like to keep those things private.
Are there ways in which you raise the profile and status of people with disability?
I take every opportunity to talk about the challenges people face, because I have faced them as well. The most recent opportunities that I have been lucky enough to embrace is becoming the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia and becoming a doctor for the Gold Coast Titans physical disability rugby league team. Both of these things are fantastic platforms to deliver a valuable social message. If each of us even just starts talking about issues and take simple little steps to improve society, we will have tremendous progress. I have learned that grassroots change is more powerful than many other forces.
How are you making a success of your life?
I want to be better, every day. If you find something you love or are passionate about you will automatically have the discipline to go at that thing every day. But there will never be a destination, just a journey of living your passion. Not only do you have to want to be better at your passions, but you need to be better at your life roles as well. I want to be a better doctor. I want to be a better friend. I want to be a better son. I want to be a better fiancé, every day. I think that the soul begins to wither as soon as you adopt the mindset of being at the destination, resting on your laurels, so to speak.
What are your future goals?
I want to work on spinal cord injury research. Imagine living in a world where it is no longer a life sentence? But we need dreamers who have the courage to achieve their vision. Someone created the lightbulb. Someone created the motorcar. These were no small feats, but their creators belief has made these things ubiquitous in our everyday lives now.
What is the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you?
The funniest things that have happened to me are probably not for polite company. I can, however, tell you two things that come to mind. I met a president of a certain country a couple of times. I have limited finger function and generally extend my arm out to shake someone’s hand in whatever way I can. The president thought I was trying to fist bump him and hit me back, gangster style. After that first time, he just kept fist bumping me every time I saw him. When I was in law school, a friend and I stayed up all night in the library finishing an assignment. We were too tired to drive home the next morning, so we pulled up in a park and slept in my two-seater car. I was in the boot with my leg hanging out without a shirt. Someone reported us as two dead bodies in a car. I woke up to the police looking over me. They said they were happy to see us alive, because there would not be as much paperwork.
Tell us something unexpected about yourself.
I listen to rap. I probably play some Biggie every day.
What are your favourite ‘disability friendly’ products if you use any?
The electronic medical record and voice recognition have made a huge difference in my line of work. They enable me to do what I do efficiently.
If you have an NDIS plan what have been your experiences and/or challenges?
The NDIS is a huge positive social change in modern Australia. It will change lives for the better and it already has. There are some things to ponder as we move forward to make sure the scheme remains viable. One of the saddest things I have noticed are equipment and service providers exploiting vulnerable people’s NDIS packages. Even for me. I have had inappropriate equipment delivered without any after sales troubleshooting. Providers have refused to pick up the phone or fix problems. These things have caused significant medical issues that then cost our system more money. The NDIS is important. We need to make sure that it is not being exploited by unscrupulous providers.
Palipana was the recipient of the Change Making Award at the National Awards for Disability Leadership in December 2019.
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