For Dr Dinesh Palipana, the powerful effect of receiving help has inspired a passionate mission to help others, despite challenges few people will ever face.
Dinesh is Queensland’s first doctor with quadriplegia. After a life-changing car accident 11 years ago, he has dedicated his life to helping people, whether they are patients at the emergency department at Gold Coast University Hospital, the students and interns he teaches at Griffith University or those he advocates for through Doctors with Disabilities Australia.
He also leads a team of researchers at Griffith University developing groundbreaking treatments to help spinal-injury patients walk again.
“I believe, in life, it’s not about what you can get, it’s about what you can give to the world,” says Dinesh. “And any chance of being able to play a role in helping others, that’s a huge thing for me. That’s what my life has been about.”
In 2010, Dinesh was driving on Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway on a rainy night when his car slid in the wet and crashed into an embankment. After rolling back onto the road, it hit a concrete barrier. Midway through his medical studies at Griffith University at the time, Dinesh suffered a cervical spinal cord injury and lost all sensory and motor function below his chest, affecting his fingers and half his arm.
A long and tough rehabilitation period followed, including an almost eight-month stay in Princess Alexandra Hospital. But nothing could stop his dream of becoming a doctor. A brilliant student, he returned to his studies after a period of recuperation, finishing his medical degree in 2016.
But further challenges were ahead. Policies preventing the employment of doctors with disabilities meant he was the only graduate in his year without a job. A year later, an offer came from Gold Coast University Hospital where he now works as a senior resident doctor in the emergency department, one of the country's busiest.
Helping make a difference in people's lives
Dinesh says his experiences as a patient and the challenges of returning to medical studies and finding a job refocused his desire to help others.
He leads Griffith University’s BioSpine Project, which is working on equipment to allow brain signals to bypass the spine and activate limb muscles. Dinesh also co-founded Doctors with Disabilities Australia to support others with physical impairment access education, employment and training.
“I love helping patients,” he says. ”That's incredibly rewarding. At the same time, I’m also in the truly privileged position of being an advocate for a lot of issues around disability.
“I’ve had so many challenges that weren't about physical issues. They were attitudes. People saying, ‘I don't think you can be a doctor’. Someone making a statement like that, they attack your being. But you’ve just got to ignore it and keep going.”
Dinesh has proven the naysayers wrong countless times. In 2018 he received the Order of Australia Medal for service to medicine and, in the same year, was awarded Gold Coast University Hospital’s Junior Doctor of the Year. Last year he was named 2021 Queensland Australian of the Year.
Dinesh attributes his perseverance and commitment to the help he has received from friends, colleagues and mentors, as well as the ambulance team, fire officers and nearby motorists who helped him on the night of his accident.
Above all, he is grateful to his mother, Chithrani Palipana, who has devoted her life to helping Dinesh achieve his dreams. “I am who I am because of her,” he says. “She is someone who epitomises giving because, ever since the accident, she gave up everything to be there for me. She's been there for me every single day for 11 years, tirelessly.
“I always say this quote which my mum loves to say. By helping one person, you may not change the world, but you'll change the world for them. That is the reason I got into medicine. It's a privilege to make a difference in someone’s life and I feel a responsibility to do that.”