“Who says a quadriplegic can’t practise medicine?”
A road traffic accident in 2010 left Griffith University medicine student Dinesh Palipana without feeling or movement from the chest down. Today, he is caring for patients as a junior doctor at Gold Coast University Hospital.
The story of Dinesh Palipana’s remarkable journey to graduate from Griffith University with a Doctor of Medicine caught the public imagination in 2016 when he became only the second doctor to practise in Australia as a quadriplegic.
It is a story that has its origins in 2008 when Dinesh, aged 23, arrived at the doors of a new School of Medicine on the Gold Coast campus. He immediately felt he had made the right decision. “I knew that it was where I belonged. I knew I’d found my place in this world.”
“It doesn’t matter what background you’re from, you still get the same chance as everyone else to give your dream a shot,” he says. “When I came to Griffith, I was suddenly a person and the staff knew my name, knew what I was about, knew my background, and they’d care about what I was up to and how I was going.”
On a rainy January night in 2010, Dinesh’s plans for the future stalled when his car aquaplaned on Brisbane’s Gateway Bridge and crashed, leaving him a quadriplegic. It would be four years before he returned to the School of Medicine to recast his dreams of being a doctor. The challenging time between car crash and return to university was punctuated by regular communication from Griffith’s School of Medicine, and the message to Dinesh never fluctuated: ‘Take your time and when you’re ready, we want you back’.
On his return Dinesh rediscovered the same culture of support he had experienced on his first day at Griffith, and in addition to those familiar expressions of care and interest, he also found himself in a place where he could push on with his ambitions. “They equipped me with all the things that I needed to make it successful. There probably was a lot of work behind the scenes, but for me as a student, I could just slide in.”
His graduation in 2016 was momentous, and a first in Queensland, leading initially to an intern placement at the Gold Coast University Hospital. But Dinesh also identified a new role for himself at this time, one of trailblazer. “Now that I’m here, I don’t think there’s any excuse to deny someone else that follows me.”
He has driven a campaign to overturn policies and guidelines of medical schools that exclude people with a disability from studying medicine. His impact on medical education policy in Australia has been immense, with his alma mater moving to develop its own inclusive medical education policy which will be the first of its kind in Australia.
“I am a person trying to change what disability means in this world. We’re changing what medical education looks like from an equity and inclusivity perspective.”
Dinesh has engaged with the Australian Medical Association (Queensland) to instigate similar change in the medical workforce, and has advanced this message overseas at Harvard University, Stanford Medicine X and the General Medical Council in the UK.
He continues to pursue a cure for spinal injury as part of a research team that includes Griffith biomechanical scientists and engineers. The team hopes to stimulate movement and eventual recovery from spinal cord injury using a 3D computer-simulated biomechanical model, which connects to an EEG to capture Dinesh’s brainwaves.
From medical student to researcher, Dinesh believes Griffith’s ongoing culture of support has played a big part in his success today – and this experience is not unique to his story. It’s why Griffith continues to be ranked five stars for its student experience.
“Griffith to me is about possibility. I’ve had the opportunity to realise the possibility of being the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the Queensland. I’ve had the opportunity to explore the possibility of curing spinal cord injury.” Dinesh says. “Over the next two to three years, we will hopefully be changing the lives of people with paralysis and maybe even changing my life.”