Griffith University Medicine student Dinesh Palipana reaches one of the biggest milestones of his life this evening (Dec 16) as he prepares to graduate with a Doctor of Medicine at a ceremony at The Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.
However this milestone is even more meaningful to Dr Palipana as he will be only the second doctor to practice in Australia as a quadriplegic.
He was a focused, determined, enthusiastic medicine student at Griffith when his life changed forever on a rainy night in 2010.
Today, the 33-year-old remains equally determined and just as focused on forging a career in medicine in spite of the road traffic accident on Brisbane’s Gateway Bridge that left him without feeling or movement from the chest down.
“It was weird as the car just started aquaplaning down the highway,” he says. “I tried to gain control but suddenly I was going down the embankment and there was nothing I could do. The car was upside down, rolling front to back. All I could do was surrender to the inevitable, eventually coming to a silent standstill, in and out of consciousness, but just knowing how very, very bad this was.”
Dinesh eventually woke up in Brisbane’s PA Hospital, three days later, his mother’s face apprehensive but encouraging.
“I knew I’d been paralysed before anyone even mentioned it to me, I just didn’t realise it was to the extent of becoming quadriplegic. Even in the ambulance, the first thing that occurred to me was, I still need to get this medicine degree done and get on with my career. That was so important to me.”
But there was a long road ahead; Dinesh’s spine had been dislocated at the neck, essentially squashing the cord that supplies feeling and movement to any part of the body from the chest down.
“My chest was crushed too unfortunately, so it was really painful to breathe as they tried to stabilise me and clear out all the gunk that had been accumulating in my lungs for days.”
After intensive care and the high dependency unit, Dinesh spent a gruelling seven months in the spinal unit at the PA Hospital where he undertook regular physio and occupational therapy. He couldn’t speak well initially either but that improved when his lungs strengthened.
“It was a dark time of my life; but I knew I had to make the best of what I was left with and all the while I had some great friends around me plus wonderful support from my mum, who has really given up so much of her life for me.”
Eventually Dinesh and his mother Chithrani found themselves leaving Australia to go to their native Sri Lanka, where they had decided to go to take a break and think about what their next move would be.
“We were in Sri Lanka for about three years, and I met some great people there who kept my enthusiasm for life alive. But they knew I was still interested in a medical career and encouraged me to keep in contact with the Griffith School of Medicine.
“Professor Harry McConnell and others from the School of Medicine were fantastic in communicating to me about how it could work if I came back to my studies and thoroughly supported me in my decision to eventually return to year 3 medicine in January 2015.”
Dinesh was met with warmth back at Griffith, and if there were ever any doubts over what he could achieve as a trainee doctor, they were sorely mistaken. First off, he got great grades in the mid-year exams, despite having had the five-year break from medicine.
Although classified as a quadriplegic, he has some feeling on the outside of his forearms. He is able to feed himself and get around in his wheelchair without help, having learnt various intricate ways of getting around the lack of hand movement over the past six years.
“It does take me longer than most to get myself ready in the morning and I need help for that, but as far as medical duties go, I can carry out a good medical examination and consultation on a patient.
“I can’t however carry out a rectal examination! And I may have typical doctor’s handwriting!
“I am now planning to specialise in radiology. Medicine is so broad with so many fantastic options. Luckily I have some fantastic people around me at Griffith, who have been great advocates of me, as well as my amazing mother who has always been there for me.
“I am pretty lucky really. Yeah I guess I must have wanted this career pretty bad.”