An accident may have altered Dinesh Palipana’s physical form…. but it made him mentally stronger than ever.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
Dinesh Palipana is a doctor who has quadriplegia following a spinal cord injury, and it is this achievement that has earned him fame. But getting to know him as a fellow human being, albeit for just the span of this interview, has been truly humbling and awe inspiring, and I almost feel grateful that his condition opened this door for us- a door that reminds us of what a gift life is. For here is a person who has embraced it, and has decided to live it to the fullest, whatever that journey entails.
Dinesh lives in Gold Coast, Australia and therefore agreed to do a voice interview with me. His eloquence and honesty make him an easily relatable figure, even over the miles, and he is someone who could speak comfortably about his experiences. I was eager to find out how he had grown to be a 25-year old- his age at the time of the accident- who could handle such a burden at the prime of his life and navigate it as well as he did. So, we start at the beginning.
“I had a happy childhood. I was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka and we moved to Australia when I was 10. It was an exciting change for me, being able to discover things that we had only read about back home”. His youth was full of fun and possibility. “I was a typical teenager, and did everything that one does at that age, including some pretty crazy stuff! You never think the life altering accident is going to happen to you. That’s just the stuff our parents warn us about. I was too busy having a good time to worry”. I ask him if he had a clear plan for his future. “There were many things that interested me. I grappled with the idea of being a pilot at one point, and even took flying lessons. But I was never fixated on any particular path. And that’s a good thing, because life has a habit of never going to plan. I learnt that the hard way! It’s so fluid, and you just need to go with the flow”.
Finding his calling (as Dinesh says it was indeed a calling) as a Doctor didn’t come to him till much later. Upon nearing the completion of high school and needing to figure out his next step, he thought his mother’s idea of becoming a lawyer was a good idea. “It appealed to me, and so I began my postgraduate studies in Law. I was happily cruising along. And then depression hit”. His voice doesn’t change as he describes what he says was a really dark period. In fact, he speaks with much deliberation and care throughout the interview, highlighting the fact that he is thoughtful about what he says and is aware of the impact of his words. “It came out of nowhere almost. There is still so much stigma surrounding depression and mental health which is why I’m mentioning it now. It was pretty bad, and my anxiety increased to the point I developed Agoraphobia (a fear of going outside)”. This, along with a spate of health issues, led Dinesh to meet with many doctors and medical staff during this time. And that became the catalyst for his future. “Being helped by doctors made me realise what an amazing profession it was. They made me better, and as anyone struggling with mental health battles would know, this isn’t easy and not something just anyone can do”. Dinesh was sure that this was what he wanted to do with his life. “Depression has a way of forcing you to strip away all the superficial layers and get to the heart of what is really important to you and who you are as a person. Perhaps it was borne of the confusion I felt about my future, and not having found my passion. In that way, it was actually a blessing that I went through that process, because it gave me the answer. I knew now that I wanted to make a positive difference in this world. Being a doctor seemed the perfect way. I was hooked!”. He completed his law degree, and immediately sat for the medical school entrance exams which he passed. He was in his third year at Griffith University in Melbourne when the accident occurred.
“I was 25, in the middle of getting qualified for my dream job at a great university. A month before the accident I was snowboarding in Japan!”, says Dinesh, a smile in his voice. I ask him if he thinks life treated him unfairly. The answer is a definitive no. “I do not think life treated me unfairly, not at all. When I was in Sri Lanka after the accident, I saw so many fellow patients suffering from spinal cord injuries who came from really poor backgrounds, and who sometimes went back home only to pass away soon after. They didn’t have the necessary support systems, and many had lost their livelihoods. And here I am being interviewed, in an apartment overlooking the ocean, doing a job I love, surrounded by those I love the most. How can I dare to say that life has treated me unfairly? This wasn’t anyone’s fault. There was water on the highway, I was driving home peacefully, and my car aqua planed and toppled over, pinning me with it and injuring my spinal cord in the process”, he explains it so matter-of-factly, that I feel that even if there was blame to be pinned on anything, Dinesh wouldn’t be the type of person to be burdened with that grudge.
The weeks that followed blurred into months. He was in hospital for 08 months following the accident, and then in and out of hospital for the next 5 months or so. “I couldn’t move, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even string together a full sentence. Definitely nothing close to how I’m talking to you right now.”. Dinesh was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury with quadriplegia which meant he had lost all sensation and ability to move from his waist down. “It was hard facing up to that reality. So very hard. Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to live through”. But live through he did. When asked how he gathered the will to do so, he says it was a simple choice. “You can either curl up and wish you were dead, or you can decide that you will hope for the best and keep going. Thankfully, I had a life worth living to look forward to, that made that decision easier”. He says he could not have done it without the support of another person whose strength and determination he has clearly inherited. “My mother, Chithrani, stood by me throughout. Always positive, always encouraging and pushing me to try harder. She is just amazing”.
It was his mom who decided that they should visit Sri Lanka giving Dinesh a much-needed break from the glaring differences in his life before and after the accident. “I couldn’t face all the friends and people I had known before. Not all of them stuck around, and that was hurtful. They told me later that seeing me in that condition was hard for them. On the flip side, the ones that did make an effort to visit me regularly, although I was and still am deeply appreciative of them, made it hard for me. Especially hearing of how medical school was going for them and how they were doing all the regular things that I wasn’t able to do anymore”. The illness also placed a financial strain on his family, and an emotional strain on his parent’s relationship which broke under the pressure. Coming back to Sri Lanka gave them a chance to reassess their lives, and what was initially planned to be a stay of 4 weeks, extended to a period of two years. “It’s where I got to meet the people who are like family to me now. It was refreshing to know that the Dinesh they befriended was always in a wheelchair. I didn’t feel any pressure to explain or make it less awkward for them”. During the two years he spent here, he was encouraged by his new friends to step out and to work alongside them at their advertising agency, giving Dinesh a semblance of normalcy once again. “I had a workplace to go to every day, and I made friends. Colombo is warm and welcoming that way. Soon I was even going out socially, and starting to enjoy myself again”.
It was then that he, motivated by his mother and friends, felt the need to get back to the life he left behind in Gold Coast. “I was lucky to have wonderful educators who wanted to see me back, and believed in me”. They had to start all over again in Australia, but Dinesh and his mom took it in their stride. “We rented a place, even had to borrow furniture. All that seemed unimportant though, because now I had a goal, and I gave it all I had. I would have to wake up at 3 am to get to hospital on time; that’s how long it would take me to get dressed and ready”. He got through his medical degree with excellent results, much to the delight of his teachers. Getting posted to a job was another story however, which he suspects was due to his physical limitations, but this hurdle too was overcome with perseverance and patience. Finally, after a wait of 10 months, Dinesh found himself working at the Gold Coast University Hospital in 2017, and today he is practicing as a Senior Resident Doctor in the second busiest Emergency Treatment Unit in Australia. Not the most likely place for a Doctor in a wheelchair, but Dinesh says he loves the unpredictability of the role. He had to learn to do things his way, like examining patients with the side of his hands he has feeling on, and holding the stethoscope with the way his fingers naturally sit. “Thankfully, our nurses are really skilled, so I can focus on my role independently”. Do the patients react differently when they see him? “Yes, but in a good way! The comments and interactions have been truly heart-warming and encouraging”. The ETU is also a special place for him, for it was there that he first laid eyes on his now Fiancée, Rachael, an emergency room nurse. “I had been single since the accident, and being in a relationship wasn’t something I thought I needed at the time. Meeting her changed everything. It’s been incredible. I love the fact that our relationship is as unique as it is”. Again, the smile in his voice.
Having been at both ends of the healer-patient relationship has added a new dimension to how he treats his patients. “Often, as Doctors, we maintain a distance and look at a patient as a case that needs to be diagnosed and treated. However, we fail to understand that here is another human being, just like me. They have a family, just like mine. We need to remember that our interaction with them can be really defining, and talk to them like we would want to be spoken to ourselves. I often take time to have a chat, bring them a cup of coffee, share a joke. I know how good those things feel during a time of distress”.
For someone who started his journey to become a doctor in order to be able to look back at the end of his life and be happy that he left it a better place, Dinesh seems well and truly on the path to doing so. His story inspires so many: those who are differently abled who now have one more brilliant role model to look up to, and also to those whose fear of failing holds them back from achieving their full potential. “I was scared too! Scared to go out, scared to have to learn how to do things differently, not knowing if I would ever be able to. But if there’s one thing I can tell you for sure”, he says wryly, “it’s that fear is more paralyzing than a spinal cord injury could ever be. You just need to push past it”.
As appeared in Pulse Magazine, Jan/Feb 2020 issue
Original article can be viewed here