Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM works in the Emergency department of the Gold Coast University Hospital. It’s the busiest emergency department in the country, and Dinesh loves his job. Every single day is different. He could be starting your day with someone who’s having a stroke or a heart attack, or treating a kid who’s fallen off a bike and broken their arm.
He acquired a spinal cord injury in a car accident in 2010, when he was 24. He was completing his medical degree at the time, and returned to study after a long period in hospital and then rehabilitation.
Dinesh’s spinal cord injury affects his fingers and everything below his chest. He has home support, which comprises “a team of awesome guys” and his Mum, who he says is his “biggest supporter”. Getting ready before work takes some time. “We’re like a big family and we make we make it happen.”
Dinesh can do the majority of his job independently, thanks to support from his colleagues and also Job Access – the Federal Government program that funds accessibility provisions in the workplace. The Gold Coast University Hospital has made modifications for Dinesh to help him do his work – and these modification benefit not just him but other patients and their families, and current and future healthcare staff too. “If there’s a heavy door, and you make it automatic that benefits everyone”, Dinesh says.
Even though he started working as a doctor in 2017, and was named Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital in 2018, he has encountered some unconscious bias and low expectations from some within the medical profession. But his Emergency department colleagues are supportive, and he has had wonderful interactions with his patients.
“My patients have been amazing”, Dinesh says. “Every single one of them has been so positive and supportive and we’ve had amazing journeys together, when they’re going through such a hard time.”
He’s also able to give other patients – and their families – hope, particularly if they’re in similar situations to him, like experiencing chronic illness and disability.
Dinesh is the first quadriplegic doctor to graduate from medical school in Queensland and the second in Australia. While he’s paving the way for future doctors and healthcare workers, why did it take so long?
Dinesh thinks it’s because when it comes to disability, society takes a deficit-based approach, looking at what people can’t do. “We will look at the deficits, rather than the strengths of people”, he says. “But we need to play to these people’s strengths and foster that.”
Before he had the accident, he didn’t know a lot about disability at all, and he’s ashamed to say, he didn’t know how to think and talk about disability either.
“Even before I had the injury myself, I had no idea what it involved to be someone with spinal cord injury, I had no idea what their life looked like, and I kind of had no idea what their capabilities were.”
Now he’s a strong advocate for medical students and medical workers who are people with disability, and wants to see better supports for them, as well as better education around disability in medical school.
Dinesh co-founded Doctors with Disabilities Australia – a disability-led organisation that advocates for people with disability working in the medical and healthcare profession. The organisation aims to eliminate the physical, attitudinal and systemic barriers people with disability experience in medicine, create resources for doctors and medical students, and also provide mentoring and peer support within the profession.
Dinesh co-founded Doctors with Disabilities Australia with Dr Harry Eeman and Dr Hannah Jackson – who are both people with disability.
“The three of us thought there’s a lot of there were a lot of policy barriers then for medical students with disabilities. This is four or five years ago.”
Dinesh notes some big changes since Doctors with Disabilities Australia was founded.
“The Australian Medical Association Queensland Council has just passed a position statement saying that we support an inclusive medical profession, both employment and education and that we support diverse group of abilities. The body that provides policy guidance to medical schools is starting to do that now as well.
“In such a short period of time it’s come through a fair, fair amount of change. When we saw that we wanted to do something about it, and we founded this organisation and started advocating, and we’ve we’ve made progress.”
Outside of working at the hospital, Dinesh is incredibly busy. He is the doctor for the Gold Coast Titans physical disability rugby team. He runs a research project in spinal cord injury with a dedicated team of people. He’s also studied law in addition to working as a doctor, and has recently been admitted as lawyer.
And he engaged to be married. Dinesh and his fiancé Rachael met working in the Emergency department. Rachael is a nurse. But they haven’t set a date for the wedding yet. “We’re just chilling. I figured I made the biggest step now”, he laughs.
Dinesh is hopeful, and he’s grateful, and he will continue to advocate for better access and inclusion in medicine.
“If we see some injustice in the world, or something worth fighting for, we need to speak up”.
This piece was written for the International Day of People with Disability website. An edited version is here.
Since writing this piece, Dinesh has been named Queensland’s Australian of the Year for 2021.