I hope to walk again in the future! The conviction with which it is being said is convincing and from what this Sri Lankan-born young doctor has achieved, in the face of the cruel buffetings of life, seems an achievable ambition. For many others it is like an impossible dream but not to 32-year-old Dinesh [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

He reached the unreachable star

An accident in 2010 physically crushed Dinesh Palipane, but his determination survived; and soon he will be only the second in Australia with quadriplegia to graduate as a doctor. In this email interview with Kumudini Hettiarachchi he reveals an amazing tale
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Standing by him through thick and thin: Mother Chithrani with Dinesh when he did a clerkship in radiology at Harvard University in America

I hope to walk again in the future!

The conviction with which it is being said is convincing and from what this Sri Lankan-born young doctor has achieved, in the face of the cruel buffetings of life, seems an achievable ambition.

For many others it is like an impossible dream but not to 32-year-old Dinesh Palipane, who will soon be only the second in Australia with quadriplegia to graduate as a medical doctor and the first with a spinal-cord injury. His life reveals a tale of courage against all odds and trust and confidence in himself and others.

How not only relatively simple work requirements such as inserting a cannula he has had to labour over but also living life itself which most of us take for granted, come to the fore in an e-mail interview with Dinesh who will take the Hippocratic Oath in mid-December in Australia.

Flashback to January 31, 2010 — not so long ago, just over six years back. Life was good and Dinesh was in the third-year of his medical studies at Griffith University on the Gold Coast. The future spread out ahead of him……..hopes and aspirations both in his personal and professional life.

He had already achieved much. Born in Kandy, he had an eventful childhood, for his parents Chithrani and Sanath moved around a lot. Later his boyhood settled into a routine, he says, in the “beautiful little town” of Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia.

While the usual interests of boys held him, he played basketball and guitar and “was a bit of a motorhead (a car and motorcycle enthusiast)”. Planes were a fascination and 14-year-old Dinesh took up flying lessons.

His high school education was in Brisbane and as medical school was mostly graduate-entry (after completion of another degree) at the time, he secured a Degree in Law at Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology, before sitting the medical entrance examination.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a doctor,” says Dinesh, explaining that his passion for medicine grew while he was in law school. “During that time, I thought deeply about what was important to me. It might sound cliched but spending a lifetime helping people in a profession that is intellectually challenging was very attractive. ‘Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity,’ said Hippocrates. I think this gracefully sums up the essence of our profession.”

It was a routine visit to his parents in Brisbane in January 2010 and the 26-year-old was driving home to the Gold Coast on the rainy night of the 31st. Suddenly his car aquaplaned (slid uncontrollably) on the Gateway Bridge, losing traction. After climbing an embankment, down it came, rolling nose-to-tail, then flipping the opposite way and rolling several more times.

“The sound of crunching metal was sickening, but I told myself to think of it like a rollercoaster and enjoy the ride. Once the car finally landed, there was blood everywhere. The worst part though, was that I could not move,” says Dinesh, recalling the horrors of that night. His spine had been dislocated at the neck.

Passing motorist Chris Bailey pulled over, held up Dinesh’s head and called an ambulance. Dinesh eventually spent seven months at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.

This tryst with fate, destiny, misfortune or whatever one may call it, would change his life forever. “I cannot say this was an easy journey. I woke up in a hospital, paralyzed from the chest down. I could not move my fingers. I could not feel anything. I stared at the ceiling so many times, thinking about how to move forward,” he says

Little actions were huge, frustrating challenges. Dinesh could not lift his arm without it falling back on him. He could not breathe well or speak full sentences. He lost consciousness most times when sitting up. With time, however, these physical things improved significantly. With a little feeling on the outside of his forearms, he can feed himself and move around in a wheelchair without help now.

“There were great personal challenges too,” he says, with the emotion tangible even now. “Most of my close relatives fell away over the months. Our financial resources became depleted too.”

Dinesh with his mother, Chithrani, and his mentor Prof. Harry McConnell

Many people, however, also stood strongly and steadfastly by him throughout his difficult and traumatic journey back to health. His mother has been a “positive force”, tirelessly spending every single day helping him, since the accident. “We are a great team and I give her a lot of credit. She has given up a lot. Over the course of time, we lost family, friends and financial security. I am happy to say though that today, we have achieved a great deal,” says Dinesh.

Back to the land of his birth came Dinesh to recuperate for four years, with immense support from “good friends” Sarva Amarasekare, Dilith Jayaweera, Varuni Amunugama and Mano Nanayakkara who helped him “get back on my feet”.

Throughout, the dream of becoming a doctor persisted amidst the sorrow and the tragedy and it was Prof. Harry McConnell of his home medical school at Griffith University who supported him. Some close friends from high school and medical school have also been there for him since day one.

There have also been the ‘lows’ and he recalls a meeting with several Deans of Medical Faculties in Sri Lanka who suggested that finishing medical school would be an “impossible” idea. “The only person who was supportive of me continuing a medical career was Prof. Nilanthi de Silva, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Kelaniya University,” says Dinesh without rancour towards the others.

“We need to be more aware of what a diverse population of doctors can achieve,” he says, quoting a British Medical Association paper which has noted that “by welcoming more disabled medical students and by retaining more disabled doctors in employment, the profession will improve its outward facing service and better reflect modern society”.

Two things have helped Dinesh get back to a life of normalcy: “One is, you have to act. Before the accident, I used to spend a lot of time thinking about decisions. Often, the fear of making a decision paralyzes action and success. Like Melania Trump, I am going to hijack a Michelle Obama quote where she says, ‘You can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen’. Coming back to medical school, I had a lot of fears about how I would do it. I had to put it all aside and just give my best shot. We found success because of that.

“I say ‘we’ because that leads to the second thing. The people close to me gave me all the encouragement and support to find success. I am thankful each day to my new-found family who worked with me to make this possible. Today, I can insert a cannula successfully with a little help — even without the use of my fingers. I have flown halfway around the world and halfway down a beach in Galle on a paramotor.”

When asked, soon-to-be-a-doctor Dinesh explains that a colleague or nurse assists him in putting on his gloves and preparing the equipment. “I can then do the procedure safely and effectively using a technique we developed. A nurse or colleague then helps me secure the cannula site. Before coming back to a clinical environment, I practised it many times on a training arm successfully.”

To the query ‘what of the future including marriage plans’, Dinesh is brutally honest: “There has not been a girlfriend for a long time! I have not thought about marriage either. My focus has been consumed by what I have been doing. I am excited about practising medicine and giving back to the community.”

Passionate to continue supporting the Spinal Cord Unit at NHSL

If I can make a difference in one person’s life, my entire career will be worthwhile, is the fervent view of Dinesh Palipane, as he awaits his graduation as a doctor on December 16, after returning to medical school in January last year after a five-year break.

Having concluded all the examinations required for his MD (Doctor of Medicine), he hopes to work at the Gold Coast University Hospital and specialize in radiology and has been featured in many newspapers.

He has not cut his cords with Sri Lanka and is heavily involved as the International Support Coordinator for the Sri Lanka Spinal Cord Network based at the College of Surgeons in Colombo and headed by Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Narendra Pinto.

He has helped raise funds for the Spinal Cord Unit at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL).

“I am still passionate about supporting this unit. It is heartbreaking to see those less fortunate than I go through this journey,” says Dinesh who has worked closely with Dr. Pinto and spent time in the orthopaedic service as a visiting medical student, while also dabbling in a little work at Triad and running the website: Yako.lk, with a friend.

Australia’s Griffith University, meanwhile, has a long history with spinal-cord injury research, having run one of the world’s first Clinical Trials using olfactory ensheathing cells to treat such injury. “This work continues in earnest,” says Dinesh, pointing out that he is also “thrilled” to see some of the work done around the world using non-invasive interventions in spinal-cord injury.

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