Meet Australia’s second quadriplegic medical intern

MIGA member Dr Dinesh Palipana recently commenced his intern year at the Gold Coast University Hospital.

But he’s not your average intern – he’s Queensland’s first and Australia’s second quadriplegic medical intern!  We recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr Palipana and find out all about his heart-warming and inspiring journey so far.
 
Dr Palipana grew up in Byron Bay as your average Australian teenager – he enjoyed (and still enjoys) all sorts of activities such as hanging out with friends, supporting the Brisbane Bullets in the NBL, listening to music and anything to do with cars.
 

Not your average university experience

After completing his schooling in Brisbane, Dr Palipana first enrolled in a Bachelor of Law with the dream of becoming a lawyer. Whilst at law school, he went through some personal changes in his life and realised this was no longer where his passion was. After completing his Bachelor of Law, he applied for and was accepted into medicine at Griffith University.
 
Commencing in 2008, the first two years of his medical degree were as you would expect – hard work, stressful and time consuming, but nonetheless, Dr Palipana continued on towards his dream of becoming a doctor.
 
At the beginning of his third year in 2010, things took a turn for the worse. On a rainy Sunday night, Dr Palipana was driving back from Brisbane on the Gateway Motorway, when his car aquaplaned and he lost control. It was a serious accident and unfortunately left him as a quadriplegic.
 
Following the accident, Dr Palipana spent almost an entire year in the spinal unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital. Despite the severity of his injuries, Dr Palipana recalls that “[he] knew from the moment the accident happened that [he] wanted to return to medicine, it was just a matter of how long it might take to get there”.
 
In total, it took five long years of rehabilitation to get to a position in which he was able to return to university.  Those five years were quite a roller coaster, and things “just fell apart”. Not only did Dr Palipana have to return to hospital several times because of other medical complications such as sepsis and a pleural effusion, he also needed time to rebuild his life emotionally and financially.
 
When he first returned to university in 2015, he admits that it wasn’t as simple as just picking up where he left off, and there were several challenges he had to overcome along the way.
 
While there were obvious personal and physical challenges, from a knowledge perspective, the first year also proved difficult. As he had been away for five years, there was a lot for him to catch up on. There were things he needed to refresh his memory on, as well as things that had changed, so a lot of his study time was spent just getting himself back up to speed with the rest of the students.
 
He had his first exam after the incident in June of 2015, and he, along with his friends and family, were very cautious about what result he might achieve. Outwardly, Dr Palipana told everyone he was unsure how he would go, however internally he really wanted to pass – and even get a good grade. To do this, he kept his life very regimented, and most of the time his weeks consisted of an intense university schedule from Monday to Friday, a lot of sleep on Saturday, more studying on Sunday, and then start it all over again the next week. While this was incredibly exhausting and he wasn’t able to have much of a social life, passing the exam made it all worth it.
 

Beginning his career in medicine

After completing his degree at the end of 2016, Dr Palipana was very excited about beginning his career in medicine, but was unsure whether he would receive an intern placement. After several months of waiting, Dr Palipana finally received a placement at the Gold Coast University Hospital just three days before he was due to start! When he heard the news he was “very, very, very excited, and just thrilled and relieved to be able to start taking the next steps in his career”. While it was a whirlwind getting organised in just a few days, it was made easier by the fact he was going to a hospital he’d already been to for his placement and would be working with staff he was already familiar with.
 
In terms of how his experience differs from other medical students or interns, he feels it really it isn’t that different – he can do most of a physical examination of a patient, he just has to find alternative ways for doing some things, such as inserting a catheter. He is also very understanding that he needs to work within his physical limits to ensure the safety of the patient, and if there is ever anything that he can’t do he simply asks for help.
 
Surprisingly, he says one of the biggest challenges he faces on a day-to-day basis is writing. While both his university and hospital are very understanding and allow him to do lots of his work on an iPad (either by typing or through voice recognition technology), there are still some things that need to be handwritten, such as pathology forms, imaging forms, prescription forms and medication charts. Dr Palipana is still experimenting with different pens and hands to see what works best, and has found his writing skills are improving over time. Plus, as he said “all doctors have bad handwriting – but at least I have an excuse!”.
 
Dr Palipana has found both his colleagues and patients have been extremely accepting of him, and has not had any strange reactions from anyone. The hospital and his colleagues have been very helpful, and there is always someone willing to assist if he needs it, even if it’s something as small as opening a container of food for lunch or opening a door for him.
 
His patients have also been very accepting, and he says “while you can never be sure what people think in their minds, 100% of the interactions [he has had] have been really positive, and they are often interested and inspired by [his] story”.
 
Overall, Dr Palipana says “It feels awesome [to be the second quadriplegic medical intern in Australia]. It’s nice to travel a path less travelled and have a unique challenge to overcome. I am hopeful it will pave the way for others who also think they have a dream they can’t get to, and inspire them to chase that dream no matter what stands in your way.
 

Goals for the future

Thus far, Dr Palipana’s biggest accomplishment has been getting started as an intern, but he does have some big dreams for the future. As a first goal, he is focused on learning as much as he can so he can become a good general doctor, with the aim of then building his career and becoming a radiologist.
 
In the long term, he would like to pursue research in spinal cord injury. His main goal is to be able to properly function and walk again, and while he knows it is not likely to be anytime soon, he hopes that his research will play a small part in achieving this dream.
 
Medicine so far has been an amazing journey. From the intellectual challenge to the inherently human nature of medical practice, it has been rewarding. It can get arduous at times, but I think if we can even help just one person, an entire career will be worthwhile. That's because every single person on this planet is a world of their own. All that makes even the toughest day meaningful.”
 
Dr Dinesh Palipana
March 2017

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