Let’s meet Dr Dinesh Palipana, the first quadriplegic medical intern in Queensland. He didn’t let a car accident or quadriplegia get in the way of his passion for medicine. His story is an inspiration to us all.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you “grew up”?

Being a doctor wasn’t even on my radar as a kid. I wanted to be a pilot and started flying planes when I was a teenager. After high school, I studied law. Then halfway through the course at the age of 22, I became ill with celiac disease, depression and anxiety – all of which made me think about life and what was important to me. I worked out that I wanted to make a difference and help people. Medicine is a good way to do this. It’s intellectually challenging and definitely the career for me. From “day one”, I haven’t looked back. It’s amazing.

What was the major turning point in your life?

I was 25 years old and in the third year of my medical degree. I lost control of my car on a wet night – the car aquaplaned and rolled. I was awake the whole time and realised I couldn’t feel my legs. That was in January 2010. I spent eight months in hospital and much longer in rehabilitation. I’m now a quadriplegic with no movement in my hands, though my arms and my wrists work to a degree. For five years there was a lot of doubt as to whether I could resume medical studies.

I went back to medical school in 2015, graduated in 2016, and started internship this year. Interestingly, the car accident wasn’t really a turning point; it was something that strengthened my conviction.

Does your quadriplegia limit you at work?

I’ve figured out ways of doing things. I can still position a stethoscope into my hands; then my fingers naturally curl around it and I can hold on without grabbing it. I can also slip a pen inside my fingers and scribble notes. It takes a bit longer and it’s tedious, but it can be done. I’ve never had a patient react oddly to me. Sometimes they’re surprised and ask questions, but no one has ever refused to be treated by me. The people around me have been amazing. I’ve been very fortunate in this way.

What’s a typical day in your life as an Emergency Department (ED) intern?

I’m currently on night shift, so I’ve been working from10.00pm to 8.00am. A typical day means waking up three hours before I have to be anywhere. It takes a long time to get ready when you have a spinal injury. My mum lives with me and I have two guys, Nathan and Eddy, who help out on alternate days. I need help with a quite a few things, and this requires a team effort. After the guys help me into the car, the key ingredient I need is caffeine – so we secure some coffee on the way to hospital.

Then I roll into ED where workstations and screens show who’s waiting to be seen. The person with the most urgent problem waiting the longest then becomes my first patient for the day, and I start work. The great thing about Emergency is that patients can be anyone with any kind of problem. It might be a mum with her one-year-old who has trouble breathing or someone’s grandma with abdominal pain.

ED doctors have to be efficient at working out what’s going on because presentations can be urgent and there are always lots of people waiting. I ask patients about their symptoms and history, examine them, discuss this with a senior doctor, and get the ball rolling with any relevant management, blood tests or x-rays. The order and speed of this process may depend on how ill the person is. Then it’s on to the next patient.

Emergency is fast moving. You can help a lot of people, and you need to think on your feet. There are always some cases that tug at my heartstrings – these people stand out in my mind and reinforce my reasons for doing this job.

How hard was it to get an internship?

This was tricky. It took a long time and was a period of great uncertainty for me. All the other medical students got job offers through the normal recruitment campaign in June. It was January and I was floating around until the Friday before the Monday when everyone else was due to start work. I was having a beer with a friend when my phone rang at 2.30pm with a job offer – talk about unexpected! Until that point, I didn’t think it was going to happen. I had to send back the paperwork by 4.00pm and I started work the following Monday.

Are there any “heroes” who have inspired you?

My mum – she has been dedicated and selfless, and has helped me so much. I don’t have to look too far to see a hero.

Do you have any words of advice for our new student Members?

I once read this in a Warren Buffett book – ask any successful craftsman, artist, athlete, poet, or entrepreneur, and they will say they lose themselves in their craft. The phenomenon of losing a sense of time and place is the definition of finding your passion, your purpose in life. Find your passion. Let it consume you.

If the profession starts to feel like a chore, you need to find your footing again. This is important because medicine isn’t just a job. It requires your heart and soul. If something feels tedious, remember there are so many different things you can do within (and outside) medicine.

Two other bits of advice:

  • You’ve got to keep a thick skin, which can be tricky when interacting with so many people and different personalities.
  • There are many challenging periods that you come across in medical school, but you’ve got to remember it’s going to be okay in the end.