by Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne
“The very last thing I did with my own strength while standing on my feet prior to the accident was hug my mother….” These words shook me to the core and I felt myself reeling from the enormity of what the famous Doctor Dinesh Palipana, has had to deal with. Which makes “Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021” title which was conferred to him of immense value as he truly deserves it.
“I am an ordinary guy,” said he smilingly but to the world Dr. Palipana is extraordinary for the main reason that he inspires hope and courage. The larger than life figure has overcome debilitating injury caused when his car aquaplaned on Brisbane’s Gateway Motorway in 2010. “The accident per se and knowing almost immediately that I was paralyzed seemed like a nightmare and I couldn’t stop the thoughts about my future racing through my mind. The ensuing months spent recuperating were grueling as breathing alone caused excruciating pain and I had to start from scratch but I was determined to keep moving forward.” His persistence, along with an army of hardline supporters with the numero- uno being his own mother, helped him to gradually learn the ropes of living with quadriplegia.
Born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Dinesh moved constantly as his father, an Engineer by profession was stationed in various places in the island. At the age of ten the family migrated to Brisbane, Australia and he grew into a young man who was destined for greatness in the prime of his youth, navigating between his interests in law and dealing with a period of uncertainty about his life.
“At the age of twenty, I faced a bout of depression which I sought medical help for and it was a pivotal period in which I discovered my passion which was to help others through the field of medicine. Thus began my journey to become a Doctor and I knew that I had finally found my purpose. Everything was going according to plan and I was in my element!
“The accident changed the trajectory of my life and my plans were put on pause but a trip to Sri Lanka several months later got me back on track as I was introduced to a group of individuals who gave me a new lease in life.”
“I had friends who encouraged me to revive my career aspirations and I went ahead by recommencing my studies at Griffith University. After two years of strenuous physical and mental commitment from time spent studying, attending lectures, interning from the wee hours in the morning till late in the night was worth the effort and I am grateful to many who supported me. It was my friends who gifted me with the tailor-made suit which I wore at my graduation and one of them was present at that significant milestone.”
Armed with the doctorate, Dinesh was ready to take on the world but the world or his own city had qualms about employing a person of his caliber as they felt it posed a daunting challenge, yet this man who had outwitted the vicissitudes of life was ready to take on this colossal feat. The rudimentary knowledge in law gave him an edge in seeking redress for his condition, after all, he had the right to see his passion for caring for people come into fruition. Though the road was fraught with many obstacles, Dr, Dinesh proved his competence and gained prominence for being the first quadriplegic Doctor in Queensland.
A labour of love
Currently, he works at the Emergency Department of the Gold Coast Hospital in Queensland with additional commitments such as being the Doctor of the differently- abled rugby Team known as the Gold Coast Titans among others. His innate love for people and the desire to alleviate their pain saw him dedicate his life to research, to fight for equality, inclusivity and other magnanimous causes in addition to researching on spinal cord injuries and more. He is also on the verge of publishing his first book and has been admitted as a Lawyer.
When asked if he would opt to alter his past, especially the instance he met with the accident, if granted the opportunity; his response was a firm no as he values the buffer of loved ones, friends and numerous bonds that have been created largely due to the accident. “In the aftermath of the accident I did realize that the human spirit is so powerful and with a colossal effort and support we can overcome almost anything that comes our way.
The light in his eyes never seems to diminish from Dr. Palipana, whose smile lightens the load in another’s heart and that is probably what gave his beloved mother the courage to be her son’s strongest influence and his rock during those turbulent times- “A mother’s love is an epitome of sacrificial love and my mother has been my greatest strength. When I asked her how she coped with hearing the news about my accident and seeing me in such a condition, she said that it was the worst news she received but when she saw me I had said it’s going to be okay, even through the intense pain and those words restored her faith that we will pull through.
Carpe Diem – Seize the Day
While many memories of life prior to the accident flash through, there is another significant moment which has been etched in his mind and that is of an impromptu vacation albeit the last vacation he went on with a friend before the accident. “It was a spur of the moment decision to go on a snow-boarding holiday with my friend and I clearly remember the exhilaration I experienced at merely standing in the snow.” While I don’t advise you to make decisions without planning, I urge you to seize the day and immerse yourself in the joy of the moment which includes hugging the people you love and telling them that you love them as life is fragile and a split second is all it takes to alter its course.
When he pursued his passion for medicine, he envisioned it differently, yet, Providence had greater plans for Dinesh who has preserved through the pain and achieved unparalleled heights similar to a “diamond in the hand of a diamond cutter who transforms it from a rough stone into an object of brilliance”. Using the same metaphor, Dr. Dinesh described his perspective of how he thrived in the face of great adversity, which continues to strengthen scores of individuals who draw inspiration from his life.
As the Doctor of the gifted team, Gold Coast Titans, Dinesh had this to say;
1. Who are the Gold Coast Titans? What sets them apart from other rugby teams?
The Gold Coast Titans are an Australian national rugby league team based in Gold Coast. They are an incredible organisation, not just for sport but the community and inclusivity. I have loved the work that they do with disability and indigenous Australians.
2. Explain your role in connection with the team?
I am a doctor for the disability rugby league team.
3. As an individual who has experienced both sides of the spectrum, what does it take to come into an acceptance of being differently- abled and embrace it and move forward not merely doing the daily chores but activities that require remarkable strength – physically and mentally?
I’d like to quote Nike here - just do it! We often intellectualise or philosophise things. At the end of the day, we just need to get things done. I don't really think about the challenges.
4. What are the challenges you face in this context within the team?
None. The Gold Coast Titans are a great organisation that enable the community. The players are amazing.
5. What challenges do the players face?
The players face a host of challenges in society. This can be everything from health equity, employment, to education. Inclusive sport is a great platform that has been proven to reduce inequities in areas like employment.
6. What type of support does the team and you get from other sources such as the government etc.
The players have access to resources such as the Australian National Disability Insurance Scheme to create the lives that they want. However, the Titans have put a lot of passion, time, and personal energy into making this a reality. That is probably the greatest resource.
7. What sort of progress have you made by being the Doctor of the team?
Hopefully, we have been able to open some unique doors together that has enabled funding and support for the team.
8. What are some of the lessons you have learned? What has the team, team members etc., thought you?
I am energised by the passion of people within the Titans as an organisation. The leadership and staff actually care. This is that magic ingredient which can change the world. The players light up everyone's life by participating in something they love. Really, it's an incredibly important venture that shows how special inclusivity is.
9. What can you say to those who want to pursue such a feat?
Just do it!
10. What does it take to establish a team such as the GCT in SL? Is it a possibility, if so what would it require?
Passionate people. That's it. If you have passionate people that believe in doing something, the rest falls into place. There is an incredible amount of power in the grassroots. The people have more power than laws, policies, or anything ever will. To harness that for good is how we can make the world a better place.