Interview with Dinesh Palipana

Quadriplegic researcher and emergency doctor explains why logistical impediments are not the primary problem

May 9, 2024
Dinesh Palipana

Dinesh Palipana is a senior lecturer at Griffith University, an emergency department clinician at the Gold Coast University Hospital and a trainee with the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine. The first quadriplegic medical graduate in Queensland, as co-founder of Doctors with Disabilities Australia he has worked with the Australian Medical Association to create national policies for inclusivity in medical education and employment.

Where and when were you born, and how has that shaped who you are?
Kandy in 1984. I lived in Sri Lanka for the first 10 years of my life. Sri Lanka was going through the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil people, and there was political conflict between the capitalist government and communist insurgents. I have a lot of memories of conflict and poverty.

Was the importance of education drilled into you by your parents or by your childhood observations?
It’s the only way out for kids in really poor towns. That became apparent to me very early. Education, including tertiary education, was free in Sri Lanka. It was very competitive, but if children went to high school, did well and managed to get into professional degrees, it opened up their lives. They were guaranteed secure employment and they could leave Sri Lanka, because countries like Australia were looking for professionals at the time. That’s how we came here. My dad was an engineer, and Australia was looking for engineers.

How different was Australia?
In some parts of Sri Lanka, principals wanted what they called a “gift” before they accepted you into school. My mum really didn’t want to be part of that. She sat outside the principals’ offices for days sometimes, and they would not take me in without a bribe. Towards the end of our time in Sri Lanka, a Muslim school accepted me, and I spent about six months learning alongside Muslim kids. In Australia, there were no bribes for school admission and there were very different kids going to school together – different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities, different religious beliefs. I just had to put the effort in, and I got a good result. I’m grateful for the education I’ve had here, especially in the public sector.

What drew you into medicine?
I studied law initially and experienced profound depression while I was in law school. I started seeing a doctor for my depression. I thought: “Wow, this is really amazing. He’s helping me through depression and my whole world’s changing.” That’s how I discovered medicine. I graduated from law and started a medical degree. At the start of my third year, I had a car accident.

How did quadriplegia affect your medical studies?
I spent about eight months in hospital and another three years putting my life back together. Getting back into medical school was not straightforward. A lot of conversations needed to be had. There were some who thought it wasn’t possible or shouldn’t happen. When there’s disability, people make assumptions about what someone can and can’t do. I was on a scholarship with Queensland Health, so I was due to work for them, but after I graduated it became a real challenge to secure that work. Eventually we got there. A lot of people were supportive. There were academics in my corner, putting their professional and even personal reputations on the line to stick up for someone like me. It’s because of them that I’m here.

Do trauma patients find it empowering to be treated by someone who has been where they are now?
I certainly hope so. I’ve had patients who have said: “Seeing you has given me a lot of strength – I’m really glad you’re my doctor.” It reminds me why I’m there. If it gives someone strength when they need it most, then it’s so worthwhile.

What does your research involve?
We’re looking at using virtual reality, electrical stimulation, drug therapy and robotics for restoration of function in spinal cord injuries. It’s pretty exciting. We’ve got some funding, we’ve got participants and we’ve got the team. Some days we’re there until very late, 11pm or midnight. There’s such a sense of urgency in the spinal cord injury community because, when people are paralysed, they see the years floating by. Things like Covid can really affect them. It’s really important to have people who have spinal cord injuries, or whatever condition they’re trying to treat, embedded in this sort of research.

What research gaps can they fill?
A colleague and I started this project. We wouldn’t have had the conversation if I didn’t have the spinal cord injury, and it’s given us a lot of perspective about what life looks like for people like me. We need that internal understanding of what matters to people and how their lives are affected. It’s not just physical paralysis. They’re missing sensation; they can’t control body temperature; there are all these other bits and pieces hidden underneath the surface – even the social effects. Unless we embed people with the conditions it’s very hard to understand the whole picture.

What do you like about academia?
It fosters human curiosity. No matter what our endeavour is – space exploration, medicine, social change or engineering – academia has the power to move things forward and make impactful change for humanity. And I love the collaboration – the opportunity to pick the brains of friends with different expertise.

What do you dislike about academia?
A lack of willingness to collaborate across disciplines. We could make our research resources go further by harnessing our collective strengths and not duplicating things. We need to encourage people to have healthy, rigorous debate. If we’re fearful to do that, I don’t think academia can work as well as it should. And we need to put away our egos and paternalism. If we’re paternalistic towards our colleagues and the people our research is supposed to benefit – which I sometimes see in medical research, especially when I first had the spinal cord injury – that’s really damaging.

If you were education minister for a day, what would you do?
I’d set some rules around collaboration and codes of conduct that really encourage people to collaborate and think about their behaviours when they interact with colleagues and participants. And I’d refine the way institutions reward their researchers. Is it really publications that we need to focus on? Are there other ways to measure our impact?


2007 Bachelor of laws, Queensland University of Technology
2016 Doctor of medicine, Griffith University
2016 Advanced clerkship in radiology, Harvard University
2017 Intern, Gold Coast University Hospital
2019 Senior lecturer, Griffith
2019 Medal of the Order of Australia 
2020 Admitted to the Supreme Court of Queensland as a solicitor
2021 Queensland Australian of the Year 


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