How Does It Feel

How It Feels to Be Told You’ll Never Walk Again

“Having studied at medical school, I knew what it meant when I was told I was quadriplegic.”

by Katherine Gillespie
24 January 2017, 4:30am

This article is part of a series, presented by QLD Government, where we look at the effects of car crashes and how we can improve awareness about road safety

Dinesh Palipana, 32, was involved in a car crash in 2010 on Brisbane's Gateway Bridge that left him paralysed from the chest down. This year he became Queensland's first quadriplegic graduate doctor. He tells VICE about the night that changed his life forever.

Before the crash, I was halfway through medical school and life was really, really good. I actually had everything I'd ever wanted: good friends, family, and all the material things that I could possibly need. I was travelling a lot, I'd play a lot of basketball, spend a lot of time outdoors. I also loved driving, oddly enough. It was a pretty rich life full of all sorts of different things, and I'd get up everyday and actually be really thankful. It was a really good time.

On the night of the crash—seven years ago, in 2010—I was driving home to visit my parents. It's kind of funny, because there were a lot of things that happened by chance to put me in that place at that time. I was going to leave earlier and I got held up. I was going to stop by at a friend's place, I missed a turn-off. It was raining that night, too.

It happened on the Gateway Motorway in Brisbane, and I had just crossed the bridge. I'm still not sure exactly what went wrong, but I thought I saw a puddle of water on the road. I can't ever be sure, because it was quite dark. Suddenly, it felt like my car was driving on a block of butter. I was driving along perfectly normally, in a perfectly boring way: adhering to the speed limit, with the music on, thinking about my day. Then my car was sliding all over the road—it felt slippery, and completely smooth. I tried to get control and for a second I thought I did, but then I lost it again.

Initially I was like, 'Whoa, this is a little bit scary'. I had done a few advanced driving courses, so I knew what was going on. The car was aquaplaning; I'd lost control. But when you're actually in the moment, in the real world, unless you've practiced what to do a million times, you can't do much. I think I did all I could.

The car kept going, though. It went up on the embankment on the side of the highway, then came back down again. The nose of the car hit the tarmac, and the car just started rolling head to tail—just flying through the air. At that point I thought, 'There's not much more I can do now'. I just pretended I was riding a rollercoaster.

I was still conscious when the car finally landed, upright on the side of the road. I tried to get out of the car, and realised I couldn't move. I touched my leg but couldn't feel it. So even at this point, I kind of knew what'd happened—I was paralysed. I took a look around, and there was blood everywhere. I was wearing a white t-shirt, so that was soaked in blood.

There was a car behind me which pulled over, and the man driving it opened my door and called me an ambulance. At this point it starts to get a little bit hazy, but I was kind of lucid in the ambulance and when I looked up, the guy taking care of me happened to have lectured us once in medical school. So we had a little chat about it all. He was really good, very comforting and skillful.

Interestingly enough, a couple of years ago I happened upon the mobile number of the guy who pulled over and called the ambulance for me. We spoke on the phone and he told me that he'd found it really difficult to drive along that road again, because he remembered what happened—he told me that he had to wash himself for ages that night, just to get all the blood off him. He had to hold my head up for ages until the ambulance came. His name is Chris. We keep in touch and I tell him what I get up to and what's been happening. It's nice.

I spent seven months in the hospital spinal unit. Having studied at medical school, I knew what it meant when I was told I was quadriplegic. But I worked really hard and I did a lot of physiotherapy and all sorts of stuff to try to get the best function I could. It did get tough though, and there were dark moments—but you've got no choice, you just have to move through it.

When all this first happened, everything fell apart. My family unit shattered, and we had to sell our home because we had so many expenses. That was a real damn moment—thinking, 'How am I going to get all this back?' You become so attached to these basic things.

But I think what's been really awesome is that there have been people who've seen the possibility rather than the impossibility. My mum is like a superhero, who never says no to anything. When I said I wanted to go back to medical school, she just said, "Alright, let's do it." Over the last couple of years, my primary goal has been to optimise myself to finish medical school and become a doctor. I'm done now, and I've just started working as of last week. The Gold Coast University hospital has been really good, they've taken a chance on me. I'm Queensland's first quadriplegic graduate doctor, and Australia's second. So I'm really thankful for them allowing that to happen. I guess we're just breaking down barriers and showing what's possible.

There's a saying that goes, "People become most acquainted with themselves when they're faced with challenging situations." And I think that's so true. This experience has really made me and the people around me see things in a different way. I think I've done more with my life after the crash than I ever would have before. And I think there are a lot of people out there with different physical or emotional circumstances that want to do things like work as a doctor. Barriers are only what we make them. Anything is possible, I think.

I'm unable to do it yet, but my little secret is that I think I'm going to walk again one day. I'm confident that we'll find a cure for spinal cord injury. It might take a bit of time, but I think we're at a point in history where we're doing really exciting spinal cord innovations.

As told to Katherine Gillespie

This article is presented by QLD Government. Find out more about road safety and Join the Drive to save lives here

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Dinesh Palipana