Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM has achieved a lot already – after a life-altering accident when he was only 25 years old, he went on to become the second person with quadriplegia to graduate as a doctor in Australia, he co-founded Doctors With Disabilities Australia, and he was recipient of Australian of the Year in 2021. Now with the publication of his book, Stronger, he can also add author to that ever-growing list of achievements. We sat down to chat with him about the challenging but rewarding journey that has led to this point.

Dinesh Palipana says his biggest achievement was graduating medical school as a quadriplegic. Many people told him that it couldn’t be done after he lost feeling below his neck as a result of a tragic accident – however, he grew up with a strong and resilient woman for both a mother and a role model, and so Palipana went on to defy all odds and prove the world that anything was possible.

In his book, Stronger, he talks about the many ups and downs that have led to a now happy and successful life. We wanted to know how the writing of this book compared to the rest of his incredible achievements.

Storyfest: Has writing always been a creative outlet for you, or was it something that came into your life after the accident?

Dinesh Palipana: Even being a doctor is not something that I grew up wanting to do – and that was the same with writing. I got interested in writing when I was in law school, as there was so much reading and writing involved. That’s when I was first exposed to the power of words, and they’ve helped me make sense of everything that has happened in my life.

S: Did writing this book bring back any negative memories? Was getting it all out in any way helpful, or was it more like reliving the nightmare?

DP: As I was writing this book, I often thought to myself, ‘wow, I can’t believe all of this happened to me.’ It felt like I'd lived through multiple lifetimes. So it didn’t feel like I was reliving it again, but it did give me the opportunity to take stock of how much had happened to me in such a short period of time.

All you have to do is turn on the news and you see all the hardships that people are going through around the world – you see people struggling to eat, to make ends meet, or people being stuck in war zones. When I look at my life, I feel so lucky. The spinal cord injury was challenging, but at the end of the day, I’m one of the luckiest people on Earth.

There are so many talented, passionate people who spend a long time wanting to publish a book and tell their story, and for me to have had this opportunity, I feel very fortunate.

S: You’re now not only a doctor, but an author as well. How do you think the two professions compare? They are on two opposing ends of the scale, so to speak – what do you get out of each?

DP: Medicine is very scientific and technical, but at the same time, it’s one of the most human activities you can do. When you’re seeing a patient, when you are giving them care from a medical perspective, on top of the technical aspects, it’s still a very human thing to do.

As Hippocrates said, the biggest mistake a doctor can make is to try and treat the body without treating the soul, and when I think about that aspect of medicine, reflection and creativity becomes especially important.

Writing the book made me think about medicine in an entirely new light. Writing and reading about stories like mine – or stories by other medical practitioners – gives a new depth to medicine. I think it’s really important to be reflective in medical practice, so I don’t think the two professions are that different at the end of the day.

S: Who is this book for?

DP: It’s for anyone who’s going through a hard or challenging time in their life. Stronger talks about hardship and how it has made me better, and I hope it’ll help others emerge stronger on the other side too. 

S: Your mother is a foundational block in your life, and you have credited much of your success to her. Has she inspired any part of this book?

DP: Stronger is dedicated to my mum. I owe everything to her, my whole life, the fact that I got through this and came out stronger on the other side – she’s always been there for me. She is someone who’s taught me how to get through hardship, how to always be a fighter, and how to thrive even despite the challenges. So she inspired the whole book, really.

S: What’s the best advice that you’ve been given – whether that was by your mother or anyone else?

DP: Watching my mother throughout my life has given me a compass in terms of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to behave.

I’ve also learnt a lot from reading some of the old philosophers, looking at their approach to life, how we should embrace hardship and how life is about perspective. Reading philosophers have helped me make sense of and find beauty in my own challenges. I find that it’s so important to read because there’s so much wisdom and insight and reflection in words and one book can change our life forever.

S: What’s one book that has changed your life?

DP: The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally. The authors draw this example where they say that when you get a diamond out of the ground, it’s dirty and shapeless, not a pretty thing to look at. But when you give it to a skilled diamond cutter who can cut it at just the right angle so that the light shines through it, it becomes a beautiful, valuable thing. Our experiences in life are like that, as we have the opportunity to cut them any way we want – so that no matter how ugly an experience is, there’s always something beautiful we can draw out of it.

S: What would your own advice be to people who’ve had ugly experiences and who might be feeling lost and going through a tough time?

DP: I’ve been through really bad depression, then an accident and a spinal cord injury, and with both of those things, I’d wished I could have my old life back. But as time went on, I realised that those things, as hard as they were, happened for me, and not to me.

Today, I wouldn’t trade my life for the world. I feel very lucky, very thankful, and very happy. I know that everyone is different. We all have our own challenges, and we all have different things going on. It’s all relative – no one’s struggle is harder than someone else’s, no one’s struggle is less than someone else’s. It’s their struggle. But I promise you that one day, it’s going to be okay. And try, just try, to make something beautiful out of that struggle.

To experience first-hand the beauty that Dinesh Palipana has made out of his own struggle, come along to his book launch with Storyfest at our next Bubbles, Books and Brunch event!