FACEM Shahina Braganza recommends that, if you can, then ‘Just say yes’ when confronted with an opportunity that might seem scary, uncomfortable or difficult.
‘This is what we learned from our early dialogues with Dinesh when exploring what was important to him, and what he most wanted people to know about him and his circumstances: just say yes.
‘His message was effectively: explore what I can do rather than what I can’t; and then commit to working out with me a way to make work functional and meaningful for me, while I deliver a service for you.’
Dinesh Palipana and Shahina are members of the Gold Coast Health Emergency Department team. In late 2020 the department was announced one of two group winners of the inaugural ACEM Diversity Award for their work as an inclusive workspace. Almost simultaneously, Dinesh – an Emergency Medicine Certificate trainee – was named Queensland Australian of the Year. He is otherwise familiar to Australian audiences after his story – as a medical student faced with quadriplegia – featured on Australian Story in 2018.
Shahina recalls Dinesh first attending the emergency department in his final year as a medical student.
‘He distinguished himself as being competent and capable, but also having a strong work ethic, and possessing amazing skills with communication, teamwork and professionalism.’
It was about a year later his name came up again.
‘He came to my personal attention while he was waiting to be offered an intern position for 2017. I recently found the email we wrote to the organisation [about hiring Dinesh as an intern],’ Shahina says.
‘The email, in part, says: “Dinesh is a remarkable young man. Among numerous other positives, this is a wonderful opportunity for GCH to play a significant role in his professional development and progress.”‘
In his nomination of the department for the diversity award, Dinesh says the support of the GCH emergency department ‘enabled the first quadriplegic medical graduate and intern in Queensland’.
For Shahina, Dinesh himself has been the leading force of that work.
‘Rightly or wrongly, Dinesh is driving this train; we are simply his support crew, following his lead.
‘He has already done immense work advocating for all people with disability at local, national and international level. He and his mum are tireless in their efforts to promote diversity and equity at all levels of society, including within workplaces, and facilitating access to support and funding.’
Within the department, they’ve been guided by Dinesh as to his needs.
‘We recognised early that Dinesh didn’t see himself as a person with disability or who required concessions to be made. We’d like to think that we established supportive and open relationships very early so that if he needed anything to be different he wouldn’t hesitate to approach us about it.
‘Dinesh is rostered as an integral part of our team, and has never been supernumerary. The only consideration is that he doesn’t work alone as a doctor in an acute pod so that he can be assisted if critical treatment is urgently required for a patient.’
That is not to say the same approach would be fitting for all.
‘We appreciate that if we had another colleague with diverse ability, or any other restriction, this approach would need to be modified according not only to their circumstance, but also to their own preferred approach.’
‘Our experience with Dinesh has broadened our awareness of this diversity and equipped us with some tools which we can now apply to others on an individual basis.’
Adaptations initiated by Dinesh include a smart mobile device and voice recognition systems.
‘Really our only adaptation is to preferentially roster him to late/evening or night shifts, but only after our director discovered [on that episode of Australian Story] that Dinesh and his mum were up at 3:00am in order to start an early shift.’
Dinesh, she says, has also become a conduit through which their department can advocate for and assist others seeking to build more inclusive and accessible workspaces.
‘Because of his high profile, he is often contacted by doctors or students with disability, long-standing or new. Typically, this has led to contact being made between our ED and the department/hospital where the doctor works or intending to work.
‘We have been able to have supportive conversations, offer insights, and invite potential employers to tour our ED and meet our team to help them consider how they may accommodate someone locally.’
Shahina acknowledges there have sometimes been questions raised about the choice to hire Dinesh, particularly early on, but the work that has occurred since has only reinforced the GCH ED’s collective perspective that standing back is not an option.
‘I remember when Dinesh started working with us. A senior clinician cautioned, “If we take on Dinesh with his quadriplegia, where do we draw the line?”. The last four years have taught us that we don’t draw a line anywhere. If we are lucky enough to have the environment and resources to support it, then it is incumbent upon us to make it work for our colleagues who are desperate to contribute to our service and to our community. For us, the return on our investment in Dinesh has been phenomenal.’