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The Nicosia Tragedy – lest such be forgotten

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By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
elmojay1@gmail.com

It was a lazy April morning in Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. The Globe Air Charter flight carrying 120 Swiss and German passengers was about to taxi out for takeoff. The planned journey was long, starting in Thailand and ending up in Switzerland, with re-fueling stops in Colombo, Bombay and Cairo, before flying the last leg to its destination – Basel. The plane carried 10 crew – five in the cabin and five in the cockpit, comprising three pilots and two flight engineers, what they called a heavy crew to fly multi-sector long haul flights. In command was Capt. St Elmo Muller, a Ceylonese pilot who had served in the RAF during the second world war.

Capt. Muller was born in Colombo and educated at St. Joseph’s College. He learnt to fly as a teenager and obtained an ‘A’ licence at Ratmalana. They say that Muller used to cycle from Colombo to Ratmalana Airport to take his flying lessons from renowned flying instructor, Flight Lieutenant Robert Duncanson. Subsequently, Elmo Muller was one of the first 15 Ceylonese to join the Royal Air Force and leave for training to the UK. Four of the 15 were selected as fighter pilots and Elmo Muller trained to fly heavier bombers. He also flew reconnaissance Spitfires attached to Squadron 543 of the RAF. Having entered the RAF as a Sergeant Pilot he rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant by 1945, when he was just 24 years of age. His quick rise through the ranks says much about Muller as an officer and a pilot.

After the war, Muller remained in Europe, flew charter aeroplanes for different companies, and served as a commercial pilot with EL AL, the national carrier of Israel.

This was Capt. St Elmo Muller, aged 45, who took off from Bangkok on the19th of April 1967 – an experienced airman with 8285 flying hours, of which 1,493 were logged on Britannia aircraft. The co-pilot was P. Hippenmeyer, aged 24, a Swiss national, with a total of 1860 hours, of which 785 were on Britannia aeroplanes. The extra pilot – Capt. H. M. Day, a 40-year old DC-3 pilot, with 9,680 flying hours to his credit – was not rated on the Britannia, but may have been under training as he had 49 hours on this type. The three pilots together totalled almost 20,000 flying hours. Rated or not, there was a considerable amount of experience in that flight deck. As for the two flight engineers, H. W Saunders and H.J. Geisen, they both held valid Swiss Flight Engineer Licences endorsed to operate Britannias.

The aeroplane was a 10-year old Bristol Britannia powered by four Wright R-3350 turbo-compound engines. The Britannia was certainly the best British long range aeroplane at the time, fighting for its place among the Boeing Stratocruisers, Douglas DC-6s and the Lockheed Constellations that were built across the Atlantic. The Bristol Britannia was as good a plane as any, ranked alongside the best of aeroplanes until the jets, mainly 707s and DC-8s, took to the skies.

The first sector from Bangkok was uneventful. They had five crew members who could swap places in the flight deck which needed three crew members to man. However, as pilot Day was not qualified on the type, whatever resting Capt. Muller did, needed to happen while seated at the Captain’s seat; not the best manner to rest, but a common practice among long haul operators. Doubtless, the journey from Bangkok to Basel, with its three mandatory stops, required great endurance from Capt. Muller. As for the others, they would have managed their in-flight rest periods to stay fresh and focused for the shifts they had to work.

Being late April with the South West monsoon active in Ceylon the Britannia would have landed on Runway (R/W) 22 in Colombo. The crew likely stretched their legs while the plane re-fueled, before setting off for Santa Cruz Airport in Bombay. That sector would have been the shortest in the flight plan and the easiest to fly. It was bright day light, and the track was over land with adequate navigational beacons for route corrections, dotted with en-route alternates across western India in case of an emergency.

By the time the Globe Air Britannia reached Bombay, they had flown two sectors of the four they were to fly and likely clocked over 10 hours of duty time. Duty time includes the 90 minutes of pre-flight preparation and another 30 – in some companies, 60 – minutes of post flight work.

Several factors influence the calculation of flight time and duty time. Suffice it to say that by the time they were to land in Cairo after the nine-hour leg from Bombay, the crew would have well exceeded their duty time limitations. However, this was an unscheduled charter, and it was 1967. It may not have been considered a mortal sin to stretch the limits of duty time. After all, they had five crew members to share the workload.

Departing Bombay, the Britannia took off with 11 hours and 10 minutes’ fuel endurance for the nine-hour flight. Capt. Muller headed west crossing the Arabian Sea to enter Omani Airspace. This was the longest leg of the trip – destination Cairo, the penultimate stop before Basel. I do not know the exact route they flew, but they would have flown over the Middle Eastern Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and past the Eastern Mediterranean to reach Cairo. By this time, the crew would have been on duty for over 20 hours and Capt. Muller, in command, would have been confined to his seat throughout except for his toilet breaks. That the crew was fatigued is doubtless; the limit for a present-day modern jet, flying a three-pilot operation, is around 12 hours.

As the Britannia approached Cairo, the weather gods played their Ace of Trumps. The airport was covered with thunderstorms and arriving pilots diverted to safe havens around the edge of the Mediterranean looking for alternates to land. Globe Air Britannia, after flying nine hours from Bombay, probably had approximately two hours of fuel left in the tanks when Capt. Muller made his decision to divert. The designated alternate for Globe Air was Beirut. The weather there was good – calm winds with one Okta (1/8th of the sky) of cumulus clouds. Cairo being equidistant from Beirut and Nicosia, just a little over 300 nautical miles, Capt. Muller opted to re-nominate Nicosia airport as his preferred alternate and headed to Cyprus.

Nicosia Airport was forecasting intermittent weather with thunderstorms. Capt Muller was no fool; he was a very experienced pilot. He must have had very good reasons for choosing Nicosia. The question remains unanswered why Capt. Muller did not divert to Beirut. I can only surmise, of course, that there might have been other aircraft diverting to Beirut from Cairo. The congestion may have been a reason why Capt. Muller decided to go to Nicosia as he could not have had the comfort of adequate fuel to go into a long holding pattern in Beirut.

There is no doubt that Capt. Muller made a professionally reasoned Commander’s decision to land in Nicosia. Given his experience and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can determine that the decision to go to Nicosia would have been made for very valid reasons. We must remember that a Captain diverting an aeroplane after a long flight may not have the luxury of time.

I do not know why the Britannia diverted to Nicosia. I will leave it at that. Let me get on with the story.

At 2215 GMT, other aeroplanes in the area heard Globe Air calling Nicosia. Beirut heard it too and passed a message to Nicosia Control that Globe Air was making attempts to contact them. At 2300 Nicosia Approach talked to Globe Air and gave them the latest weather report. With 5/8 of the sky around the Nicosia aerodrome covered with thunderstorms, this was always going to be a difficult arrival. The airport did not have an Instrument Landing System (ILS) and was only fitted with a VOR for a non-precision approach. Globe Air came over the airfield at 2306 and was cleared for a right hand downwind to approach on R/W 32. At 2310 the Britannia reported it was over the R/W 32 threshold but as it was slightly high, the Captain executed a missed approach. The Tower then cleared Globe Air for a left-hand downwind circuit for R/W 32. Capt. Muller accepted the clearance and said he would fly a low-level visual circuit, doing his best to keep the runway in sight on his left.

The Swiss registered HB-ITB Britannia that Capt. Muller was flying did not have a Flight Recorder fitted. The airport did not have RADAR to track the path of the aeroplane. The only evidence available after the accident for investigations were the Air Traffic Control tapes, which recorded the communications between Globe Air and the Tower. The last message on tape was the pilot stating he was doing a low-level circuit. Sitting at my desk, more than fifty years later, I can only give careful consideration to all the circumstances and make an educated guess as to what happened next.

The Britannia was probably flying at 1000 feet, maybe 800 ft, on a left-hand downwind heading of 140 degrees. The dark midnight sky was covered with 5 oktas of thundery cumulonimbus, the visibility further reduced by rain. I picture Capt. Muller looking out of the left window to keep the runway in sight, as well as scanning his flight instruments to stay on track, speed and altitude. His fuel too may not have been much, as he started with 11 hours and 10 minutes from Bombay and burnt nine hours to get to Cairo. The diversion to Nicosia would have cost him another hour of fuel and the missed approach he executed in Nicosia may have burnt at least another 10 minutes of the precious little left. Capt. Muller was likely sitting on less than one hour’s worth of fuel when he was flying the low-level circuit: not enough to go anywhere except Nicosia.

In addition to all these calamitous facts, St Elmo Muller had sat on his Captain’s seat for more than 22 hours. If ever a deck was stacked against an Airline Captain, this was it.

45 seconds after passing the R/W 32 threshold, the Britannia commenced its left turn to the base leg heading of 050, which would have brought it perpendicular to R/W 32.

It was then, at 2313, that the left wing of the aeroplane hit the side of a hill at a height of 820 ft, 22 feet below the crest. The heading at point of impact was 068 degrees, the aircraft still turning to 050, the base leg heading. The wing broke and the aircraft rolled and hit another hillock, bursting into flames and killing 126 of the occupants. Almost impossibly, four survived, three of them severely injured. The fourth walked away from the crash without a scratch.

“The accident resulted from an attempt to make an approach at a height too low to clear rising ground.” That was the conclusion of the Nicosia Civil Aviation Authority after their investigation.

Without the information from a flight recorder it is difficult to know what really happened. The conclusions from different sources who were associated with the investigations are rather contradictory. As with most airline crashes, none of the flight crew lived to tell the tale.

Capt. St Elmo Muller’s remains were brought to Ceylon in a sealed coffin and placed in the Muller family vault at the Kanatte Cemetery.

I sincerely hope what I wrote would bring memories of an honourable Ceylonese aviator who should be remembered.

The truth of what happened on that fateful night remains lost forever on a Cypriot hill.

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A year into Rajapaksa presidency amidst Covid-19 pandemic

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by Harim Peiris

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

 

 

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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How rot set in

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Rubber:

By Dhamsiri Dasanayaka,

Ex-Advisory Officer, Rubber Research Board

Rubber could be considered bread and butter of bona fide smallholders. They have cultivated their lands with rubber plants and manufacture Ribbed Smoked Sheets (RSS) out of their harvest by using traditional knowledge. The government in order to help them initiated an extension service for cultivating rubber. This article attempts to show how this extension mechanism came about.

In 1972, the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) established two extension departments, namely Smallholdings Department (SHD) for rubber smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, both were amalgamated into a separate scientific extension department called Advisory Services Department (ASD). From 1953, under the Rubber Control Act, non-scientific Rubber Control Department (RCD) provided subsidies to rubber farmers. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting and new planting. Copies of these permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out this extension service successfully. They guided the small holders in multiple ways, such as planting, processing, marketting, bark exploitation, and other agricultural activities. This was the rubber extension system that took place during the decade of 1970.

In 1984, Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project 01 (SRRP1) was implemented with World Bank assistance. The Advisory Services Department (ASD), with its flexible financial management system, the well-set theoretical, and practical links with the RRI, functioned effectively to improve the smallholdings sector. Both RRI and ASD were under the Rubber Research Board (RRB) highlighting the “Research- Extension- Farmer” academically recognized agricultural development model, and the SRRP planners decided to entrust this project to the ASD, which consequently became a well-organised active Extension Department like the RRI structure under the (RRB). Chairman of the RRB was a rubber industry professional. RRI and ASD were headed by two PhD qualified Directors. The think tank of the ASD was a scientifically qualified active group competent enough to implement the SRRP project successfully. During this project period, the role of the RCD was to issue permits to rubber farmers.

The Rubber Control Department (RCD), which essentially consisted of administrators, appointed a field staff of rubber Inspectors to handle the extension programme on field. They were too involved in subsidy administration in the field thus duplicating field work of rubber which caused confusion among rubber smallholders according to administrators. To eliminate this farmer confusion from the field, the ASD, which constituted experienced scientific think tank was removed from the RRB in 1994 and attached to RCD think tank, which was mainly an administration body and formed Rubber Development Department (RDD), which was also an administration body. This non-scientific administration think tank (RDD) was not conducive to effective agricultural extension.

By 2002, there were too many irregular segments causing duplication and, hence, excess staff in the RDD were transferred to RRI without having a clear mandate. As a result, 35 extension officers of the RDD who came back to the RRI were entrusted to handle extension programme under the RRI Director. This again led to creation of a dual extension officer situation in the field as in 1994.

At present there are six more institutions formed by the MPI and the relevant authorities to supply services to rubber sector as mentioned below.

As a result, there are four officers from the institutions 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the field handling extension and related functions. Now, the rubber farmers are again in a dilemma, unable to figure out which officer should be contacted to get advice on multiple services such as cultivation and processing, etc. Hence, it is questionable why the MPI and relevant authorities have ignored this multiple officer situation. This is in spite of a number of institutions dealing with rubber cultivation and wasting rubber growers cess fund meaninglessly.

 

Source: Rubber Development Department

Table 1 and articles authored by Mr. J. A. A. S. Ranasingha, Dr. L. M. K Tilakaratna and Professor. C. S. Weeraratna, in The Isalnd during the last few weeks indicate that the rubber production in the country has decreased substantially. Table 2 shows the production and imports of RSS in the year 2017. This implies that RSS manufacture should be increased which has a direct link with the smallholder production of RSS. RSS is an input to rubber industry. To improve the productivity of the rubber sector, which is on its way to extinction, there is a pressing need for an effective scientific rubber extension organisation to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. This will enable agronomically qualified think tank to assist rubber farmers to carry out agronomical activities such as outdoor farmer training , indoor training at Nivthigala Kelle, adaptive research activities, planting practices, soil conservation measures, establishing cover crops, fertilizer application, exploitation methodologies, manufacture of better quality rubber sheets, nursery management, smoke houses management, fixing rain guards and marketing, etc., more effectively like in 1994 and before.

One crucial factor which can be attributed to this calamitous situation in the rubber sector was the extremely unsatisfactory situation in the scientific extension, created by the amalgamation of the ASD and the RCD in 1994, removing the extension-oriented ASD think tank from RRB and forming the RDD administration think tank for the sake of development of the rubber sector. This action led to a breakdown of the well-established “Research – Extension – Farmer” inter faced academic development model. This model is a must in agricultural development and it must never be converted to a “Research – Administration – Farmer” model even though the extension label is affixed to the administrators. As a whole it was counter-productive as evident from the decreased production of rubber and increased imports of RSS due to the extension mechanism.

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Quadriplegic doctor aspires to walk again

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Dr. Dinesh Palipana Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021

By Sajitha Prematunge

Dr. Dinesh Palipana does not have the full command of his fingers and his usual offer of a handshake took the form of an awkwardly extended fist. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like a good sport, fist bumped the quadriplegic doctor, gangster-like, an act of empathy Palipana appreciates to this day. Such are the trials and tribulations Sri Lankan-born Australian doctor, lawyer and disability advocate, Dinesh Palipana is faced with, on a daily basis. But such technicalities didn’t prevent him from recently being named Queensland’s Australian of the Year 2021.

The quadriplegic doctor, the first of its kind in Queensland, and the second in Australia, is currently a lecturer at the School of Medicine, Griffith University; Adjunct Research Fellow at Menzies Health Institute Queensland and Senior House Officer (Emergency Department) at Gold Coast University Hospital. “Eleven years ago I was lying on an intensive care bed, I couldn’t move my arms and legs, I couldn’t eat or breathe. My life was falling apart all around me. But to be here after all that trauma seams surreal. But I am grateful for life, for my community, friends and family that supported me,” said Dr. Palipana.

He is a founding member of Doctors with Disabilities Australia, an advocacy group for physicians with disabilities and the ambassador for Physical Disability Australia. Palipana is a member of the scientific advisory committee of Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation. In 2019 Palipana was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine; Junior Doctor of the Year at the Gold Coast University Hospital; Henry Viscardi Achievement Award, a global award in recognition for his work in disability advocacy; and ‘Change Making’ in National Awards for Disability Leadership. All these accolades and achievements would have been impossible without the love and support of his mother, Chithrani Palipana. “My mother taught me what love, strength, commitment and perseverance are.”

 

Tragedy

Born in 1984, Palipana and his family migrated to Australia in 1994, when he was 10. Not only physical disability, Palipana knows only too well how debilitating mental health disorders are as well. He battled with depression, anxiety and panic disorder while studying law. “It took some time. I had to readjust my life and thinking. Finding my purpose really helped.” He realized that law was not his calling. He commenced his Doctor of Medicine at the Griffith University in 2008. When he was 25 and half way through his medical degree, he lost control of his car while driving home on a wet night. The car aquaplaned and rolled. When it finally stopped, he realized that he could not move or feel his legs. Palipana was far enough in his medical education to self diagnose it as a spinal cord injury. It left him quadriplegic.

He lost all sensory and motor function below his chest due to the injury. “I can’t move my fingers,” said Palipana. He has had to make a lot of adjustments to life. “Initially, going from a normal life to being paralysed, was very challenging.” Palipana pointed out that even day-to-day activities can be difficult with impaired movement. Despite a life-changing disability, Palipana decided to go back to medical school. Against all odds he graduated in 2016, with quite a few awards, as the first quadriplegic medical graduate in the state of Queensland, the second in Australia. He also completed a medical clerkship at Harvard Medical School.

Prof Harry McConnell of Griffith University was instrumental in getting Dinesh back on his feet, no pun intended. “He is a passionate believer in inclusivity and has always fought for the rights of those with different abilities. He did a lot of work to facilitate me coming back to medical school. He also helped me a lot with getting my life back together.” Palipana was inspired by Dr Harry Eeman, Australia’s first doctor with tetraplegia, who sustained a severe form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that left him paralysed, halfway through medical school. “Dr. Eeman spent time with me to figure out solutions to some of the physical challenges. His experience really laid the foundation for my journey.”

 

Medical school

Palipana adapted new methods to train as a quadriplegic doctor, in partnership with Griffith University and the Gold Coast University Hospital. Quadriplegia can turn everyday activities into obstacles, but he learned his way around them. “Before coming back to medical school I spent a lot of time finding solutions to challenges. I had a great team helping me.” And with persistence, he learned how to hold a stethoscope making use of the natural grip of his fingers. He learned how to examine patients. “I even learned how to insert a cannula with some assistance.”

When asked how inclusive Australian professional culture is, in terms of employment opportunities for the differently-abled, as opposed to a country like Sri Lanka, Palipana admitted that it initially proved difficult to secure an internship in medicine in Australia. Despite two years in clinical training as a medical student at the Gold Coast University Hospital, Palipana had trouble securing an internship. In 2016, he was the only Queensland medical graduate without an employment offer. “I worked really hard in medical school and got good grades. It was very frustrating that non of those things mattered.”

Palipana admitted that medicine is not the most inclusive profession, but said it has improved much in the past five years. Although he explored the possibility of pursuing a medical degree in a Sri Lankan University, Palipana said that most university administrations were reluctant to accommodate him, “Except for Kelaniya University. Other universities have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity.” As a quadriplegic doctor working in Australian, Palipana said that shortcomings of accessibility are not restricted to Sri Lanka. “Accessibility needs a lot of work globally.”

His perseverance paid off. He was eventually employed by the Gold Coast University Hospital as Queensland’s first quadriplegic intern. His disability makes him no less capable as a doctor compared to an able-bodies person. Gold Coast Health, Emergency Medicine Director, Associate Professor David Green, speaking to the Today Show Australia, vouched for Palipana’s ability to pull his weight, albeit on a wheelchair. “In a big, busy emergency with a lot of staff, his value is enormous…After a while you just forget about his disability,” said Green on the Today Show. Dinesh said that the team spirit gets him through. “Besides, there are plenty of patients, I can examine, who do not require me to perform any procedure.”

When asked whether his disability has made him more empathetic towards his patients and whether the accident and subsequent hospitalization made him more able to relate to his patients, Palipana said he remembers what it felt like to be a patient. “It can be disempowering and terrifying. Anchoring myself in my own experiences helps me to remember what it’s like being a patient.” On the other hand Dinesh said that he has never had a patient react negatively to him. “Every single patient has been amazing. I am privileged to be a part of their journey towards recovery.”

Cutting-edge rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injuries has a major research appeal for Palipana, who is determined to walk again. As Griffith University’s Biospine Project co-lead, Palipana explained that thought-controlled rehabilitation involves translating thought patterns into movement. “For example, if someone’s thinking of walking, we can translate that thought to movement by electrically stimulating the leg.” Promising results suggest that it can re-programme the spinal cord to restore some function in people with paralysis. “Therapies such as thought-controlled rehabilitation, drug therapy and digital twins have separately shown to restore some function in people with chronic paralysis. It is our hope that people like me will be able to stand on their own power again.” His ultimate goal is to come up with a therapy for spinal cord injury.

 

Advocacy

After recuperating at hospital for eight months, Palipana came back to Sri Lanka, where he spent another year, recovering in the company of family and friends. While in Sri Lanka he raised awareness and funds for spinal cord injury victims. In fact, his disability was a catalyst to his advocacy for training medical students with disabilities in Australia. “I’m lucky to be in a position to advocate for people with different abilities,” said Palipana.

Palipana obtained his law degree from the Queensland University of Technology in 2007 and was admitted as a lawyer in 2020. His background in law gave new impetus for his advocacy work on inclusivity in medical profession and education in Australia. “Law is a great tool that can be used to do a lot of good. It allows us to navigate legal and social structures.” His advocacy work with the Australian Medical Association has paved the way for national policies on inclusivity in medical education and employment. He used his story to demonstrate how the community can work with disability, to overturn a set of guidelines issued by the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand in 2015, vesting Australian medical schools with the power to exclude students with a range of disabilities. “Another major obstacle faced by students with disabilities was the attitudes of education establishments such as universities and academics.” Palipana said that Griffith University was an exception.

Palipana is also vocal about disability rights in the times of COVID-19. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of the inequities that differently-abled people face. Everything from healthcare access to employment has been an issue,” said Palipana. When health resources are scarce, some would argue that they are better utilized on those with a higher chance of survival. When governments of the developed world are forced to consider how to ration ventilators between people with disabilities and those without, how has COVID-19 affected those with disabilities?

If one with lungs as compromised as those of Palipana’s, were to contract COVID-19, the prognosis would indeed be bleak. Palipana explained that people with disabilities, depending on the disability, can be at high risk of increased complications due to COVID-19. “Many disabilities affect lung function. My lungs for example, don’t function as well, because of the spinal cord injury. It’s 30 percent of what it should be. If I were to get COVID-19 or even the flu, the chances of an adverse outcome is relatively high. Similarly, people with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims are susceptible,” pointed out Palipana. That should not justify sidelining people with disabilities. Palipana maintained that it is all the more reason to safeguard such vulnerable groups. “Through different forums and organisations, I am fortunate to be able to make a contribution in this important area.”

His message to people with debilitating disabilities and illnesses, who may be contemplating giving up on life is, “As a good friend once said, life is about ups and downs. Whenever there is an up, just know that there will be a down. Things can get challenging, but anyone can overcome them and live their dream, if they have the will. If I can become a doctor and lawyer others can too. Just find your passion and chase it.”

Going from being unable to breathe without the aid of a respirator, to advocating for disabled people and developing medical aid, real life success stories such as that of Robin Cavendish, never cease to inspire. Dinesh Palipana who proved his mettle by doggedly pursuing a career in medicine, while advocating for disability rights is, without a doubt, of that same calibre and hopefully will inspire multitudes more to achieve similarly extraordinary aspirations.

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