Doctors with disability continue to practice thanks to technology, support and a positive attitude

Doctor Steven Peterson was cycling to work in the autumn of 2018 when he was struck by a car and taken to the same emergency department where he was due to start work.

“The driver stopped and called the ambulance and probably would have saved my life by doing so,” he said.

“My colleagues were expecting me. They were aware that a trauma was coming.

“And they were wondering where I was because I may well have been involved in the managing of it.”

Dr Peterson was left aa quadriplegic by the accident in Orange, New South Wales, but assistive technology and modifications to his home and work environment have enabled him to continue practicing.

“After much trial and error, we were able to figure out what was best.”

A man in a wheelchair uses a device operated by his mouth to control a computer
Dr. Peterson conducts telehealth consultations and teaches.ABC Central West: Xanthe Gregory

Dr Peterson currently performs telehealth roles for regional hospitals around NSW.

He also conducts work in addiction and alcohol detox, teaches, and has recently been elected to a local government.

Doctor’s bypassing disability

Dr Peterson is one of several medical professionals around Australia who have not let disability stop them from pursuing their careers.

A man sits in wheelchair wearing a suit
Greenwood physiotherapist Robert Vander Kraats suffered a stroke in 2015.supplied

In the Perth suburb of Greenwood, Western Australian physiotherapist Robert Vander Kraats returned to work two years ago after suffering a stroke during 2015.

He said his challenge was finding someone to help him overcome his physical limitations.

“And with physio you need both in the same room.”

Mr Vander Kraats now works with his friend and fellow physiotherapist Jeff Wong.

They have developed a complementary partnership, combining their skills, knowledge and experience.

“Jeff is more than just my hands. We communicate and work really well together,” Mr Kraats said.

Prior to his stroke — which he had at the age of 30 — Mr Vander Kraats was working with elite athletes such as the AFL’s West Coast Eagles.

“The first initial response was, why did it happen to me?” he said.

“Just weeks before I was doing triathlons, so I was pretty fit and didn’t have any warning signs and then, hey, it happened to me.

“So at that point you can choose your attitude, you think, ‘What can you do with this?’.”

  Robert Vander Kraats getting treatment
Physiotherapist Robert Vander Kraats receives treatment for himself.Supplied: Eve Wolfe

Mr Vander Kraats, who still undertakes regular treatment himself, said direct experience with disability had also informed his approach to his clients.

This included being able to relate to a patient’s medical experiences, and those involved in the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

†[Before] I could sympathise, but not empathise, and now I can because I fully know what’s involved,” Mr Vander Kraats said.

Doctors with Disability launched

Dr Dinesh Palipana is a senior resident at Gold Coast University Hospital and advisor to the Disability Royal Commission, which was established in April 2019.

He has quadriplegia as a result of a motor vehicle accident that caused a cervical spinal cord injury halfway through medical school.

A man in a blue medical suits sits smiling in a wheelchair
Dr Palipana says there should be no unnecessary barriers to any doctors wishing to work.supplied

Dr Palipana is a founding member of Doctors With Disability Australia (DWDA), a national advocacy organization working to remove barriers, bias and stigma in the medical profession for students, doctors and health professionals.

“We’ve supported allied health students, we’ve supported nursing students, we’ve supported a range of people through this journey,” he said.

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