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Rural life experience inspires neighbouring farm kids to become graduate doctors

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There were only seven children in Alex Russell and Abbey Godwin-Smith’s elementary school class.

This is not unusual when growing up in the countryside, where the nearest town has a few hundred residents.

But what’s unusual is that after they split up after elementary school, the couple ended up studying medicine together.

Best Friends grew up on neighboring farms in Rolleston, central Queensland, although there was still 12 miles between properties.

Two children playing.
Although it was 20 km between their farms, Abbey and Alex spent vacations and weekends together. (Provided: Abbey Godwin-Smith)

Boarding school was the only option when they reached high school, with best friends breaking up to study in Brisbane and Rockhampton.

It wasn’t until Schoolies realized that they had applied to study medicine at the same University in Townsville.

They graduated as a doctor in December and say country life has prepared them for the challenges of medicine, especially rural internships.

Medicine moms inspire kids

Remote communities often have a first responder trained by the Queensland Ambulance Service; a person trained in first aid is dispatched to the emergency room while the paramedics are on the way.

Dr Godwin-Smith believes seeing his mother Gail in this role was one of the things that inspired his medical career.

She said first responders deal with “everything from head-on collisions or truck rollovers to accidents on farms.”

Aerial rally.
Dr Godwin-Smith says his mother’s role as first responder to farm accidents inspired his career in medicine.(Provided: Alex Russell)

“I remember a lot of the time [Mum] would be on the call and I was like, “Oh, I wish I could go, that would be so interesting” and when she came back I could hear all about it, “said Dr. Godwin-Smith.

Recently, the mother and daughter have participated in appeals together.

Medicine is also present in Dr. Russell’s family.

His mother Louise Russell is the local GP and supervised the two young doctors during the internships at Emerald.

The challenges of health care in the bush

The couple said the rural placements, presenting difficult health issues and unique communities, had had a lasting impact.

Besides Emerald, Dr Russell has completed internships in far north Queensland, Innisfail and Atherton.

A man in a dusty stockyard.
Dr Russell says the experience of living on the family farm helped him get accepted into medical school. (Provided: Alex Russell)

These experiences highlighted “how difficult it is to get good, timely health care in rural areas and how often people give up on things much too late,” said Dr Russell.

β€œPeople come in and say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t really mean to bother you,’ but they’re kind of missing a half-finger or something.

Country children feel at home

As Dr Russell travels to the Gold Coast in 2022, Dr Godwin-Smith’s rural internships have cemented his desire to return to the bush.

After internships at Longreach, Emerald and Broome, she seeks to become a rural generalist.

Unlike the students in the city, Dr Godwin-Smith did not learn what rural life was like during internships.

A cotton field.
A beautiful sunset harvesting cotton at Consuelo, the Russell family farm near Rolleston. (Provided: Alex Russell)

“I think a lot of students who come from Melbourne or places where their parents are nowhere related to farming… it’s quite difficult for them with the initial shock and the feeling of isolation”, a- she declared.

Dr Godwin-Smith said the medical side was a learning curve, but it was easier for a country kid to relate to rural patients and understand the underlying concerns about the management of a farm.

Location is not an obstacle

Friends who started school together in a small country town hope other rural children find location is not a barrier to big career goals.

β€œYou don’t think a small school like Rolleston could produce doctors, but everyone has a chance,” said Dr Godwin-Smith.

For Dr. Russell, farming life proved to be an important part of the success of his medical school.

He said if grades were a factor, the university was interested in life experience as well.

Aerial view showing a herd of cattle, with shadows lengthening their shapes.
An aerial view of a morning gathering at Dr. Russell’s family farm. (Provided: Alex Russell)

β€œBe a balanced person, go do everything else and check out the study part later,” he said.

β€œEven in my interview process, they mentioned examples of teamwork and I spoke of coming together, of teamwork on the sites.

“It definitely shaped who I am now and how I speak to patients.”

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