From the bush to the hospital ward: Rural life inspires neighbouring farm kids to become doctors

There were just seven children in Alex Russell and Abbey Godwin-Smith's primary school class. 

That's not unusual when you grow up in the country, where the nearest town has a population of a few hundred.

But what is unusual is though they went their separate ways after primary school, the pair ended up studying medicine together.

The best friends grew up on neighbouring farms at Rolleston in central Queensland — although there was still 20 kilometres between the properties.

Although there was 20km between their farms, Abbey and Alex spent holidays and weekends together. (Supplied: Abbey Godwin-Smith)

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

It wasn't until Schoolies that the pair realised they had applied to study medicine at the same Townsville university.

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

Mums in medicine inspire kids

Remote communities often have a Queensland Ambulance Service-trained first responder; someone trained in first aid dispatched to emergencies while paramedics are en route.

Dr Godwin-Smith believes seeing her mum Gail in this role was one of the things that inspired her career in medicine.

She said first responders deal with "anything from head-on collisions or truck rollovers to accidents occurring at farms".

Dr Godwin-Smith says her mum's role as a first responder to farm accidents inspired her career in medicine.(Supplied: Alex Russell)

"I remember a lot of the time [Mum] would be out on the call and I'd think, 'Oh I wish I could go, that would be so interesting' and when she'd come back, I could hear all about it," Dr Godwin-Smith said.

Recently, mother and daughter have attended calls together.

Medicine also runs in Dr Russell's family.

His mum Louise Russell is the local GP and supervised both young doctors during placements in Emerald.

Health care challenges in the bush

The pair said rural placements, featuring challenging health problems and unique communities, had a lasting impact.

Aside from Emerald, Dr Russell did placements in Far North Queensland, at Innisfail and Atherton.

Dr Russell says life experience on the family farm helped him get accepted into medical school. (Supplied: Alex Russell)

These experiences highlighted "how tough it is getting good health care in a timely fashion out in rural areas and how often people will leave things far too late," Dr Russell said.

"People come in and say, 'Sorry, I didn't really want to bother you', but then they're sort of missing half a finger or something like that.

"Coming from a rural background you can appreciate it more. You know how much of a nuisance it is to go into town or go to hospital."

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Country kids feel at home

While Dr Russell will head to the Gold Coast in 2022, Dr Godwin-Smith's rural placements cemented her desire to get back to the bush.

After placements in Longreach, Emerald and Broome, she is working towards becoming a rural generalist.

Unlike city students, Dr Godwin-Smith wasn't learning what rural life felt like during placements.

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

"I think a lot of students who come from Melbourne or places where their parents aren't anywhere remotely related to farming … it's quite hard for them with the initial shock and feeling of isolation," she said.

Dr Godwin-Smith said the medical side was a learning curve but relating to rural patients, and understanding underlying concerns about running a farm, was easier for a country kid.

"You can know everything under the sun, but if you've got no rapport with the patient … you're not going to treat anyone, and you'll probably do more harm than good."

Location is no barrier

The friends who started school together in a tiny country town hope other rural kids realise that location is not a barrier to big career goals.

"You don't think a small school like Rolleston could produce doctors, but everyone has a chance," Dr Godwin-Smith said.

"Just because you're living in the bush doesn't mean you're bound to be a farmer or a station hand."

For Dr Russell, farming life proved to be a major part of his medical school success.

He said while grades were a factor, the university was equally interested in life experience.

An aerial view of a morning muster at Dr Russell's family farm. (Supplied: Alex Russell)

"Be a balanced person; go do everything else and figure out the study part later," he said.

"Even in my interview process, they mentioned examples of teamwork and I talked about mustering, working in teams in the yards.

"That's definitely shaped who I am now and how I talk to patients."

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