Written By

Janine Lucas


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

16 December 2021

Related Study Areas

Abbey Godwin-Smith and Alex Russell grew up on neighbouring cattle and cropping properties near Rolleston in Central Queensland. Today they graduated together from James Cook University as doctors.

It’s a surreal feeling for the lifelong friends. “I think our tiny town of Rolleston is pretty amazed that two out of seven of our grade in primary school are becoming doctors, which is pretty good odds,” Abbey says.

Alex says: “To be from a place as small as Rolleston, with not much more than 100 people, to start school with your neighbour and graduate together as doctors and best friends almost 18 years later seems unbelievable.”

Both students did extended rural placements in their final year – Alex in Atherton and Abbey in Emerald. Alex’s mum, Dr Louise Russell, was one of Abbey’s supervisors on placement at Emerald. “That was another surreal moment – going from spending holidays together to having her teach me about being a rural doctor,” Abbey says. “It also put the pressure on me to know my stuff whenever she was around.”

Couple in evening wear
Three children dressed as clowns
Two young children in front of plane
Left: Graduating JCU medical students Alex Russell and Abbey Godwin-Smith, and in fancy dress with Rolleston classmate Lachlan Biles as kids.

Growing up together

Alex: Abbey and I have been best friends for literally as long as I can remember. Abbey is just down the road from me, about 20km, which might sound like a bit, but there are actually only two houses in between us. Our families are great friends so Abbey’s was a bit of a second home at times, and they would always come over to our place. Growing up and on uni holidays, I would always help out my old man, whether that be driving tractors, watering the crops, fixing fences or helping out with the mustering and yard work. Dad used to work as a contract helicopter pilot up north when he was younger and has always had a keen interest in aviation, plus living out west could appreciate the need for a plane to travel long distances more easily. This has been passed down to me and I've also now got my private plane licence and hope to use it more into the future as it can make travelling and working in remote areas much more accessible.

Abbey: We had a pretty exciting childhood together. We were both pretty hands-on kids, mustering and helping in the cattle yards, which we never seemed to have got out of on uni holidays. With our parents being good friends, it was hard for us not to spend time together. Alex would get dropped off at our mailbox regularly when his mum would be off to work, so we had plenty of time to get up to no good. We took a lot of family trips together, one of the coolest being to the Ekka in Brisbane – Alex’s dad flew us direct from his property. Despite living out in the bush, we weren’t limited, and if we couldn’t travel, we were water skiing on Alex’s irrigation dam.

View of pilot and co-pilot in small plane
Young woman looking out of light plane window
Alex and Abbey flying to their JCU Medicine interview with Alex's dad, Scott, as the pilot.

Full circle for uni

Alex: We had to branch off for boarding school as our town doesn’t offer high school. I followed my three older brothers to Nudgee College in Brisbane. Abbey and I would always catch up in the holidays and we have stayed great mates right through uni.

Abbey: I went to Rockhampton Girls Grammar School for secondary school. It was only when Alex and I met up at Schoolies that we found out we both got JCU medicine interviews on the same day and at the same time, so we got to fly up together in Alex’s dad’s plane. We helped each other out with preparing for the interviews and stayed good mates through it all.

Group of five young people in formal wear
Grassed bush landscape
Left: Siobhan Cotter, Keane Henderson, Fraser Doherty, Alex Russell and Abbey Godwin-Smith. Right: Abbey's home country, near Rolleston.

Inspiration from mums

Alex: Mum has worked as a rural doctor ever since she met dad and absolutely loves what she does, which I think really influenced me. I had always heard that JCU was the best medical school for rural students like Abbey and myself, so it was a bit of a no brainer.

Abbey: Growing up on a property you are exposed to few careers, but my mum was an ambulance first responder for our area and I think that’s where the interest in rural medicine started. She would be called out to motor vehicle and farming accidents, as well as any sort of medical emergency. I always wanted to go out with her from a young age but never could and would always be patiently waiting at home to hear about what happened. Now when I’m home, we’ve even done a call-out together. It’s pretty cool to be able to teach your mum some new medicine tricks. I completed a 20-week extended rural placement out in Emerald this year and Alex’s mum, Louise, was the Director of Medical Services so no moments to drop the ball, or she would find out pretty soon.

The Russell family's mixed beef and irrigation crop farm near Rolleston.

(Photo supplied by Alex Russell.)

Top placements

Alex: Innisfail and Atherton have been the best placements that I have done throughout med school. Clinically, from day one on my extended rural at Atherton this year I was a functioning member of the team with an important role. Socially, everyone was always more than welcoming, too. There was always races or something on that was great fun. Playing in the medicine rugby league team, Medleague, has also been a major highlight of studying at JCU. We may not be that great at rugby but the mates that I have made through it across all year levels and the memories shared there are some that I will never forget.

Abbey: Broome, WA, on my second-year placement was the stand-out by far. I got to meet some of the best doctors, see a vast variety of clinic experiences with a huge focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health. I also got to explore some of the best beaches and landscapes. Broome was hard to beat, but I also completed a rural placement in Longreach for fourth year. Emerald is only 1.5 hours from home so the extended rural internship this year was a great excuse to be back in Central Queensland before graduating from medicine.

Woman on cattle station
Man in cattle yards
Abbey and Alex on the land: "Many people don’t appreciate the difficulty in managing chronic diseases and even simple things without being able to see a GP within 100km, and a lot of people’s health suffers as a result."

Living rural medicine

Alex: I have been fortunate that my mum is a doctor, but the closest emergency department is almost two hours away by road, at Emerald. In high-acuity situations, many people are airlifted to Rockhampton or larger centres. This causes a lot of delays and distress for families. Many people don’t appreciate the difficulty in managing chronic diseases and even simple things without being able to see a GP within 100km, and a lot of people’s health suffers as a result. The only real answer to this is training more rural doctors and particularly those that truly want to stay out west and live in their communities, rather than just a travelling locum workforce.

Abbey: It’s hard to learn about rural communities without having been immersed in them like Alex and I have been. Both of our families are farmers, so we also get to deal with that side of things, the good and bad years through droughts, floods and fires. It makes it easy to relate to a lot of rural patients and understand their predicaments with health being on the back burner, especially when you have to travel three hours-plus just to see a doctor. Doctors are here, but there are not enough. I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer to fixing rural health. Informing other medical and allied health students about what happens on the ground in these areas through rural placements is a great start, which JCU does well.

Mustering on Alex's family property.

(Photo supplied by Alex Russell.)

The future

Alex: I’m off to the Gold Coast next year which I am really excited for. Being from the bush heading to the coast was a summer holiday staple. Moving forward, I’m still trying to decide where exactly I’ll be and what I’ll be doing. I really enjoy anaesthetics and emergency so working as a rural generalist and combining both of my interests definitely appeals to me. Someone is going to have to fill mum’s shoes in Rolleston one day and I’m sure she’s keen for that to be me.

Abbey: I think my heart lies somewhere between paediatrics and rural medicine, or perhaps both. I have a passion for rural communities which has always been hard to shake. Going to JCU makes the idea of going back home and practising that little bit sweeter. I also love the idea of looking after kids and bringing paediatric services to places that usually miss out.

James Cook University Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery students get a values-aligned education while improving the health of underserved communities. Find out why graduating student Joshua Liaw describes it as 'more than a degree'.

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