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17 May 2022

Why I decided to stay in North Queensland

For some doctors, it’s the breadth of interesting clinical medicine and close consultant contact that draws them to North Queensland for their medical training. For others, the clear winner is an easy tropical lifestyle that cuts out the tedious commute and means more time for family, recreation and community.

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Vanessa Lusink landed in Townsville from Sydney to train in advanced laparoscopic gynaecological surgery with leaders in the field and enjoyed it so much, she and her partner decided to stay.

Similarly, British doctors Andrew Livingstone and Susannah Bond fell in love with Townsville after arriving as psychiatry registrars and have gone on to help shape their specialty in the region and take full advantage of coastal life with their young family.

BreastScreen Mackay Director and Surgeon Dr Wendela Schimmer and Cairns Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr Andrew Graham found professional and personal reward in their adopted northern homes, on the doorstep of some of the Sunshine State’s most beautiful natural attractions.

Here, they talk about why they decided to put down roots in North Queensland.

Dr Vanessa Lusink
Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Townsville

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Vanessa Lusink moved to Townsville in 2020 to do advanced laparoscopic gynaecological training with Associate Professor Jay Iyer.

“It was a really good job and Townsville seemed like something different, a fun place to come for a couple of years, which is now turning into staying permanently,” says the former Royal Prince Alfred Hospital doctor, who went to medical school in Newcastle.

“The lifestyle is really nice. My partner and I are both outdoorsy people. We like the ocean, getting outdoors. You can have a backyard; it's very different to Sydney.”

The training opportunities with A/Prof Iyer and Professor Ajay Rane, leaders in gynaecology and urogynaecology, are what drew Dr Lusink to North Queensland. While in Townsville, she has completed her Australasian Gynaecological Endoscopy and Surgery Society advanced laparoscopic gynaecology surgery fellowship.

“There are lots of opportunities to learn high-level skills,” she says. “With a small team performing complex gynae surgery in Townsville, you get an excellent training experience, while that can be a bit more diluted in the bigger city hospitals where there are more trainees around.”

A professional highlight for Dr Lusink has been helping with a new outpatient hysteroscopy service in Townsville for women who have abnormal or postmenopausal bleeding. She has also enjoyed undertaking clinical research. “We’re working on a randomised control trial to see how we can improve women's post-operative pain after hysterectomy or endometriosis surgery, as well as ongoing research into patient satisfaction with the newly established outpatient hysteroscopy service,” she says.

She says mentoring is one of the nicest parts of the job: “Part of the reason I want to stay is that I see what good work we do here and what we can bring to trainees.”

Explore living and training in the Townsville region

Dr Wendela Schimmer

Surgeon, Mackay

Surgeon Dr Wendela Schimmer made Mackay her home after relocating from Belgium in 2006 and spending a few years in Melbourne.

“Mackay is a very much an undiscovered, beautiful area,” Dr Schimmer says. “While everyone knows about the Whitsunday Islands that are close by, tourists tend to skip Mackay. But there are so many pretty beaches here and lots of nature hiking trails. There are just so many things you can do and nearby places to visit. You can even go out west and sift for emeralds and sapphires, for something different.”

As the clinical director of BreastScreen Mackay, Dr Schimmer finds great personal reward in supporting women through breast cancer.

“I'm one of three surgery consultants attached to the breast surgery unit, although not all of what we do is breast surgery,” she says. “So, I can quite commonly be attending patients on the ward who are suffering from pancreatitis or are post-op breast surgery followed by seeing someone who might present at emergency after a significant road trauma.”

The number of surgeons at Mackay Base Hospital has more than doubled during her time there. “All of us are quite keen on training,” Dr Schimmer says. “It is still a small enough hospital that the consultants know every resident by name as we work quite closely with them as part of the overall team, whereas in a metropolitan hospital you may just be one of many, making it a lot harder to be known and supported by the surgical consultant staff, compared to if you are one of a few.

“This can come in especially handy for interns who wish to apply for surgical training as one of the prerequisites of the application process is to supply the names of surgeons who agree to fill in a referee report for you. So, you are more likely to secure a training spot if the regional surgeons know what you are capable of.”

Explore living and training in the Mackay region

Dr Andrew Graham

Orthopaedic surgeon, Cairns

Cairns Hospital Senior Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr Andrew Graham first moved from Brisbane to Cairns as a junior doctor 30 years ago.

The variety of clinical work and strong social bonds cemented his decision to return as a registrar and practise in Cairns. ‘It’s been a fantastic journey,” Dr Graham says. It’s a hands-on type of place with really supportive people in a small community.  It’s also incredible work, different cases that you wouldn't see in the city.

“You get to do a lot of things in any specialty, not just your own. We come across some fantastic pathology, with the hospital’s catchment reaching up to the Torres Strait islands and down towards Townsville and can include patients from Papua New Guinea.”

In addition to the variety of patients, he says, the volume of cases sets Cairns apart from many other training destinations. “The volume of work from a normal hospital down south would be around 300 to 400 cases per year, whereas up here it’s around 600 to 800 cases,” he says.

“The hospital in Cairns has the best location I think of any hospital in the country, it’s right on the ocean shoreline and is just another gold star on our star chart. The rainforest is less than a five-minute drive, and my drive to work this morning was 12 minutes with two sets of green traffic lights.

“We do things together after work, such as going for a walk in the rainforest with the ward nurses and doctors. We form friendships in our teams, and these can last for a long time. Even if you are up here for just a year, everyone knows what it’s like to be a newcomer. It’s very inclusive.”

Dr Graham loves adventure trail running and ‘green surfing’ – riding mountain bikes down rainforest trails. He says Cairns’ trails are some of the best in the country.  “It’s a very outdoor community and if that's your thing then it’s the place to be,” he says.

Explore living and training in the Cairns region

Dr Andrew Livingstone & Dr Susannah Bond

Psychiatrist and psychiatry registrar, Townsville

Dr Andrew Livingstone and Dr Susannah Bond arrived as psychiatry registrars with their young family from the United Kingdom in 2017 for what was to be a 12-month Australian adventure.

“A friend of ours did a year in Sydney and came back with glowing reviews of Australia. We were very excited by the prospect of doing the same,” says Dr Livingstone, a Townsville University Hospital psychiatry consultant. “It was meant to be a year out, but then we chose to stay because we very much enjoyed Townsville and the lifestyle.”

With his UK specialist training in intellectual disability psychiatry, Dr Livingstone has been embraced as a regional expert in the field in Australia. He is building psychiatry services for people with intellectual disability in the Townsville region, while Dr Bond is supporting junior doctors in the conjoint appointment of Deputy Director of Clinical Training (James Cook University/Townsville Hospital and Health Service).

The couple both lecture with James Cook University and love being at the forefront of developing the specialty of psychiatry at Townsville University Hospital. “Much as there's an adventure with us changing countries, setting down roots and trying to build something for our family, we're also trying to do the same for our specialty,” Dr Livingstone says.

“When you choose psychiatry, you're actually opening up more options because there are so many subspecialties you can choose from, and you can get that experience in Townsville. We have specialty clinics which allow that variety of training in areas such as eating disorders, neuro psychiatry and perinatal care.”

Both doctors fell in love with the Townsville lifestyle and the options available to their family. Dr Bond says their colleagues have become a surrogate family.

“Within a few months of moving to Townsville, I realised I didn’t want to leave,” she says. “The lifestyle was unreal and I loved the beautiful scenery, the weather, the friendly people. I was anticipating a tough few months after moving to a new town, but the reality was we fitted in quickly and Townsville became our home. Five years later, we feel really established here – we’re part of the community.”

Explore living and training in the Townsville region

NQRTH is an initiative of the Australian Government's Integrated Rural Training Pipeline (IRTP) and is facilitated by James Cook University in partnership with public and private hospitals, Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC), health services, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) and GP clinics.

Cairns region
(07) 4226 8187

Central West region
(07) 4764 1547

Mackay region
(07) 4885 7122

North West region
(07) 4764 1547

Torres and Cape region
(07) 4095 6103

Townsville region
(07) 4781 3424