From scrums to stethoscope

28th January 2023 | Back to News
From scrums to stethoscope
DOCTOR, DAD and RUGBY STALWART: A decision to return to study medicine has paid off for Dr Coll Campbell who is now able to serve his community as a GP and also give back to the sport he loves, as team doctor for Poverty Bay and the Heartland XV rugby teams. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell

Gisborne man Dr Coll Campbell was a mature student when he went back to study medicine. After pursuing a rugby career for most of his youth, a final injury in his mid-twenties meant a change in direction and a return to full-time study. Now working at Three Rivers Medical as a GP, he talks to Kim Parkinson . . .

“It's every Kiwi kid's dream to play for the All Blacks and I figured that was my last shot to play in the First Division NPC — so I moved to Tauranga and played for Tauranga Sport under former Māori All Black Errol Brain.”

Coll Campbell was born and raised in Gisborne. He attended Te Wharau Primary School, Gisborne Intermediate and Gisborne Boys' High School.

“I probably didn't apply myself as much as I could've academically at high school. I did sports and arts and music and kept my options broad,” he reflects.

“I was happy playing rugby in the first 15 where we were in the top four schools in the country at the time.”

Coll said he had a few opportunities to “crack it and turn pro” over the years.

“I would have great seasons and get pretty close and then have an injury and rehab which would set me back. I did that about three times and made a couple of comebacks.”

It was after the last one that he decided to pursue medicine.

“I was getting to the point where I couldn't keep battering my body. I thought I'd kinda done my dash. I'd given it my best and now needed to focus on the long term.”

He played with a lot of good rugby players, many of whom have gone on to become All Blacks and Super Rugby players.

After graduating from high school in 2001, he headed to Otago University to study towards a Bachelor of Commerce.

As well as studying, Coll started playing for Harbour Rugby Club, home to greats like Jeff Wilson and Tony Brown.

“Harbour had a great club culture. I was enjoying my rugby down there and I wasn't putting too much pressure on myself and I got picked for the Otago under 19s.

“That reignited my rugby goals and aspirations so the next couple of years were all about rugby and not so much about academics,” Coll says.

His social life at the time was also pretty exciting and colourful and he spent a lot of time at his local, the Bowling Green Tavern.

He became so well known at the “Bowler” that they offered him a job there.

“That was the start of my love affair with the Bowler. I spent about four years there and for half of it, I was running it — co-managing it with my friend Hadleigh McPherson.”

In 2007, having lived in Dunedin for almost six years, Coll was feeling the call of home.

Life circumstances, and an ageing Nan led him back to Gisborne where he reconnected with whānau and friends and started playing club rugby again.

In 2008 he got selected for Poverty Bay and then got selected for the Heartland XV.

The highlight of this was a two-match tournament in the USA, but what many people didn't know at the time was that Coll had fractured his foot in the semifinal game he played for Poverty Bay.

“I managed to pass my medical and still go on the tour, but it was very challenging. When everyone was socialising I'd be back in the hotel room with my foot in a bucket of ice, waiting for the Voltaren to kick in.”

They won both matches against the Pacific Coast Grizzlies and USA XV, and after the final whistle Coll thought it was safe to put on his moonboot. Until that time he'd just been sleeping in it.

His performance for the Heartland team in America opened doors for him and he had an offer to ply his trade in Tauranga in the hopes of making the Bay of Plenty team.

“It's every Kiwi kid's dream to play for the All Blacks and I figured that was my last shot to play in the First Division NPC — so I moved to Tauranga and played for Tauranga Sport under former Māori All Black Errol Brain.”

Sadly, he got injured with a hamstring tear at the end of the club season just when people were starting to take notice.

He went on a brief OE to the UK in 2010 where rugby featured again in his life. He was coaching with his old GBHS coach Kim Harris and also got back into playing for Matlock Bath.

He was plagued by injury yet again, this time sustaining a significant injury to his neck and decided to call it quits.

By this time he had started to think about doing medicine and had researched the pathways he would need to take.

“My dad getting really sick crystallised that decision-making process for me.”

His dad survived 12 hours of surgery; an aortobifemoral bypass for an infected aneurysm stent where his stents were removed and donor vessels for the bypass graft taken from his arms and legs and essentially re-plumbed.

“That was the longest day of my life. I've never been that religious, but I prayed to something that day – and said if he pulled through I'd pay if forward and go back to university to do medicine.”

His dad is still alive and doing well 12 years later.

Coll was in the 2011 intake for the Certificate of Health Science — a foundation year to prepare him for medical school.

He was very thankful for the help and support he received from the MAPAS (Māori and Pacific Administration Scheme) team who provided pastoral care, a support network and advocacy group.

“Getting into medicine was extremely hard and there was still that stigma that I'd used the old bro-card entry to gain an unfair advantage by being enrolled as a MAPAS student.”

“What people don't realise is that everyone who gets into medicine via the pathway still has to meet all the high standards of entry. The only difference is that the pathway was established to create a health workforce that better reflects the people of our country, with the goal of improving inequities.”

But he learned how to study hard and had to achieve an A grade average.

Coll spent seven years in medical school and graduated in 2018.

During his final year of training at Gisborne Hospital he met the love of his life, dietitian Sara Bodel, and they are expecting baby number two in March.

He nearly missed the birth of his first child, Callan, who came the same day he was sitting his paediatric diploma exam in Wellington. Fortunately he managed to reschedule a flight and made it just in time.

“I was so distracted knowing Sara was in labour — I thought I'd failed.”

But he passed and Callan is now two years old.

In 2021 he inherited the job of team doctor for Poverty Bay from one of his mentors Dr Patrick McHugh who shoulder tapped him for the role.

He is also team doctor for the Heartland XV team, so rugby continues to play a big part in his life.

It was while doing primary care at Gisborne Hospital as a second-year resident doctor that he realised he wanted to specialise and become a GP.

He now has his own patient roll and works under the mentorship of Dr Fergus Aitcheson, one of the partners at Three Rivers.

“A big part of the reason I chose Three Rivers was because of the support and mentorship I thought I would get there and the experience.

“The biggest reward is seeing a patient chronologically and knowing that you have improved their health — they reflect that back and are very grateful.”

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