Study abroad experiences in Italy, Spain showcase health on a global scale
Within 10 minutes of stepping inside a hospital in Italy, Ryan O’Connor, saw her first live birth. She saw two more births, including a C-section, that same day.
The sophomore University of Delaware occupational therapy (OT) major was shocked by the opportunities she was afforded inside the walls of San Martino Hospital, a teaching hospital in Genoa, Italy.
“When we’re watching the surgeries, we’re right next to the surgeon in the sterile field — so close you could touch a body,” O’Connor said. “I’ve never shadowed surgery in the U.S., but I doubt we’d be that close.”
Sophomore sports health major Victoria Ciatto traveled to Barcelona, Spain, because she wanted to see how the other side of the world deals with athletes. She had a rare opportunity to watch Olympians train inside the Madrid Olympic Training Center.
“We saw the best javelin thrower in Spain training,” Ciatto said. “We saw the women’s gymnastics team practice, and the gymnastics coach sat down with us and walked us through an athlete’s normal day.”
Unique experiences like these inspired O’Connor and Ciatto, who had never been abroad before, to take a risk and travel abroad during UD’s Winter Session.
“This experience makes me wish I knew another language. The doctors here, most of them, speak three languages,” O’Connor said. “I know my future patients will come from different backgrounds and ethnicities, so this experience gave me a new perspective.”
College of Health Sciences Dean William Farquhar and Thomas Buckley, associate professor of kinesiology and applied physiology (KAAP), led 32 students on the trip to Barcelona. Farquhar said the experience has better connected him to students and motivated him as dean to support student-centered programs that facilitate career success.
“The experience reminds me why I am in higher ed –– to help students get ahead in a competitive world,” Farquhar said. “Immersive experiences like study abroad can expand a student’s mindset. Travel provides an opportunity to view the world through an expanded lens, and then apply this new perspective to any field of study.”
The group also took a Flamenco dancing class and attended a soccer game in Barcelona.
“It was insane. Nothing will ever beat the atmosphere inside that stadium,” Ciatto said.
During a tour of the stadium, Ciatto also noticed mind games at play.
“Barcelona’s locker room is full of bright colors while the visitor’s locker room is dark and dim. Leaving the visitor’s locker room, the walls are full of pictures of Barcelona’s wins to try to get into the other team’s head,” Ciatto said.
In Genoa, Italy, each week, students go on rotation, shadowing doctors in general surgery, neonatology, gynecology, urology, and orthopedics at San Martino, and in emergency and neurology at a local children’s hospital.
Sophomore biology major Alexia Vieites said she thought she would be viewing surgeries from a gallery or through a window. But instead, she was in the room when a laparoscopy went awry.
“They ended up having to cut the patient open to control a big bleed,” Vieites said. “It was interesting to see them under pressure in that kind of environment.”
Matthew Carr, a sophomore human physiology major in the Medical Scholars Program, spent some time shadowing and volunteering in U.S. hospitals and instantly noticed a different vibe.
“In Europe, the environment is more relaxed and less stressful,” Carr said. “In America, even as a volunteer, I’d have to use my badge to access every room. Here, you can just walk in anywhere, and the doors are unlocked.”
Emma Cunningham, a junior exercise science major on the pre-physical therapy (PT) track, witnessed the hospital’s first-ever robotic knee replacement surgery.
“It was supposed to take one hour, and it took four hours because there were so many complications,” Cunningham said. “None of the new residents were allowed to be in the room, but they wanted the Americans to be in there, and they explained the entire procedure in English.”
She couldn’t imagine a scenario like this in the U.S.
“There were debates going on in the operating room, and they still took the time to teach us every step of the way,” Cunningham said.
Saskia Richter, director of UD’s Medical Scholars Program and assistant professor of KAAP who led the study abroad trip to Italy along with Caroline Tillman, academic program coordinator for the Center for Health Profession Studies. Richter called these experiences one-of-a-kind.
“They get a true shadowing experience here while a surgeon in the U.S. is likely not going to let you into their operating room unless you have a personal connection with them,” Richter said.
It was one of several differences in the healthcare systems students observed first-hand. In Italy, anesthesia is used far less than in the U.S.
“They only use a nerve block and light sedation to promote a faster recovery,” Cunningham said. “During the robotic knee replacement surgery, the doctors were screaming, and the patient was awake for the entire procedure.”
Surgeries, even high-tech robotic ones, in Europe are free under the universal healthcare system where healthcare workers are the equivalent of public servants. The same surgery in America’s privatized healthcare system could cost up to $70,000 in the U.S.
“Major surgeries that people need can take weeks in Europe. A patient here had a large tumor in his stomach causing pain and discomfort, but he couldn’t get into the operating room for a few weeks,” Carr said. “In the U.S., we have issues with access to healthcare, but a patient could get that lifesaving surgery the next day. The grass isn’t always greener, but sometimes it is.”
Many students wouldn’t witness surgeries like this until medical school, perhaps after they’ve already invested tens of thousands of dollars in their education.
“This is truly the moment for sophomores and juniors to decide whether they want to spend a quarter million dollars on med school,” Richter said. “For students who are studying PT or OT, sometimes, they realize medical school is something they want to pursue.”
For Vieites, her time spent in San Martino Hospital reinforced that her path forward involves medical school.
“The second I saw them remove a tumor, I was intrigued,” Vieites said. “The next day, seeing the patient with a smile on their face showed me -- I want to help people and put a smile back on their face.”