“Espressos and Surgeries: A Study Abroad Trip to Italy” by Alex Stone

It is Monday morning. I am on the bus, overhearing conversations in Italian. I am holding onto the overhead bar for dear life as the bus speedily whips around the sharp corner up the hill. We pass small cars, historic buildings, and apartments with laundry hanging from the balcony. I am still groggy from the lack of sleep since my body hasn’t adjusted to the new time zone yet. But at the same time, I am jittery and excited; the espresso I drank that morning along with adrenaline are coursing through my veins. I can see light just peeking up over the horizon as we approach our stop. When I step off the bus, my jaw drops at what I see. The sun is rising up over the water and the cliff-side homes, casting the entire city in a warm yellow and pink glow. I hear the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks below and scooters zooming by as people are headed off to work. Everyone in my group pulls out their phones to take pictures. Our site manager is finally able to draw our attention away from the spectacular view to tell us to turn around. As we do, we see towering stained-glass windows covering the front of the building and palm trees lining the path that goes up towards the top of the hill beyond the front gates. We were staring at the hospital we would be commuting to every morning for three weeks. This was how my mornings went while I studied abroad in Genoa, Italy this past winter.

I have never been abroad before, so the experience of living in a foreign city was scary enough. But I was also traveling to a country where I didn’t know the language and was shadowing doctors in a hospital for the first time. This study abroad program was designed for pre-health professions majors. We had pre-med (me), pre-PA, nursing, and OT majors on this trip. We were able to shadow three specialties of our choice at either the general or pediatric hospital in the city of Genoa (Genova as the Italians call it). I had the privilege of shadowing the orthopedic, cardiac surgery, and neurosurgery departments at the pediatric hospital, Istituto Giannina Gaslini, while I was there. I was able to see doctors interact with patients and their families, as well as how the doctors interacted with each other and other members of the medical team, including nurses, medical students, and residents. While most of the interactions we observed were in Italian, many of the doctors were still able to translate what was said into English for us, making this experience such an amazing way to be immersed in and learn about the Italian culture and healthcare system. I learned how medical students begin medical school right after high school, and that medical school is six years instead of four years after undergrad, like it is here in the U.S. Also, for many patients in Italy, they pay little to nothing for their procedures or check-ups, including procedures like brain and open-heart surgeries (both of which I saw while I was there). I am beyond grateful for this opportunity where I learned so much about another culture and its healthcare, and that I got to explore such a beautiful place.

Speaking of exploring, besides shadowing in the hospital all day, we had group excursions on the weekends. We traveled to Santa Margherita and Portofino one weekend and Turin the next. We even had a surprise excursion to a local chocolate factory and saw how they made chocolate there. But my favorite place had to be Cinque Terre, or the five lands, which a few friends and I traveled to one weekend during our downtime. Cinque Terre was such a picturesque place where five villages sat on the hillside along the coast. We learned how to navigate the Italian train system in order to get there and saw a glimpse into what Italian life is like on a Sunday afternoon, which was so quiet and serene. That was another thing I learned about Italy; people tend to take life a lot slower than we do here in the U.S. 

As I write this blog post, I am reminded of some other differences between the U.S. and Italy. Meal time is not just about eating and refueling. It is a time to be present with friends and family. Lunch and dinner would usually last a couple hours, where shops and stores would close down from noon until three for people to go home to be with their families (And oh, before I forget, the food was amazing. I am afraid I can never eat pizza or pasta here in the U.S. again. I’m sorry, but it is just not the same). In the hospital, the environment even felt more relaxed. The doctors and residents took breaks in the middle of rounds to chat, drink a very small, very bitter espresso and snack on some homemade focaccia. I learned that it is sometimes better to take life a little slower—drink some coffee while watching the sunrise in the morning. This semester, I am bringing this mindset back with me and applying it to how I approach my last semester of Honors College studies. I want to enjoy my time here before it’s gone, and I hope my fellow Honors students can do the same. 

And before you go, guess what? The Honors College is going to Italy for study abroad during Winter 2024. And while you wouldn’t be shadowing doctors at a hospital, the program will still be a great way to connect with other Honors students and learn more about another culture. Be sure to keep your eye out for information about the program!

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1 Comment

  1. Alex – great plug for Dr. Fox’s trip to Italy next winter!

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