Grazie! Trine student experiences diverse medical fields in Italy

November 08, 2022

As she looks ahead to starting Trine University’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, Natalee Kunse wants to get as much exposure to different types of medicine as possible.

Over the summer, that desire took her to Italy.

After completing her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at Trine in May, Natalee took part in the Doctors in Italy fellowship program, which allows participants to shadow physicians in that nation across multiple disciplines.

See the world

Natalee said after being restricted from travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, she wanted to get out and see the world. She also, after deciding in the spring to continue on to physician assistant school, wanted to gain exposure to more medical specialties.

She began looking into study abroad programs, and a friend suggested Doctors in Italy.

“After finding their social media, I really liked the content and the activities that were shown,” she said.

She completed an online application, and once it was approved, interviewed for a spot. In April, she was able to choose her destination from Milan, Genova and Rome.

“I picked Genova,” she said. “I felt that I would get a better cultural experience in a city with much less tourism. It was more centrally located, so travel was easier.”

She left for Europe on June 26 and spent a week with my family in Zurich, Switzerland. On July 3, she took the train from Zurich to Genova, staying in Italy for three weeks.

“When I first entered Italy on the train, I was shocked at the variety of landscapes,” Natalee said. “Some of the Swiss Alps extend into the northern part of the country. The middle of the country is very dry and flat, and then the coastline is some of the most beautiful blue water I have ever seen.”

In addition to being impressed with the scenery, she quickly noticed how relaxed life in Italy is compared to the United States.

“When going out to dinner, you eat out for one and a half to two hours,” she said. “Everything shuts down in the afternoon from 1-3ish for lunch. The pace of life is much slower.”

She also quickly learned about other differences between the nations, including a lower cost of living and ease of public transportation in Italy. She also said that in Europe a tip is included in the restaurant bill rather than paid separately to a server.

Different healthcare systems, specialties

Over her time in the program, she observed 12 different specialties at Galliera Hospital in Genova. Built in 1877, the hospital looks over the Mediterranean Sea.

Each day started about 7 a.m., when Natalee’s group ate breakfast at their hotel.

“Italian breakfast is very sweet with lots of coffee, cakes, fruit and pastries,” she recalled.

At 7:35, they would walk to the bus stop for a 15-minute bus ride to the hospital, arriving about 8 a.m. The students then met with their group advisor find out which department they would shadow that day, then go to the department.

Students shadowed their assigned doctor, normally sitting next to the doctor in patient rooms or following them through rounds.

“We were not allowed to touch patients, but we were still expected to follow the sterile field and dress code. This included our lab coat and closed-toed shoes,” Natalee said. “We were always encouraged to take notes and ask questions. With older patients the conversations were usually in Italian, but younger generations were able to speak English very well.”

The experience gave Natalee the opportunity to see how a universal healthcare system works, since Italy’s hospitals are owned by the nation’s government. The program also gave her the opportunity to experience more types of medicine than she would have over three weeks In the United States.

“I was able to watch a Cesarean section and live birth,” she said. “I fell in love with the neonatal unit and obstetrics. One day I hope to work in those departments, and I am looking forward to studying them in PA school.”

Beautiful cities, delicious food

When they weren’t shadowing, the group was able to travel and take part in activities around the city.

“We did a historical tour and a cooking class,” Natalee recalled. “The days we did not have anything we would catch a train and go to the beaches in the Italian Riviera. We could ride the train anywhere. We went to Milan one afternoon for shopping. Portofino another day for a hike.”

“The weekends were ours to explore. We would take the train and venture to other countries like France or Monaco. Every night usually ended with gelato or tiramisu.”

She enjoyed traveling solo, which forced her to get comfortable with public transportation but allowed her to explore and move much faster than if she was in a large group. One of her favorite memories, she said, was sightseeing in Florence.

“I was able to visit the Ponte Vecchio bridge and see all the famous gold shops,” she said. “The buildings and the architecture are nothing like I had ever seen before. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is the most breathtaking architectural feature I have ever seen.”

Another favorite memory was closer to her base in Genova.

“We visited a local Italian farm in Genova,” she said. “There was no road to get to the farm by car; you had to walk the last half-mile. The family grew everything from peaches to tomatoes. They made us homemade bruschetta and other Italian dishes. The produce was so fresh it would drip down your arms as you ate.”

Physician assistant preparation

Natalee is currently working at Parkview Regional Medical Center in Fort Wayne as a health and wellness screener, and will continue in that job until she starts PA school in fall 2023. She said her experience in Italy gave her a great introduction to a variety of medical specialties as she prepares to start the next phase of her education.

“I was able to observe surgeries such as a kidney stone removal and a gastrectomy, something I would not be able to do in the United States until I was much farther in my schooling,” she said.

She said the program also helped her determine which fields she would like to work in, and gave her a greater appreciation for all hospital workers.

“Working in hospitals is not an easy job at any level,” she said.

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