Engaged with the World

Student shadows doctors in Italy during summer fellowship

When Eliana Diaz-Aceituno learned of her acceptance into the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program, she didn’t know just how in-depth her summer experience would be. On her first day at IRCCS MultiMedica hospital in Milan, a doctor performed an amputation in front of her.

“I thought I would panic in the operating room, but I ended up spending most of my time in there,” said Diaz-Aceituno, a first-generation college student and Amethyst Circle scholarship recipient. “A student shadowing in the States would not have had the close proximity to the patient undergoing surgery as I was able to.”

During the two-week fellowship, which involved up to 80 hours of shadowing health care professionals, she also had the opportunity to observe medical teams in vascular surgery, thoracic surgery and ophthalmology. “I saw cataract surgery and loved being in this department the most!” she said.

Dr. Stefano Mattioli inserts a lens during cataract surgery.
(Photo: Courtesy of Eliana Diaz-Aceituno)

On Tuesdays, she visited ICS Maugeri — one of the leading rehabilitation centers in Italy — where she shadowed nurses treating diabetic foot disease. The institution was established in 1959 by Dr. Pio Maugeri, an Italian physician who was passionate about improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. “I learned a lot of new terminology and was able to ask as many questions as I needed. Nothing was left unanswered,” said Diaz-Aceituno.

Initially, she hesitated to apply for the fellowship due to the language barrier, but as a Business Spanish minor who speaks fluent Spanish, she found the challenge easy enough to overcome. “Italian is so close to Spanish that I was able to understand a good chunk of what was being spoken,” she said.

Diaz-Aceituno (middle) with other student participants in the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program in Milan
(Photo: Massimiliano Vailati)

In addition to acquiring invaluable medical knowledge firsthand, Diaz-Aceituno witnessed the intricacies of the Italian health care system. “In Italy, the doctor and patient have more of a personal relationship than here in the U.S.,” she explained. “Health care in Italy is universal, and most of the funds for it come from taxes. Some of the doctors that I had the pleasure of meeting spoke about their incomes being heavily taxed, but they feel that some tweaks could be made to improve the experience for their patients. Despite having accessible health care, some patients find themselves waiting for months at a time to be seen by a specialist.”

Last year, Diaz-Aceituno, a Chemistry major, participated in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program, where she heard about the Doctors in Italy program through the connections she made in professor Christine Hughey’s lab. 

The Doctors in Italy fellowship launched in 2018, in partnership with the most prestigious hospitals in Italy. Students travel from all over the world to shadow surgeons in their daily activities. The program fosters international collaboration and demonstrates the power of experiential learning, while undergraduates, like Diaz-Aceituno, build relationships, gain confidence and bring that professionalism back to their universities.

The fellowship also balances intensive clinical rotation at the hospitals with deep immersion in Italian culture. “I didn’t just stay in Milan. I got to see other cities as well, like Verona, Venice and even Lugano, Switzerland. … I met people from all walks of life, not just from the health care setting, which added to my experience,” she said.

Entering her third year at JMU, Diaz-Aceituno has an important takeaway from her time abroad — seek direction or guidance when needed. “I learned to be OK with not knowing certain things, because I can always ask and there will be someone willing to answer my questions.”

Set to graduate in 2025, Diaz-Aceituno aspires to narrow down her studies to a single field of medicine and continue pursuing research, internship and shadowing opportunities. “I’ve always known that I wanted to do something health-related, and [Doctors in Italy] helped to clarify that for me,” she said.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to do something health-related, and [Doctors in Italy] helped to clarify that for me.”
Eliana Diaz-Aceituno