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Global learning: APSU students take on Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program

By: Ethan Steinquest August 8, 2023

Scarlett Morales Pon in Italy.
Freshman medical lab science major Scarlett Morales Pon in Italy. 

Two Austin Peay State University (APSU) students spent their summer breaking down boundaries and embracing global learning through the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program, which was created to allow future healthcare leaders to study internationally.

Shelby Batson, who graduated from APSU in May with a degree in biochemistry, and Scarlett Morales Pon, a freshman medical lab science major, were able to shadow medical professionals in top-ranked Italian hospitals and immerse themselves in the local culture after being selected for the program.

“I feel like I have a better understanding of what it means to be a doctor,” Batson said. “We saw a lot of amazing, wonderful things, but we also saw a lot of tough days for people … that’s very challenging, but I think it’s important to see that part of medicine and know what you’re getting into.”

Batson traveled to Rome for two weeks in May and spent each day learning the ins and outs of a new medical specialty.  She received a comprehensive look at San Giovanni Addolorata Hospital's operations, from cardiology and internal medicine to OB-GYN and neonatal care.

Morales Pon’s two-week June fellowship took her to the historic city of Bologna in northern Italy, where she worked with doctors specializing in cardiovascular internal medicine at Policlinico Di Sant’Orsola Malphigi. She said the shadowing hours were essential in preparing for her post-graduate career.

“It’s definitely going to help me with the pre-physician’s assistant program that I’m going to apply for after graduating, and it’s also made me want to be more deeply involved with my career,” Morales Pon said. “The program helped me understand things I’d forgotten, and I’d like to go back to Italy and do more shadowing.”

 Making the cut

Italian city skyline.Batson and Morales Pon learned about the fellowship opportunity through emails from their professors. However, they had to go through Doctors in Italy’s application process before making the trip. 

After submitting their GPAs, outlining their career goals and making solid impressions during Zoom interviews, the two were selected to participate in the program over the summer.

“I was excited because one of the things I’ve always wanted to do was go to Italy, so doing my shadowing hours there was pretty much perfect for me,” Morales Pon said. “I was looking up information about the hospital [I went to], and their page said it was one of the most important in Italy with excellent programs and medical schooling.”

Morales Pon aims to become a physician’s assistant and transferred to APSU last semester after moving to Memphis from Honduras. She previously studied for four years at a dental school in her home country and wanted to continue her education in the medical field.

Batson plans to apply for medical school after gaining clinical experience in the Clarksville area to work in dermatology or neonatal intensive care. She knew the fellowship would help her reach those goals, but she initially worried about being accepted.

“I didn’t feel like I had a chance to get it,” she said. “I had looked at their Instagram page and saw there was a student from Yale who went. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I didn’t know the odds of getting in, but I was so excited … I felt like it would make me more prepared to serve people here by learning about other cultures.”

To prepare for her interview, Batson extensively researched the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program and answered practice questions over the phone. Her efforts paid off, and soon she was on her way overseas.

Shelby Batson in Italy.
APSU graduate Shelby Batson learns how to prepare Italian cuisine in Rome. 

Broadening horizons: Shelby Batson’s journey in Rome 

 Batson quickly connected with her fellow students when they arrived in Italy, and they spent four days a week shadowing medical professionals. She said having a group to share the experience with made it even more valuable.

“We all kept journals and wrote down things about the patients so we could remember them and think of them later,” she said. “We’d sit down as a group, review our notes and discuss each patient. I think that’s where I got the most value because when you’re in the hospital, you’re jotting everything down and trying to absorb it all.”

Spending time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) particularly impacted Batson, and she said it made her consider going into that field herself.

“Each doctor would have four or five babies they were taking care of, and as soon as I walked in, the doctor could tell me all the information on their charts without even opening them,” she said. “He was so good with the mothers, and I think it comforted them … a few of the babies were discharged while I was there, which was sweet. I didn’t think I’d ever be interested in something like that, but I appreciated it.”

Batson was also impressed with the hospital’s breast cancer unit, which provided free cosmetic surgery, wigs and makeup workshops to boost women’s self-esteem as they went through chemotherapy.

“In the NICU and oncology offices, they’d have pictures to comfort patients,” she said. “There were photos of premature babies next to ones the mother had sent in of them at 3 years old playing, and pictures of women in chemo alongside a picture of them two years later happy and healthy. I appreciated how encouraging all the doctors were.”

A closer look at medicine: Scarlett Morales Pon’s trip to Bologna

Scarlett Morales Pon at Policlinico Di Sant’Orsola Malphigi.Morales Pon’s time in Bologna was more specifically focused on cardiovascular internal medicine, and she experienced everything from day-to-day interactions with patients to emergency operations. 

“The first week was about building a connection with the patients, talking to them and learning what was going on,” she said. “We pretty much followed the doctors and some of their medical students while they did everyday checkups of patients.”

After that, the students spent two days shadowing doctors in the emergency room and three days learning from surgical professionals. Morales Pon said she especially appreciated being able to stand near the operating table.

“Normally, when you’re shadowing, the doctors want you to be a bit further away so they can do their work,” she said. “But since I had the primary doctor showing me, they let me be close to the patient to see what was happening. They asked me about nerves and arteries and questioned me to help me understand the body's anatomy and what was happening.”

Morales Pon said that experience was more valuable than time in the classroom because the procedures were happening right in front of her.

“In the surgical unit, I learned many simple things,” she said. “But when you take anatomy or see these things in a textbook, it’s not the same as when you’re looking at a real live person … [and] we’d see what was happening with lots of different patients, from kids to older people.”

The trip also allowed Morales Pon to explore the differences between healthcare systems and cultures in the U.S. and Italy.

“In Italy, there’s more connection between the patient and the doctor,” she said. “[I saw] more talking, care and understanding … Italians are very open and charismatic, and they’re not afraid to be close to one another.”

Cultural experiences

Sightseeing in Italy.Learning more about Italian culture was a significant aspect of the fellowship, both inside and outside the hospital. Batson and Morales Pon were given the weekends to explore the country with their fellow students.

“I’ve never been across the country, so it was really exciting,” Batson said. “One weekend, five of us went to Sorrento and Pompeii. We planned a trip to visit Pompeii for the day, then took a train to Sorrento and stayed the night there.”

The students also enjoyed authentic Italian cuisine after their shifts at the hospital, learned parts of the language from translators during their shadowing hours and visited many other historic locations.

“I went to Rome and Venice on the weekend, which was very interesting,” Morales Pon said. “Between the week, we went to the historical parts of Bologna, including the oldest university in Europe. It had an anatomy table with chairs all around the room facing directly toward it, and it was from medieval times.”    

Batson and Morales Pon said APSU helped set them up for success by connecting them with the fellowship opportunity and that the University has helped them throughout their time as Govs.

Aspiring doctors, nurses, physician assistants, veterinarians, dentists, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals are encouraged to apply for the same experience through the Doctors in Italy Fellowship Program’s website.

“Austin Peay is really there when you need them, and the professors are great,” Morales Pon said. “There’s not a lot of distance between the students and teachers; they understand and try to help you grow and succeed. Everything connects to make you better.”