Sleepless and shadowing surgeries: study abroad in Spain

As I lay in bed, just a few hours after finishing my MCAT exam, and only a few hours before I’d leave to board a flight for my internship on the other side of the world, I thought, “are you really about to do this?” However, I simultaneously had a sense of peace, knowing I would return with a new outlook on life and enough memories to last a lifetime.

After three flights and a full day of traveling, I arrived at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I managed to construct just enough Spanish to get a taxi to the university where I would be living. As the rest of the fellows, the members of our group, began to arrive, we instantly became friends and set out to explore the city, just moments after learning one another’s names.

The USFSP Education Abroad Office recommends planning your study abroad at least six months in advance and saving one or two electives to be completed while in the program. Photo courtesy of Mikaela Williams.

I spent the weekdays shadowing doctors and surgeons in one of the largest hospitals in Spain, and rotated to a new specialty with a different physicians every week. I explored oncology, radiotherapy, pediatrics, vascular surgery (legitimately real-life Grey’s Anatomy), and trauma. I witnessed patients being told they were free of cancer, chased surgeons up flights of stairs as they raced to a patient’s bedside, experienced socialized medicine up close, and scrubbed up to step into an operating room that I felt much less than deserving of being inside of. I have yet to complete the years of medical school, board exams, and clinical training that granted those physicians their titles title of “Dr.,” yet they took me in and let me observe right from the position they fought so hard for.

During our free day during the week, we explored the surrounding cities in Spain, and on weekends I booked trips to wherever I could. I ended up in Portugal, Barcelona, Madrid, and Morocco. If you can tell from my pictures, four hours of sleep quickly became the new eight. I rode a camel, stepped in the strait of Gibraltar, ate dinner at midnight more than once, fire jumped (a cultural tradition in celebration of San Xoán day), and got to walk past one of the most holy sites in the world on the way to simply do laundry and grocery shop every week.


Spain is the world’s leader in organ donation. In Spain, citizens are marked as organ donators unless otherwise specified. Photos courtesy of Mikaela Williams.

I always try to pinpoint why I feel so drawn to and find so much joy in traveling, and I think it comes down to how it reminds me just how small of a piece I take up in this world. It exposes me to the brokenness and beauty in humanity.

I love the adventure of going somewhere I’ve never been before and experiencing it with fresh eyes. I love being in the middle of cultures and sights so foreign to me. I love feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable at times but embracing it as part of the experience and learning to abandon all expectations. I love meeting people whose passions and beliefs have never intersected with mine, yet we share the same smile.

I’ve often wondered what I was thinking when I said “yes” to traveling across the world. Why I wanted to learn in a foreign hospital away from anything remotely in my comfort zone. But after those five weeks, I wouldn’t have changed that decision for the world. I’d take memories with beautiful souls and having a story to tell over “things” any day.

If a car is towed in Spain, a note is left on the street for the owner on where to pick it up. Photo courtesy of Mikaela Williams.

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