EagleShadow officers pose for a socially distanced photo in the medicine alcove of Bapst Library's Gargan Hall. From left: Daniel Pacella, John Dempsey Jr., Rachel Lee, and Victoria Wittgen, all of the Class of 2022. (Lee Pellegrini)

​The COVID-related shutdown last spring affected most every part of the Boston College community, and it was acutely felt by Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Pre-Health students, whose “shadowing” opportunities—intensive, in-person observation of health professionals in their work settings, and the extraordinary insights these experiences offer—were eliminated for safety concerns.

Undaunted, two Pre-Health students swiftly converted crisis into opportunity and formed EagleShadow, a virtual, interactive platform designed to provide physician interface through the evaluation of actual case studies and simulated engagements, as well as mentoring options.  Developed in collaboration with the University’s Pre-Health Program, EagleShadow added two co-founders to the team, and launched last fall after an aggressive push to recruit physicians as presenters and student attendees during the summer.

As of mid-November, EagleShadow had provided BC students with more than 2,700 verified medical shadowing hours.  

“Following the shutdown, I asked myself, ‘The world’s gone virtual; how can we adapt?’” said John Dempsey Jr. ’22, president of EagleShadow’s administrative team. “I had previously founded an online medical research company based on a virtual format, so that served as a model and got us up to speed quickly. “

Joining Dempsey were Co-Vice President and Treasurer Victoria Wittgen ’22, and Co-Vice Presidents Dan Pacella ’22 and Rachel S. Lee ’22, all Pre-Health students in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences.

“For those on a pre-med track, COVID-19 restrictions halted any in-person shadowing, so EagleShadow was borne out of a need,” said Wittgen, a St. Louis native. “John and Dan immediately realized that, so our mission became ‘by students, for students.’”

“The EagleShadow program effectively filled the gap created by the COVID pandemic. There is so much hope with this program. It reduced the energy barrier for BC students interested in exploring health careers, and helps them collect and reflect upon their virtual clinical shadowing experiences to inform their decision on whether to pursue a professional health career.
Pre-Health Program director Rafael E. Luna

Pre-COVID, shadowing engagements were typically arranged on an ad hoc basis using existing BC resources or through personal or family contacts, explained Dempsey, a Schenectady, N.Y., resident. It was often expensive: Travel to and from local hospitals and clinics could sap a student’s meager budget, and the time required to fulfill the commitment might reduce or eliminate income-critical part-time jobs, factors that often excluded Pre-Health students, particularly those from low-income households. Simultaneously, the pressure to tally observation hours was intense, an overall scenario Dempsey characterized as “discouraging.”  

“The EagleShadow program effectively filled the gap created by the COVID pandemic,” said Morrissey College Associate Dean Rafael E. Luna, director of BC’s Pre-Health Program and the Gateway Scholars Program for STEM. “There is so much hope with this program. It reduced the energy barrier for BC students interested in exploring health careers, and helps them collect and reflect upon their virtual clinical shadowing experiences to inform their decision on whether to pursue a professional health career.”

The Pre-Health Program is open for all students in every major program of study. The program provides support and comprehensive advising for undergraduates and BC alumni interested in medical, dental, or veterinary careers, as well as other areas of health profession study.

According to Luna, Assistant Directors Erin Curley and Maureen Simmons provide Pre-Health advising specifically tailored to the unique competitive portfolio development of each applicant, which culminates in a faculty review, and a committee letter of endorsement.  Biology Associate Professor Danielle Taghian chairs the Faculty Pre-Health Advising Committee. While the national acceptance rate for United States medical schools is approximately 44 percent, BC-committee-endorsed applicants averaged 79 percent in 2019.    

“Most medical school admissions committees expect that successful applicants will have adequate experiences in medicine, including physician shadowing, so that both school and applicant are sure that their chosen vocation has been adequately tested and is found to be valid,” said Stephen J. Cavalieri, assistant dean for admissions and faculty member at the Creighton University School of Medicine.  “During the COVID pandemic, obtaining these experiences has become problematic if not impossible.  It’s evident that EagleShadow is a formal, well-organized virtual shadowing program that should make an excellent alternative for the now difficult, in-person physician shadowing opportunities.”

Led by Pacella and with BC Pre-Health’s sanction, EagleShadow tapped EagleDocs—a roster of alumni in health care professions who welcome shadowing inquiries from BC pre-health students—and Eagle Exchange, the BC Alumni Association’s official online mentoring platform, plus some dogged LinkedIn research, to identify and enlist presenter candidates. The request was two hours of their weekend time to discuss their “physician journey,” ranging from their initial motivations for a medical career to their current responsibilities, and to include the bad as well as the good. The response was overwhelming: Every fall weekend was booked with medical professionals willing to virtually share their experiences.  

EagleShadow guest speakers were provided with guidance for presentation design and logistical information about the virtual meeting, including a PowerPoint template and informational sheet to efficiently walk presenters through their preparation, according to Pacella, a Milford, Mass. resident. He noted that the program has solicited students’ suggestions for presenters whose perspectives, professional or personal, might offer useful insights.

Student response to an online flyer yielded 600-700 registrations and an average of between 150-200 attendees at each event.  

Dr. Catherine M. Wittgen, Victoria’s mother and program director of Surgical Critical Care at SSM St. Louis University Hospital, spoke to 195 students in October, and used the discernment questions posed by BC Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission Steven Koo at her daughter’s campus visit as her presentation guide.

“It was a great place to start,” said Wittgen.  “I used the time to think about my surgery practice and what I’m good at, and to remember all the experiences that had come together to bring me to this place. There are some pretty dark days right now in the midst of COVID, and this activity was pure joy.”  

EagleShadow also offers a COVID-safe mentoring component in which more than 60 pairings of BC upperclassmen with underclassmen are engaged in oral and written reflections on their virtual shadowing experiences, key elements in their decision to pursue a health profession, as well as providing recollections for use in medical/dental school applications and essays.

“My co-board members and I recognized the need to offer Pre-Health students opportunities to not only shadow practitioners but also to safely meet and interact with other students,” said Lee, of East Brunswick, N.J., who led the mentorship program. “The weekly meetings allowed students to reflect on the EagleShadow sessions and the practitioners’ stories, as well as exchange their own individual experiences with each other.”

According to Dempsey, EagleShadow plans to operate post-COVID, both virtually and as a tool to facilitate in-person health professional shadowing.  

“It’s a dynamic and evolving platform designed to inform the aspirations of future health care providers,” said Dempsey.

Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | February 2021