A Modern-Day Hero

By Vladimir Redzioch

Remember Dr Carlo Urbani? He was 47-year-old World Health Organization doctor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for his works with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders), www.msf.org, who discovered the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus in January 2003, only to die just three months later from the disease. His widow, Giuliana Chiorrini, speaks to Inside the Vatican about her husband and his work and the honor of being chosen by the Pope to carry the cross in the Via Crucis on Good Friday in Rome last year.

In early 2003, the Vietnamese government asked the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate a strange virus that was invading their country. The WHO Southeast Asia representative, Italian doctor Carlo Urbani, took on the task and on January 26 headed to Vietnamese hospital to visit an American businessman who was displaying unusual symptoms.

The man was seriously ill, but no one could diagnose his disease. Worried, Dr Urbani sent some blood samples to various laboratories around the world. It was thanks to his alarm that he was able to isolate the virus of an atypical pneumonia (SARS) and embark upon the necessary actions to isolate new cases of the illness.

Unfortunately, the discoverer of the dangerous virus also became its victim: when Dr Urbani flew to Bangkok for a meeting on March 11, he began to display the first symptoms of the illness, and on March 29, 2003, he died in an isolation room at the local hospital. Urbani’s wife, Giulliana, lives with their three children, Tammaso (17), Luca (9), and Maddalena (4) in Castelplanio, not far from Ancona, in the Italian Marche region.

The late Dr Carlo Urbani with his wife, Guiliana, and their three children, Maddalena, Luca and Tommaso

ITV: Your husband chose to work with the sick and poor around the world. Why?

Giuliana Chiorrini: Carlos was always involved in volunteer work and since his youth was attracted by the poor. He cultivated the desire to discover new horizons. To do this he left for Africa with the missionaries. Since his days as a young student with a backpack full of medicines, he had traveled in Africa (Mali, Niger, and Benin). Afterwards he work in solidarity camps run by the Xaverian Fathers, Catholic Action and Open Hands. He was always in contact with missionaries. As a doctor he wrote for the missionary magazine Missioni Consolata. Carlo also fulfilled his desire to help he poor during his 10 years working at the hospital in Macerata. This confirmed him in his work with Medicine Sans Fontieres, of which he was the president, and in this capacity he received the Nobel Peace Prize when it was conferred on the organization in 1999.

ITV: What role did his faith play in his choice of life?

Chiorrini: Faith has extremely important role in my husband’s life. Everything he did enriched the spiritual live of the people who were in contact with him. He was also very sensitive to the beauty of creation- he even used to go hang-gliding to admire nature.

ITVTo serve those in need, your husband agreed to go to Vietnam as the WHO representative for Southeast Asia …

Chiorrini: Going to Vietnam was a difficult move, particularly for me. The children were stimulated by their father’s example and lived this change by an adventure. For 35 years I had always lived in the same country, living the normal life of a mother. I had never thought of leaving my work and my little personal satisfactions tied to this activity. But then I told myself that I would be able to make myself useful in a new way.

ITV: You had already lived for two years in Cambodia from 1996-1997…

Chiorrini: Yes, but this time it was more difficult step to take. I had given birth only two months earlier. It was not easy to move with three children into a completely different environment. But seeing Carlo’s happiness told me it was worth it. The children, after the first impact, reacted well to fitting into the new school. Even I, once I’d got over the first difficulties, began to appreciate the beauty of being there all together. We were very happy.

ITV: What was life like for you in Vietnam?

Chiorrini: In Vietnam, Carlo worked primarily in the field, in villages. I was often left alone with the children in Hanoi. But even then I knew what he was doing. The children always felt him near, perhaps because had the capacity to involve people in his passions. And he also knew how to relate everything in a poetic way and transmit, beyond all its problems, the beauty that exists in the world.

Carlo often went to the villages with a wallet full of money, and came back with nothing. He gave away left, right and center, as he walked through the streets.

At our house we always had two or three local girls. I only needed one to help me, but Carlo would say: If we can it is a way of helping them economically. At a certain point I also realized that I could make myself more useful with small gestures, inviting the other mothers to the house or the children to play. From the Vietnamese I learned how to feel happy through simple attention such as these.

ITV: How did you learn that your husband had discovered a new virus?

Chiorrini: Carlo knew me much too well; He told me that he was working on an illness which worried him a great deal; it kept him terribly busy over his final days, and he was very tired. I remember very well one day when he said that was happening could be a great problem for humanity; many people could die because of this illness which he was comparing to the epidemic of Spanish flu which stuck in Italy in all those years ago. However, he never spoke to me about finding the new virus.

ITV: When your husband became ill, did he recognize the seriousness of it?

Chiorrini: He immediately realized the gravity of the illness; he tried to encourage me, but at the same time he left me under no illusions saying he had seen people die of the same illness over the previous weeks.

ITV: Can you tell us something about how he faced the suffering of his terminal illness? I know it is a sensitive subject but I asked in order to understand what kind of a man your husband was.

Chiorrini: The thought which tormented him most during the long days of his suffering, was fear- and at the same time the awareness - of not being able to see our children again. He wanted a photograph of them near him all the time, and his eyes filled with tears when he looked at it. When he was no longer able to speak he expressed his love for us with particular gestures.

Despite the illness and the agonizing thought that he was most probably on the point of having to leave our family above all, the three children, he still accepted his condition with faith, putting himself in the hands of the Providence and receiving the sacraments of Christian serenity.

ITV: This year, during the Via Crucis at the Colosseum, you and your son carried the cross. How did you react when you heard you had been chosen by the Holy Father, and what significance did it have for your family to participate in this Good Friday liturgy?

Chiorrini: I am a believer, as was my husband, and knowing I was to carry the cross during the Via Crucis touched me a great deal, as well as giving me an enormous joy. It was a very intense moment of the interior spirituality and in all honesty it was also very moving, with the evocative atmosphere which was created that evening.

ITV: The life of every man is a message, a sign. What is the message left to us, through life, by Carlo Urbani?

Chriorrini: I believe that Carlos was not just one message, but many: the importance of believing in yourself; of not giving up but facing all the many difficulties which one may meet in life; the desire to pursue one’s own dreams and realize them; knowing how to gather the correct symptoms and present them; to fight on against the which present themselves; to make your passion your profession; to be most concerned by the good your work is doing (rather than how much you earn); and above all, never to hold back even to the cost of sacrificing your own life.