Afghanistan: ‘Some Of The Hugs They Give Me Literally Make Me Quiver’

Where does all that energy come from? I call it a ‘rainbow of cultures’ – different personalities from different places, all come together here to make sure the local people have a future. This Centre is a school as well as a hospital. We teach technical work, hone professional skills and train Afghan staff. As we explain to everyone, we don’t just treat people here. We take care of them.

The work demands a lot of you. It’s overwhelming but it’s exciting. It gives all our staff positive energy. It means putting into practice the fundamental principles of life: happiness, empathy, knowledge, the ability to understand other people’s suffering. You need to wear a smile, to make the hospital – a place of pain – as comfortable and positive as possible.

When I see this mindset translate into professional results, I realise the more precise meaning of positive energy. I realise it when I see the difference made by humility, the thing I’ve learnt more than any other on my missions in the last few years.

I sense more and more people are being overcome by hatred, intolerance, racism and frustration. But being here in Panjshir has confirmed my belief that only humility can help create something beautiful. The reason is simple. Humility takes us back to our basic state, that of being human, which, like diversity, enriches us.

Want to know how I got here? I’ve been with this organisation for coming up to six years, but I feel like I’ve lived here for ever. I’ll start off by saying that I’m a proud Sicilian. I love the whole story of Magna Graecia. We’ve got Aeschylus’ resting place, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s On Dreams, the cradle of Homer’s myths, the cyclopes, the winds, the Phoenicians, the Arabs, a meeting point of different cultures. I love the place I’m from, with all its contradictions.

I grew up in the Madonie mountains, in a little country town in the province of Palermo. After high school, I enrolled in the faculty of literature and philosophy at the University of Palermo. That was in the early nineties, which is also when EMERGENCY was founded.

Meanwhile, I had begun working for a small Sicilian charity. My first journey with them was to Chiapas, in Mexico, during the Zapatista uprising. That’s where I got to know Stefania, the woman I fell in love with, and where I found out that medicine, in crises, can be a form of resistance.

I was so convinced of this that once I was back in Sicily, I decided to study medicine. Then I went back to Mexico, to specialise in paediatrics. Stefania and I spent 17 years of our lives in Latin America. Our daughter Sofia was born there.

If people ask me what it’s like going on a mission with your family, I tell them it’s like going on a mission within a mission, and the most incredible mission in the world, because you’re sharing it with the most important people in your life.

In 2014, the Ebola epidemic struck Sierra Leone. Stefania and I wanted to do something practical to help, so off we went again, but this time with EMERGENCY. First, I went as a paediatrician, then Stefania as a pharmacy logistician. We were taking on one of the most lethal viruses in the history of mankind, a horrendous epidemic and an enormous challenge. They called us the ‘Ebola fighters’. We stayed there throughout the whole epidemic.

In that time, we did check-ups on thousands of children, some of them seriously malnourished. I think I can remember every one of their stories, but one boy’s in particular struck me. His name was Mohamed but everyone called him the Poet. He was 11 years old and weighed less than three stone when I met him in first aid. He looked like a skeleton, lying there on the stretcher. As soon as he saw us, he said, ‘Don’t blame my mother for how I am. She’s done everything she can.’ He was so small, but so intelligent and aware. He was just a child and yet he spoke about his pain in such an adult way. He died one Sunday morning, with a smile on his face. I’ll never forget him.

Today I’m at Anabah, in Afghanistan, where we look after children through every phase of treatment. We do it because if one person is weak, society is weak, and both need protecting.

When a child dies, it weakens a family. A piece of their future dies.
And when a mother dies, so does the nucleus of a family. They lose everything.

I try to get that across to all our staff, from the student who wants to learn from us, to the nurse in the theatre, to the cleaner taking care of every spot in the hospital. I do so because I want to get over every barrier, over those first feelings of shyness. When a mother and I first look into each other eyes, that’s when I realise I’ve done it. I realise it too when new patients and their families start calling me by my nickname here – I’m Pierpaolo, the Skinny Doctor.

Some of the hugs they give me literally make me quiver.

Now and again, when Stefania and I are talking about the years we’ve spent around the world, do you know what little Sofia tells me? ‘Dad, I want to go on a mission.’

But that’s a story for another time.
For now, I’ll have to love you and leave you!

Pierpaolo, the Skinny Doctor


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