Carlo Urbani was an Italian doctor and microbiologist. He received his medical degree from the University of Ancona and subsequently specialized in infectious diseases at the University of Messina.
In 1996 he joined Doctors Without Borders, the non-governmental organization that works in countries beset by various endemic diseases, often in some of the world’s poorest countries.
In 1999, at age 43, he was part of the Doctors Without Borders delegation that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “in recognition of the organization’s pioneering humanitarian work on several continents.” With his share of the prize money he started a humanitarian fund to campaign for better access to necessary medicines for the world’s most needy populations.
If his career had ended at this point, it would have been a resounding success since the work he had done to that point had relieved much suffering in the world.
Four years later, he would save many more lives, and it ended up costing him his life.
In early 2003, while working for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Hanoi, Urbani responded to a request by the French Hospital to investigate a “severe case of flu” in a newly arrived patient.
When he examined the man, he chillingly concluded that this was not the flu. Instead, it appeared to be an unknown and highly contagious new respiratory disease.
After he made this diagnosis, he immediately notified WHO headquarters in Geneva of this disturbing information. As a result of his recognition of the potential scope of the problem, the WHO mobilized an immediate emergency public health response. Their aggressive actions helped catch the problem early enough to ensure it did not spread unchecked throughout the world. This early notification is credited with saving countless lives. The illness, which did not yet have a name, was later called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Urbani spent several days at the French Hospital coordinating the response and establishing strict isolation and quarantine protocols, which were so effective they are also credited with helping stop the spread of the disease.
On March 11, 2003, on a plane from Hanoi to Bangkok where he was to speak at a conference, he began developing symptoms of SARS. A colleague who met him on the ground in Bangkok called an ambulance. As suspected, the diagnosis in the hospital was SARS. He caught the contagion while treating patients and leading the response in Hanoi.
He was isolated in his room at the Bangkok hospital, pursuant to the protocols he established for SARS patients, and was forced to communicate with others through an intercom.
His condition rapidly deteriorated, and as his lung function declined he was put on a respirator. During his final hours, he asked for Last Rites from a priest and asked that his lung tissue be donated for research into the disease. He died, after 18 days in intensive care, on March 29, 2003, a victim of SARS.
Urbani is considered a public health hero for his quick thinking and recognition that the ailment the patient in Hanoi suffered from was something new and dangerous. This led to him notifying officials in Geneva, and the start of the emergency worldwide public health response. He is also lauded for taking the lead to establish the protocols on the ground in Hanoi that helped prevent it from becoming more widespread than it eventually did.
He is an example of level-headed bravery and professionalism.
Men need purpose in their lives. This purpose will be different for each man. Ideally, each man’s professional life will align with his passion. For Urbani, fighting infectious diseases and protecting the lives of other people was his passion, and he was willing to risk his life for others.
He died doing what he loved to do. In sacrificing his life, Urbani lived out John 15:13, which says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
In this instance, his “friends” were the entire world that was at risk of this new and heretofore unknown disease.
When doctors at the French Hospital were unable to properly diagnose the patient, and thought they had a severe case of the flu, Urbani was called in because of his expertise.
Upon arriving, he did what any professional would do – he investigated, and his experience helped him determine that he was dealing with something entirely new. Without notifying the WHO of this new disease, the lives lost due to SARS would have been exponentially greater.
He then, at great risk to himself, put into place procedures to help contain the disease. He did all this while treating the SARS patient with the full knowledge of what might befall him if he caught the contagious disease.
Dr. Urbani did not have to put himself into dangerous situations. With his background, knowledge, and fame, he could have lived a comfortable life outside of potentially dangerous situations. This demonstrates his bravery and heroism.
We all painfully know the effect pandemics can have on the entire world and are aware of how vulnerable we all are to novel contagious viruses. We know how important it is to catch them early so that public health officials can put into place plans to stop them. While SARS ultimately caused the deaths of 774 people in 17 countries with a fatality rate of 9.6%, it could have been much worse.
Simply put, Dr. Urbani was a hero to the entire world. The number of people alive today because of his actions is incalculable.
By Chris D.
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