Chiara Lepora: An unconventional path to humanitarian work

I became a doctor for romantic love, but along the way, I fell in love with my work.

Head of the Manson Unit / Deputy medical director of OCA at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Chiara has worked in emergency medicine both in Italy and France before joining Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in 2002. She has worked as a humanitarian doctor for both MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross. She also taught Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver and co-authored “On Complicity & Compromise”.

Early childhood: growing up feeling different

One of my first memories of childhood is being in a cherry tree. I didn’t go to kindergarten, stayed at home with my grandparents, and spent a lot of time on that tree. I was content with that life with my grandparents for a while because other people didn’t have the right to climb my cherry tree unless invited. My siblings were at school, and as the youngest, it was a chance to be alone. It was my kingdom.

Image by Chira Lepora

Experiencing different forms of love

My siblings and I are really different; I think it has something to do with our upbringing experiences. They all went to kindergarten, and I didn’t. I was told it was because I was there to keep my grandmother company after the passing of her son, my father’s brother. I don’t know if that’s the case; as children, we accept what we’re told without questioning things, but I think there may have been more to it. Whatever the case, my grandma and I grew close; she was from a gypsy family. My siblings are much more similar to my parents, they all live in the same village we grew up in, but I moved away quite early. My grandfather said, ‘maybe it’s the gypsy blood that skipped a generation.’

Image by Chiara Lepora

Pursuing a career for love of another

Growing up, I was a sad teenager; I was very disaffected, and my perspective was very dark. I don’t think there are exact causes for everything; it could just be who I am. For university, I went to study medicine, inspired by passion and love, not the love of medicine. It was all a plan so I could go and live with my lifelong friend and love.

Image by Chiara Lepora

We met when we were four years old. I still remember the day I first met her at the playground. I went over to her; she was on the swing, and she very kindly got off the swing to let me go on the swing; I asked her, ‘what’s your name?’ ‘Chiara,’ she said, I was confused; I thought she was making fun of me because, until that moment, I was convinced Chiara was only my name. From that point and for the next 14 years, we were inseparable.

Image by Chiara Lepora

When it was time for me to go to university, Chiara and I wanted to live together away from our village. We created a strategy; because no universities nearby taught medicine, we decided to study medicine at a university away from home so that we could live and be together. I didn’t particularly like medicine, and the relationship with Chiara couldn’t withstand the bumps and bruises that come with coming-of-age growing pains. We went our separate ways, but I continued to study and continued to not enjoy it. On my graduation day, I don’t remember being happy; I just remember thinking, ‘oh, at least I don’t have to do that anymore.’

Image by Chiara Lepora

Learning that financial abundance doesn’t mean fulfillment

While I didn’t like being a doctor, I hated it when people called me ‘doctor,’ I did enjoy the financial benefits. I moved between France and Italy and lived a life I’d call almost ‘luxurious.’ I was going to the opera, hanging out in literary groups, and learning to play the flute. While I still didn’t like being a doctor, I found comfort and pleasure in that life of comfort and cultural distractions until I met someone. We were in a relationship for about three or four years, but we weren’t together much. He was always traveling, working as a humanitarian doctor, and I was staying put.

The life swap that changed my life

One day we decided that if we wanted this to work, we couldn’t keep the current dynamic, so we made a deal; I’d spend a few months living his life, then he would spend a few living mine once the experiment was over we’d pick which one we liked most and settle. At the start of the experiment, I was so cocky and sure the way I was living was superior that I said, ‘let’s try your way first,’ I thought to myself, ‘it’s not going to be nice, but I can take it for just three months, then we’d be together, reading books, going to the opera.’ An easy trade.

Finding purpose

We were sent to Angola to work as doctors providing humanitarian aid in a camp working with severely malnourished children. I witnessed so many horrendous things, many children passing away. On one particularly awful day, five children died in the hospital, children I was caring for. I’d never seen five children die in my career, let alone one day.

I remember walking home to where we were sleeping, and I heard a person running after me, and I heard them say, ‘doctor.’ I felt so proud finally to be called a doctor; the moment moved me so much that I still cry talking about it even today. I finally realized how lucky I was to be in this situation and appreciated a doctor’s positive impact on the world. All the efforts and discontent I had before suddenly dissipated. I thought, ‘being a doctor is exactly the right thing right now; this IS what I want to be doing.’ When I started doing humanitarian work, I finally felt like I fit in, or at least there were fewer requirements for fitting in.

Image by Chiara Lepora

Throughout my career, I’ve been floored by many of my amazing colleagues’ dedication, talent, and guidance. When I was in Angola, at the clinic, I started crying; one colleague came to me, being almost hard with me, saying, ‘this is not the time for you to cry; this is their time to cry; you don’t take that from them.’ It was hard to hear but integral to my development; it made me realize I should channel my energy away from feeling depressed and channel it into being the best doctor I could be. It also helped me realize that the distinction between the aid worker and the recipient is far less defined than you would think. It’s not the poor suffering people and us helping; I don’t look at it like that. I see that there is a common humanity there we need to take care of, and if I don’t take care of that, I don’t take care of myself.

Image by Chiara Lepora

Faith in humanity

Since my first humanitarian mission in 2002, I’ve worked as a humanitarian doctor in many places around the world, including Darfur, Somalia, and South Sudan. I guess the gypsy blood theory could be right. Right now, I’m in London working as the Director of the Mason Unit within MSF.

Image by Chiara Lepora

Before my current role, at the beginning of 2020, I got stuck in Italy. They closed the airports just after I arrived, and all my upcoming jobs were canceled. MSF called me saying they were starting a project in Italy and asked whether I would like to join. We tend to think humanitarian work is only done in faraway countries in crisis, but it’s not the case. As someone who grew up in Italy, you don’t think that your country would suffer the same hardships of a country in conflict, but the needs of the country weren’t so different from Angola, but the crisis level in Italy was the same as any other in terms of need and desperation.

When MSF first started working in Italy, the locals weren’t so supportive of MSF because MSF helps and employs refugees and migrants. Somehow we’re a threat. But when residents started receiving treatment from MSF, they began to support our work. All of this was happening in my own country in a hospital just 20 minutes from where I studied to be a doctor. Human suffering is universal, and so is the effort to alleviate that suffering and the gratitude toward helping hands. I have faith in this symbolic value of humanity.

Image by Chiara Lepora

If you would like to support Chiara’s cause, you can donate to MSF or apply to their open positions here.

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