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  • Gino Strada, An Italian Hero for World MedicineThe Year in Italy
  • Ilaria Serra (bio)

Una persona alla volta, the autobiography of Gino Strada, published by Feltrinelli, was one of the most popular books of 2022—so popular, in fact, that library copies were covered in plastic to reduce the wear and tear of many borrowings. The book has been so successful because its author makes Italians proud. Strada is a war surgeon and the founder of EMERGENCY (Life Support for Civilian War Victims), an influential nongovernmental organization with multiple centers in countries affected by conflict and poverty, offering high-quality and completely free health care for all. Inspired by the original Italian health care model (envied by all nations, according to Strada), the organization is now an official partner of the United Nations. Thus, Strada brings luster to the entire nation, even if the book itself depicts very grim landscapes.

Dr. Gino Strada was a reluctant autobiographer. He felt uncomfortable writing the book because autobiography is "un genere che proprio non fa per me" (a genre that is not really for me). He tried to complete the book because he did not like leaving things unfinished: "mi dispiace però, perché mi sembrava di lasciare qualcosa in sospeso, incompiuto" (7; I was sorry because it seemed like I was leaving something suspended, unfinished). But indeed, he left it unfinished when he died on August 13, 2021. His second wife, Simonetta Gola, who had helped him write the manuscript, reorganized and prepared it for publication.

All profits from the sales of the book go to EMERGENCY. Perhaps because of this selflessness, the author's "I" remains hidden behind a multiplicity of other subjects in this unusual autobiography. Biographical details are buried within descriptions of a suffering world that foreground places ravaged by wars and years of missionary work. The reader is never told who Teresa and Simonetta are (his first and second wives). The author assumes this information is either already known or unimportant. Even Strada's own daughter, Cecilia, only appears briefly as a young [End Page 49] girl helping with the organization, though begrudgingly, as if putting up with a little brother.

Strada's youth occupies only a few pages, but for Italian readers these pages are important because they help produce a kind of comradery based on shared history and living conditions. Strada was the first to graduate in his family. He had an average childhood in a working-class neighborhood in Sesto San Giovanni (Milan), a small town among factories and chimneys. There were eleven people living under one roof, including two aunts and two cousins. His father was a factory worker. This average childhood is another reason for the autobiography's success: the author is one of us, an Italian reminiscing about old times, and tinting them with nostalgia. This shared wistfulness is signaled by asides such as "come tutti i bambini di allora" (like all children then), or by using dialect that has the power to strike an innermost Italian chord: children played outside with nothing but the suggestion to be good, in Milanese dialect "me racumandi." According to Strada, "Sesto era un buon posto per diventare grandi" (Sesto was a good place to grow up in), because of its "etica del lavoro, responsabilità, senso di comunità" (12; work ethic, responsibility, and sense of community).

The opening line of the autobiography is "Sono un chirurgo" (I am a surgeon). For Strada, vocation comes first. Interestingly, Strada's formation as a doctor is steeped in the humanities. He made the unpopular choice to study classics in high school, and this training is discussed more than once. For him, medicine is a human science: "mi affascinava il lavoro del medico perché ha a che fare con gli esseri umani" (15; the work of a doctor fascinated me because it has to do with human beings). From his teacher Vittorio Staudacher, Strada learned to understand a disease by placing a hand on the patient's stomach (the cover of the book shows a close-up of his hand). In Strada's views, this human element has been forgotten in the profession: "Perché anche se non ci siamo pi...