There is no way we can thank him, other than not to forget him.
But we do not trust our resolve, having to look up his name.
Even the name of the virus fades from our minds as strange microbes
evolve and spread in Guangdong, driving out old fears with new.
SARS, a benign sounding syndrome, mimicking other conditions:
high temp; pneumonia-like cough; nothing to worry about;
but for the rumors from China that people were dying unnumbered,
rumors denied and denied, helping the virus to spread.
“People are running and screaming, totally scared, nurses crying,”
Urbani told friends in Hanoi where a new case had been found,
jumping from one man to eighty, all in a matter of days.
His duty first above all: to remain close to the sick.
Isolate; quarantine; safeguard; meet with reluctant officials;
get them to grasp the full threat; then sound a worldwide alarm;
those were the ways that he fought back, joined by the doctors and nurses
who sealed themselves in the wards, sleeping each night among germs.
Trying to limit exposure, verging on total exhaustion,
he flew to a meeting in Bangkok, frightened that it was a risk.
Landing with fever ignited, he barricaded himself at the airport,
not letting medics approach till they donned high-filter masks.
When he was sure of their safety, he let them take him for treatment,
knowing there was no such thing; passing through doors made of glass;
fans forcing air through the windows; linked via intercom only
to say goodbye to his wife who saw him conscious but once.
What does it mean to save millions? What do we make of such caring—
we who have come through unscathed, crediting mostly good luck?
Mighty the gift that he gave us, paltry our efforts to thank him.
Though we fall short, yet we know—our lives he left in our hands.
In memory of Dr. Carlo Urbani, a director of the World
Health Organization, who died March 29, 2003
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.