A doctor describes how he copes with experiences that would crush many other healthcare professionals

In Douglas Murray’s book, The Strange Death of Europe, there is only a brief reference to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. Murray informs us that “These eight dry square miles of rock have a landscape far more like that of Tunisia or Libya than that of Italy.” He only mentions Lampedusa at all because it is an obvious staging post for migrants coming from North Africa and because it has come into grim prominence, for this reason alone, in recent years.

It is easy for the reader to thus dismiss Lampedusa as just another small embattled island in the Mediterranean, overwhelmed by the increasing surge of peoples from the southern hemisphere seeking a new life in the richer north. Reading Lampedusa: Gateway to Europe, recorded by Pietro Bartolo, a doctor who lives on the island, to Italian journalist Lidia Tilotta, helps one to see that for “rock” one should substitute “a people, a community, a culture, a history” – a small but real world where local people live, marry, go to school and to church – and where often drowning strangers come to be rescued or to die.

Bartolo, who grew up on the island and who rejected a lucrative medical career elsewhere, to stay and to serve his people, describes Lampedusa as “breathtakingly beautiful and breathtakingly remote.” His story is his way of telling the world of the huge problem that migration has caused the island and of how the islanders, innately generous and supportive, do their best to help all those washed up on their shores.

Most medical personnel would be crushed by the experiences Bartolo has faced and choose an easier life. Instead, his profession has become his vocation. Reflecting on the 25 years he has served the island and its ever-shifting population, he says “I thought of my patients: of all the men, women and children who have risked and who will go on risking their lives to reach our shores and ask for our help…I thought of the hours I had spent on the pier [waiting for this human cargo to be brought ashore]…I knew without a doubt that I would do it all again…This was my reason to live.”

In other words, a brief newspaper report about yet another boatload of desperate migrants has a particularly moving and heroic backstory: that of a man, an islander and a doctor, who has dedicated himself to treating over 300,000 people at his clinic in the last 25 years. His experiences haven’t hardened him: “You never get used to seeing dead children or women who died giving birth on a wrecked boat, and their tiny babies, still attached to them by their umbilical cord”, he says simply.

Bartolo and the specialist teams which have joined him at the clinic, try to give dignity to the corpses picked up from the sea by rescue boats, divers and fishermen, ensuring that they can be later identified by relatives from their DNA. Generally, the living and the dead are flown on to Palermo in Sicily, but not before their stories and their grief have been registered, such as that of Hassan who had carried his paralysed brother Mohammed, across the Libyan Desert on his back.

Bartolo does not pretend to have a solution to this vast new human tragedy. He merely comments, “It is human beings who are to blame” – not least the people traffickers. He relates that when he is “feeling depleted, I turn to the Madonna of Porto Salvo, Lampedusa’s patron saint [and] I ask the Mother of all mothers to give me strength to rescue all her children who come to Lampedusa by sea.”