"Being a nurse has become my identity more than just my profession."


Giulia Locatelli, health delegate within the primary health-care programme.

After six years as a nurse in a public hospital in Italy, Giulia decided to put her skills to humanitarian causes, and has since worked in Haiti, Jordan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria and Bangladesh. Now on her first assignment with the ICRC in Yemen, she looks back on her first year with the organization.


Can you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Giulia Locatelli. I’m from Italy and I’m a nurse. Being a nurse has become my identity rather than just my profession. I worked for almost six years in an Italian public hospital, in various areas including the intensive care unit, the neurological ward, the surgical department and research. During different volunteering experiences abroad I developed a passion for humanitarian work and realized that I wanted to live and work in a developing country. After completing a master’s degree in coordination in France and learning French as an extra language, it was easier for me to enter the humanitarian job market. The mix of these experiences brought me to the humanitarian sector in 2015. I started out with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), before joining the ICRC in 2019. I have worked in a trauma hospital in Haiti, in a cholera centre in Nigeria, with malnourished patients in the DRC and as a nursing manager in the world’s largest refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.


What made you want to join the ICRC?

The ICRC is a big organization that offers many opportunities, and I saw this as a good way to grow as a person. I’m someone who is always looking for new challenges, for any opportunity that enables me to expand my knowledge and gain new experience. I was looking for a job with fewer clinical challenges and requiring more supervisory, managerial and people-management skills, and I can honestly say that the ICRC is giving me that, and I’m very happy about it.


What is your role at the ICRC?

I’m a health delegate within the primary health-care programme. At the moment, I’m in the north of Yemen (Saada, Amran and Hajjah), where the programme supports the local primary health-care system and the response to various epidemics, e.g. cholera, malaria, diphtheria and, of course, COVID-19.

Unlike MSF, which mostly has its own health structures or a daily presence of MSF staff, the ICRC in Yemen works through remote supervision in cooperation with the Ministry of Health. This means that we evaluate the general organization of supported facilities, as well as the availability of staff, the quality of the primary service, and the availability of and storage of drugs. Our visits rarely focus on clinical supervision of the health staff. One aspect of my work is training staff and ensuring that they follow national and international protocols, but the main part is understanding the health needs of the community, analysing the context and data, finding solutions and adapting our responses to people’s concerns.


What does a typical working day look like for you?

My mother asked me the same question shortly after I arrived in Yemen! I can’t really say. Some days are spent in the office (8am to 5pm) dealing with administrative tasks. I review findings and queries; I talk to management so that I can find the right solutions for the needs of our health centres and facilities. When I’m not in the office, I visit the centres supported by the ICRC, hold training sessions for Ministry of Health staff in public hospitals and sometimes conduct follow-up visits to see if activities are being carried out as agreed. The field visits are the best part of the week. They involve hours of driving (sometimes on pretty bad roads), but I get to see the beautiful Yemini landscapes. It also gives me the chance to talk to people – health staff, local contacts and patients – to try and understand what we need to prioritize.  


What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing how the support the ICRC gives has an impact on the most vulnerable people, and seeing what it means to the community. When you arrive at an ICRC-supported health centre and are thanked by the parents of malnourished children or by an old man who has received free drugs, it is very moving and emotional. Sometimes, when you visit a facility after a long time, the whole community turns out to welcome you, waving or clapping as the ICRC cars drive by. Another time, we hired a female doctor to work in one of the centres and the female wing filled up with women who could finally get medical care. That felt very rewarding. As a final example: we analysed the data and could see that the number of malnourished children had gone down after we’d supplied a facility with nutrition supplements. The figures don’t lie. We’d made a difference.


What is the most challenging part?

Sometimes it saddens me and makes me feel powerless when patients ask for more support or further treatment that is beyond our capacity.

In terms of tasks: as this is my first assignment with the ICRC in a new role as health delegate, I had to learn about the different procedures, management methods and work structure. I learnt how to adapt plans quickly and readjust priorities according to the authorization received. It was very challenging, especially when COVID-19 struck.

Operationally, the most challenging part is the fact that nothing is ever certain. You have to accept that not all your plans will happen. I have learnt to be calm and flexible and always ready to change my plans.

It took me a while to change my approach from clinical, single-patient care to taking into account the general population, including the specific needs of vulnerable groups. I finally understood that we can make a difference to the facilities we support by improving access, the availability of staff and material, and, last but not least, the quality of care.


Can you describe a memorable experience you have had while working for the ICRC?

It is not related to my day-to-day work, but it is one of the best moments of my career. I was lucky enough to be able to take part in the detainee-release operation in Yemen in October, and witness the joy in the eyes of the detainees while they waited to get on the plane, or see a father and son hug after years without seeing each other. It’s something I shall never forget.


Do you have any advice for other people who might like to join the ICRC?

I’m really new to the ICRC – I’ve been here exactly a year – so I don’t know if I’m the right person to give advice. But what I know is that I’m happy I joined. I’ve met some wonderful colleagues, learnt a lot and seen the impact my work has on people. So if anyone asked me if I recommended joining the ICRC, I’d say yes, definitely. Do it!

Interested in following in Giulia's footsteps? Take a look at our healthcare page here.