Miriam Alía. Pediatric nurse at the Gregorio Marañón Hospital and person in charge of vaccination and epidemic response at Doctors Without Borders.


She has been linked to the international medical and humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders since 2005. At first, she combined her work as a field nurse (i.e. at those locations where the organization runs international projects) with her work at the Gregorio Marañón Hospital. Being asked to move to the MSF’s Emergency Response area changed her life. Since then she leads a rather unconventional, yet really fulfilling, life.

Why was the move from being a field nurse to Emergency Response so important for you?

When I collaborated as a nurse, I worked six months at the Gregorio Marañón Hospital and six months for MSF (Doctors Without Borders), with a leave of absence. When I took up intermediate coordination posts in Emergency Response, it became harder to combine this with my work at the hospital. There came a time when I was told I’d used up every type of leave permit save that for maternity… (laughs). So I decided to ask for a one-year extended leave of absence. Then another, yet another… and I’m still here!

What makes it harder to combine with your job?

Emergency Response field workers have a phone they call to give you a few days’ notice that you’re going somewhere. On two occasions they even told me it was the very next day. Like when I went to Zambia, where a cholera epidemic had been declared. Or my first time in Syria: the person who was supposed to go couldn’t go and they called me to head to the airport s traight away. That night, when my friends rang me because I hadn’t turned up, I told them I couldn’ t go as I was in Istanbul!

And at the emotional level?

From the outset, put simply, I loved it. Because this is a job where you see its relevance and positive impact right away. That’s really gratifying. I realized this was where I belonged. There are so many different projects in MSF that it’s hard not to find something you are passionate about. There are lots of opportunities and you have to try things to find what you like and where you can prove useful. For me this was in Emergency Response.

What has your nursing profession contributed to your work in the field?

I feel the clinical aspect has been an added value. But, above all, my sensitivity regarding infancy, given that women and children are the most vulnerable population.

Do you feel your decision led to your losing something, professionally speaking?

On the contrary, I’ve gained. Because, in work like that of MSF, you have lots of training and professional development possibilities. And, on a personal level… where can I start? The personal growth this work offers you cannot be quantified. You give a lot, but you receive so much more. It’s a privilege.

But you lose out financially, don’t you?

In MSF we all have a contract and we are remunerated for our work, because we want highly professional, truly engaged people, and the technical aspect is most important. It’s true that the salary the first year is not great. But, from then on, the pay is decent; less than in other organizations, that’s true, but decent. You don’t do this work for financial gain, although you must earn enough to live on.

With so much traveling, can you have a private life?

Of course you can. The fact is that I really enjoy life. When I’m in the field, I enjoy it. When I’m here, I also enjoy myself. It maybe doesn’t let you lead a conventional life. Quite simply, your personal life is more closely tied to your professional life.

* Miriam (on the right) next to Carolina López, a work colleague and mission chief in various countries. Carolina is a social educator and joined Doctors Without Borders in 2006, working exclusively for the organization. Unlike Miriam, she never works in the office; she’s always in the field, except for her rest periods.