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12 FYi • Profile

In the weeks and months after Karen Woo’s death

a picture emerged of a tireless and charismatic young doctor determined to improve healthcare in one of the most dangerous and chaotic places on Earth. Her legacy recently inspired the BMJ Group to inaugurate a new Karen Woo Award to be presented at its annual Improving Health Awards ceremony in May 2012 to a medic who has gone well beyond the call of duty to care for patients and “exemplifies medicine’s traditional values of altruism, service, and courage”. So who exactly was Karen Woo?

Powerhouse of enthusiasm One person who knew her well was Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen, medical director of BUPA. Karen worked for BUPA as assistant medical director before moving to Kabul to take up full-time aid work. She came to BUPA with a less-than-usual background having first studied dance at the London Contemporary Dance School. Later at the age of 24 she decided to do medicine at The University College London Medical School before specialising in surgery.

killed in Afghanistan inspires a new

award and offers a role model for

only part of her story PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MARK SMITH

medical altruism. Jim Killgore tells


A British doctor

N EARLY August of 2010 a team of 10 aid workers on a three-week expedition to the Nuristan region of Afghanistan were making their way back to the capital city of Kabul. The expedition had been organised by a Christian charity called the International Assistance Mission (IAM) and included medics from the USA, Germany and the UK who were providing medical assistance and supplies to remote mountain communities. The team had been delayed getting their three

4-by-4 vehicles across a swollen river and had stopped for a rest when they were attacked by an armed gang. Everyone was killed apart from one driver. Among them was a 36-year-old British doctor named Karen Woo. Karen was on her third trip to Afghanistan and had been living in Kabul since October providing medical treatment in a variety of settings including maternal and neo-natal care. Afghanistan has some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the world with one woman dying in childbirth every 28 minutes and one in five children dying before the age of five. She was determined to improve the situation not only in the city but in rural areas of the country. A later inquest into her death heard that the team had helped some 1,000 people over the three-week trek to Nuristan including saving the life of a young boy.

“It was clear from my first interview with Karen

that she was a powerhouse of ideas and enthusiasm – and so it turned out,” says Dr Vallance-Owen. “She was full of life and quite exciting to work with really.” During her medical training Karen had undertaken

electives in Trinidad and Tobago, parts of Australia and Papua New Guinea so she knew about providing care in deprived regions. It was while she was working at BUPA that she made her first trip to Afghanistan. “She came back very affected by the difficulties

that the Afghan people were facing, the poverty there, especially the conditions that children were living in,” says Dr Vallance-Owen. “So she decided to start collecting stuff to take

out to Afghanistan – medical-related kit. It was a typical Karen sort of thing really. She got a cause and went for it, contacting hospitals, our own included and some of our businesses.” Karen collected a lorry-load of surplus medical

equipment and materials for airlift to Afghanistan to distribute among hospitals. She also began working with Bridge Afghanistan, a not-for-profit collective of medics, filmmakers and journalists attracting aid to the country. “Everyone was very proud of her for doing this,”

says Dr Vallance-Owen. “And it was not long after that she decided that this is what she wanted to do.”

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