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Consequences of conflict Karen left her job at BUPA and moved to Kabul. Here she worked as a general physician and public health consultant, as well as in emergency medicine. She also began filming a documentary to highlight the desperate suffering in the country and to show the human side of Afghanistan. An insight “through the lens of birth and death, of loss and disability,” she wrote, and one that “reflects every aspect of the consequences of conflict on individuals and on their community. The loss of nearly all elements of the infrastructure of a country, security, governance, education, transport, clean water, sanitation and power, are all visible in the health of the people.” Proceeds from the film were intended to raise

funds for a charity she had started to help improve health and education programmes, particularly those focusing on neonatal, paediatric and maternal health. In Kabul she also met Paddy Smith, a security

consultant based in Afghanistan, to whom she became engaged. In a blog written in the months before her death she described both the dangers of life in Kabul and her difficulty in buying a silk ball

( supports healthcare projects in Afghanistan providing medical supplies and healthcare education, particularly to remote and rural communities with little or no access to even basic medical provision. A key figure in the work of the Foundation is Karen’s mother Lynn. “What can I say about my daughter,” she says. “I described her to the New York Times as my Renaissance woman, reflecting on her multi-faceted skills and interests over the years. She was an energetic and driven soul, bright and intelligent. She wanted to be valued and valuable, wanted to express both her artistic skills and her scientific bent. In Afghanistan she seemed to have brought those different passions together.” Karen’s legacy also lives on with the Karen Woo

Award. The genesis of the prize began when Dr Vallance-Owen was approached by the BMJ Group awards last year to ask if BUPA would sponsor The Medical Team in a Crisis Zone Award. “I said we would sponsor it if I could connect the

award to Karen’s name – say a few words in her honour – because that is exactly what she had been


doing. They were a bit nervous about it. It was not quite standard for an awards ceremony. “In any case it went down very well and the

gown for a “special occasion”. She writes: “Me being me, I’ve left everything to the last minute and just to add extra pressure, I’ve decided to run the gauntlet of the Afghan dressmaker.” Karen joined the Nuristan trek with IAM to run

mother and child clinics in the remote mountain villages the team visited. Later after the attack the Taliban claimed that the group had been “preaching Christianity”. IAM is a Christian organisation and has operated in Afghanistan for over 40 years but Karen’s family have denied that her work had anything do with religion, saying her motivation was purely humanitarian. Even now it remains unclear who was responsible for the attack and the reasons behind it.

Going above and beyond In the year and a half since her death Karen’s family have set up a grant-giving charity to carry on the work started by Karen. The Karen Woo Foundation

audience very much linked to what I said – the sort of person Karen was. Someone who does something out of the ordinary. Who goes the extra mile in some way outside their normal comfort zone.” So this year the BMJ Group went one step further

and devised a new award in her honour. Dr Vallance- Owen believes Karen’s character is very much reflected in the award criteria – an individual who has addressed a significant health challenge and demonstrates a clear commitment to delivering high quality care in a challenging situation, going above and beyond normal professionalism, possibly involving a degree of self-sacrifice or personal risk. “I learned a lot myself from Karen,” he adds. “It’s

important to be reminded of our basic value set and what we’re all here for.” Lynn Woo is proud to have her daughter

remembered in this way. “Karen was unable to make the difference she

intended,” she says. “The honour of the BMJ is that they saw the potential. She has inspired her family and friends to stand up and be counted.”

Jim Killgore is an editor at MDDUS

Top: Dr Karen Woo in an ambulance with a patient in Kabul. Above: Karen at work in the operating theatre Left: Karen ran mother-and-child clinics

Improving Health Awards

MDDUS is proud to be principal sponsor of the 2012 BMJ Group Improving Health Awards. To find out more about the Karen Woo Award sponsored by BUPA and information and entry criteria for all the awards go to

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