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Student’s legacy lives on through Namibian clinic

Catherine Bullen in 2002

Roger and Linda Bullen by the clinic sign

Press release issued: 8 September 2014

A new clinic has been named in memory of a University of Bristol student who died while visiting Namibia in 2002.

Catherine Bullen, a fifth year medical student, was 22 when she travelled to Namibia for a safari ahead of her elective placements in Zambia and Tanzania.

A few days into the safari she fell ill with a virulent strain of gastro-enteritis.  Her condition deteriorated very quickly and she was taken to the nearest clinic at Oshivelo on August 23rd.

Soon after she arrived at the clinic, Catherine stopped breathing.  Despite the best efforts to resuscitate her with very basic equipment from her travelling companion – fellow medical student Stephanie Chalmers – she unfortunately passed away.

Catherine’s parents, Roger and Linda Bullen, decided that something positive had to come out of the tragedy, and the Catherine Bullen Memorial Fund was launched.

In the 12 years since, it has become a celebration of their daughter’s life.  The fund became the Catherine Bullen Foundation and has raised over £300,000.  This has been used in work to alleviate poverty by providing access to fresh water, improving healthcare opportunities, and developing educational resources. 

Projects funded by the Foundation have included the refurbishment of a borehole for Omuhaturua Primary School, the construction of a clinic and nurses’ accommodation, the donation of an ambulance for the region and constructed a hostel kitchen.

The new clinic replaces the one where Catherine was treated and has been named ‘The Catherine Bullen Primary Healthcare Clinic’ in recognition of Catherine’s legacy to the Namibian people.

The clinic was opened by the Namibian Minister of Health and Social Services, the Hon. Dr Richard Kamwi who thanked the Bullens for their support of the Oshikoto region.

The clinic consists of 10 in-patient beds, six casualty beds, five consulting rooms, a delivery suite and specialist facilities for HIV and TB testing.  It will also offer accommodation for eight nurses and an ambulance station.

There are also future plans to add a mortuary which will allow the clinic to upgrade to a Health Centre.

Her friend Stephanie, who is now a GP, said: “What has stayed with me the most, from what was an incredibly harrowing experience, was the kindness, love and support that I received in the aftermath.

“Her parents are the most wonderful, trusting, kind and inspirational people you could ever meet.  The time and energy they have put into turning their family tragedy into a positive for the people of Namibia is mind blowing.”

Catherine’s death shocked her family, staff and students at the University.  Professor Jonathan Sandy, Dean of Medicine and Dentistry, said: “The loss of any family member is always a terrible jolt, and the loss of a daughter or a sister has a specific tragic feeling.

“The impact and sadness of this special tragedy remain for those who were in the school at this sad time.”

The Revd Mr Nigel Rawlinson, who was Clinical Sub-Dean in the Bristol Royal Infirmary at the time, heard accounts of Catherine’s last days and the courageous attempts to save her life from Stephanie on her return.

On the news of the new clinic named in Catherine’s honour, he said: “It is wonderful to think that in that same location in Namibia there is now a life-saving facility. It has been special indeed for the Medical School to hear of the work and achievement of the Catherine Bullen Foundation.

“In 2002 a tree was planted in Catherine’s memory in Royal Fort Gardens.  The inscription reads: ‘May her love for the study of medicine grow in the hearts of those she inspired’ and the ongoing work in Namibia is an example of this growth.”

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