Karen with her award, Paul Bush, Alex Neil, Provost Sloan and David Anderson
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A Scots nurse who risked her life to treat patients from both sides of the Libyan civil war has tonight (28 January) been named recipient of the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award 2012.
Karen Graham – originally from Clydebank and now matron/nursing services manager at the Oil Clinic in Tripoli – was presented with the prestigious award in recognition of her humanitarian efforts to care for patients, with little regard for her own personal safety, while gunfire and shells rained down on Tripoli.
The Robert Burns Humanitarian Award – launched in 2002 and supported by South Ayrshire Council, EventScotland and VisitScotland – recognises a group or individual who has saved, improved or enriched the lives of others or society as a whole, through personal self-sacrifice, selfless service or 'hands on' charitable work.
Presenting the award to Karen at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Alex Neil MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, said: "The Robert Burns Humanitarian Award recognises the unstinting efforts of those who dedicate their time and energy helping others around the world, of which, Karen Graham is an excellent example. Karen showed huge dedication and worked tirelessly to deliver the highest possible care to the people of Tripoli in extremely difficult circumstances.
"The award is an important celebration of charity, humanity and selflessness, providing an inspiration to people across Scotland and around the world. Akin to Robert Burns' own values, it demonstrates that anyone can make a difference, whether in their own community or further afield."
Receiving the award, Karen said: "I was completely overwhelmed just to be nominated for the award so to win it is beyond my wildest expectations, particularly when you consider the other nominees on the shortlist.
"I'm just a nurse doing a job that I love and that doesn't change when you suddenly have to deal with civil war and heavy fighting in the vicinity of the hospital which resulted in us caring for the casualties of the conflict rather than the oil workers we were used to looking after.
"Libya is a fantastic country – it really is home now – and the people here are some of the warmest I've ever met. I could never have upped and left them when they were most in need. It was one of the most challenging times of my life but was also one of the most rewarding. I'm really glad I stayed."
Born in October 1970, Karen has devoted her life to the medical profession. She studied at the Glasgow South College of Nursing before becoming a full-time nurse. During her career, she spent four years as an army nurse, where she served in both the Falklands and Germany and she latterly worked at Fulwood Hospital in Preston.
In September 2009, she separated from her husband and after sorting out her finances and with her 40th birthday looming, Karen started the process of applying for a nursing position in Libya in an effort to make a fresh start.
In mid-September 2010, she was contacted and asked if she could go out to Libya on short notice and within six weeks – during which her feet literally didn't touch the ground – she was in Tripoli, arriving on 18 November 2010.
Karen works at the Oil Clinic – also known as the 11th June Clinic – in Tripoli. Essentially a district hospital with more than 130 beds covering all the medical areas you would expect in a UK hospital such as A&E, maternity, general surgery and orthopaedics, the Oil Clinic looks after workers of oil companies and their dependants. Karen was initially employed as a theatre nurse but has since been promoted to matron/nursing services manager.
However, in August 2011, the hospital became the centre for trauma medicine during the Libyan civil war conflict. Not only that, it was often caught up in the conflict itself due to its proximity to a NATO target area and it sustained damage to several parts of the building. Fortunately, no patients were injured. However, many people and businesses left the city at this time – including the British Embassy. Karen and two other British nurses remained at the hospital, gaining the respect of both colleagues and patients alike.
Karen added: "Things were really frantic for a while with the two sides at war fighting each other from either side of a bridge right next to the hospital. We were stranded at the compound [where the hospital and living quarters are located] for around ten days without running water and electricity and we couldn't contact anyone to let them know we were OK.
"Of course, it was scary at times especially when you knew just how close the fighting was. I actually discovered a bullet hole in my bedroom window but fortunately was at work when it came through, but it really hit home what was happening right on our doorstep. However, we just got on with things and I'm delighted that doing just that is being recognised in this way.
"So many amazing things have come out of my going to Libya – I met my fiancé, I've received this fantastic award and I can now also make bread – not bad going in just over a year!"
Karen's fellow shortlisted finalists for the 2012 award were the Deaf History Review Editorial team – a group who have worked to transform the lives of deaf people across the world; and Sam Jennings (née Perkins) – a British midwife who saved the lives of thousands of babies and their mothers in the Congo.
David Anderson is Chief Executive of South Ayrshire Council and Chair of the 2012 RBHA judging panel, which includes broadcaster Kaye Adams; actor, writer and painter John Cairney; Nat Edwards, Director of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum; former RBHA winners Habib Malik (Head of Islamic Relief Scotland) and Guy Willoughby (Chief Executive of the HALO Trust); Jim Shields, President of the Robert Burns World Federation; and STV Chief Executive Rob Woodward.
He said: "Choosing a winner from our three fantastic finalists was certainly not an easy task; however, all the judges were immediately struck by Karen's story and the calm and matter of fact way she dealt with what was going on around her during a time of quite unimaginable violence and conflict.
"Karen didn't care what side anyone was on – if they were injured and needed medical assistance, they got it. It really was as simple as that. She selflessly put others first, saving lives even when she too could have been in danger – and thought nothing of it. She epitomises all that the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award is about and I'm sure the Bard himself would consider her a very worthy recipient indeed."
Paul Bush OBE, Chief Operating Officer for EventScotland said: "Karen's story is a powerful one, and she has clearly shown the qualities that the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award represents, making her a worthy recipient for 2012. Each of the shortlisted finalists deserve recognition for their work and I am delighted that this event continues to highlight the selfless achievements of people like Karen, who make a real difference to people's lives."
As the latest recipient of the award, Karen received the equivalent of 1759 guineas – a sum which signifies the year of the Bard's birth and the coinage then in circulation – as well as a specially commissioned award handcrafted in Scotland.
Further information can be found at www.robertburnsaward.com.