The extraordinary fantasy life and lonely death of a New Zealand woman hailed as a heroine after the July 7 bombings in London may be a parable of our celebrity-obsessed times. Or it may be the tragic story of an earnest young woman afflicted by chronic ill health.
However her career is judged, Richmal Oates-Whitehead -- whose body was found 10 days ago in a flat in Shepherd's Bush, west London -- has left behind a confused and contradictory trail over which former friends, colleagues and the medical establishment are still puzzling.
The police appear to have discounted rumors that she committed suicide. The British Medical Association (BMA) on Sunday confirmed that it had held an investigation into how she came to be employed but declined to reveal the outcome.
Oates-Whitehead gained national prominence in her native country thanks to media coverage of the suicide bombing which destroyed the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square outside the headquarters of the BMA. She worked there as editor of Clinical Evidence, an online edition of the British Medical Journal (BMJ). After the blast she appears to have left the building, alongside medically trained staff intent on bringing first aid assistance to survivors.
Precisely what her role was that morning remains uncertain. The 35-year-old always carried a stethoscope in her handbag. She later told the Weekend Herald, a New Zealand newspaper, that she had been helping the injured in a makeshift hospital set up in a hotel next door to the BMA when two firefighters approached her for help. Her account also included a controlled detonation of a second bomb.
But police had no record of a controlled explosion in Tavistock Square; moreover, she was not a doctor. Her name does not appear on either the UK or New Zealand medical council registers.
Coverage of the London bombings triggered suspicions. Intrigued, the Auckland papers began inquiries. On Aug. 15 the New Zealand Herald published a story headlined: "Doctor status of NZ bomb heroine questioned." It disclosed that the BMA was investigating her qualifications. Other papers published similarly skeptical stories.
Their reports unearthed a bizarre pattern. Oates-Whitehead, it emerged, had claimed to be the victim of a stalker, had described herself in some e-mails as a professor, told some friends she had been diagnosed with cancer and informed others she had lost twins born prematurely who lived for only a day.
Challenged by the BMA about her status, she resigned. On Aug. 17, alerted by her concerned family, police went to her flat and found her dead. Initial suspicions focused on the belief that, faced with the humiliation of her exposure and the loss of her job, she might have committed suicide.
But a postmortem report found that she had died of a "pulmonary embolism," or blood clot on the lungs.
In fact, Oates-Whitehead did have a medical background. She trained for a year as a radiation therapist in 1991, which included an internship at Auckland Hospital. She had a postgraduate diploma in health-service management. She also suffered from epilepsy.
She had always dreamed of being a doctor, the New Zealand Sunday Star-Times told its readers. It quoted an interview with a Sydney forensic psychiatrist, Anthony Samuels, who suggested that she may been suffering from borderline personality disorder, and may have posed as a doctor to satisfy a psychological need.
"It is a sad case," he said. "People with borderline personality disorders often get into caring professions because they have so much need themselves and it distracts them from their own pain."
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