Clarissa Nicholls

I meet Izzy and Jess at Clarissa’s bench. It is low and wooden, and on it is a metal plaque that gleams in the sun.

“The best bench on Sidgwick,” Izzy says.

Clarissa Nicholls was a student at Trinity Hall who would now be in her fourth and final year at Cambridge. She should be sitting alongside us today; not on this bench, but another, free of an inscription of her name. While on her year abroad in Paris last year, she collapsed and passed away from an undiagnosed heart condition.

Clarissa, to all who knew her, was a vision of perfect health. Her death was an unspeakable tragedy, and it was also frightening: how could a top athlete who was an active member of the Cambridge sports scene, played University hockey, and ran regularly, die of a heart condition?

“How could a top athlete and active member of the Cambridge sports scene die of a heart condition?”

“A few people just assumed that because she was our age, it must have been mental health related,” Jess tells me. The truth is, 1 in 300 young people aged between 14 and 35 in the UK suffer from an undiagnosed life-threatening cardiac condition like Clarissa’s. 12 of those young people die every week from sudden cardiac death, often with no prior symptoms. Had Clarissa had the right checks, she would be with us now.

The sun is on our faces as we talk. “It’s the sunniest bench too,” says Izzy. “It’s amazing for tanning. Clarissa loved the sunshine so it’s perfect. And we’ve come up with a few jokes. I had my mourning coffee on the bench. Get it?”

The two are steadfastly determined to focus on the good amid the bad, committed to carrying on the boundless positivity that Clarissa was known and loved for. This is why they have launched Clarissa’s Campaign for Cambridge Hearts, which aims to raise money for a university heart screening service, established in the hope of preventing the reoccurrence of a tragedy like Clarissa’s. The idea was pitched by Clarissa’s mother, Hilary, who has been relentlessly fighting for change. Their answer was resounding. “We just said yes, absolutely.”

“Had Clarissa had the right checks, she would be with us now”

The campaign is hoping to raise a total of  £28,000, which would be enough to provide Cambridge University students with a four-day ECG heart screening service in partnership with charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young). The service is statistically guaranteed to prevent another young heart-related death from happening at Cambridge, and would detect a number of other underlying heart conditions. If all goes to plan, the four-day screening would become an annual service, ensuring young hearts are given the right checks, at the right time.

Since its birth midway through Lent term, Izzy, Jess, and a group of Clarissa’s close friends have firmly situated the campaign as a regular feature on the University’s social scene: they have fundraised through collaborations with Spotlite and Jazz Soc, added optional donations to May Ball and Garden Party tickets, and hosted events at the likes of Clare Cellars and The Portland Arms. Events alleviate the pressure that can sometimes be associated with donating money, encouraging people to give as much or as little as they like. Jess and Izzy do this with characteristic positivity: their Jazz Soc event served a fundraising ‘Clarissa Spritz’, an ode to the Hugo Spritzes enjoyed on a second-year Italian trip to Florence.

“We can see so much joy in what we’re creating.” Izzy says. “At some of these events we just think this is brilliant, Clarissa would be finding this so funny.”

“The screening would become an annual service, ensuring young hearts are given the right checks, at the right time”

They have also turned to Cambridge’s sports, raising money through collaborations with Varsity hockey, netball, lacrosse, and football. 20 of Clarissa’s friends, Jess and Izzy included, ran the Cambridge half marathon alongside Clarissa’s twin brother Ollie. All of this on top of a flurry of personal donations means that within just a month of launching the campaign has raised £11,000 – well exceeding their day 1 screening target. The sum is an enormous feat, made all the more impressive by the fact that Izzy and Jess have been wading their way through Lent term of final year and Masters, respectively.

But there is further to travel, and they are determined to keep gathering momentum. They hope to soon reach  £14,000, which would get them to their day 2 screening target, and halfway to their total goal. A number of plans for Easter term events are in the works, and word of the cause is quickly spreading beyond Clarissa’s network of friends and peers. Her faculty, MMLL, have committed to helping the campaign raise money and awareness. Garnering attention on a wider collegiate and institutional level, however, has proven to be more tricky. “A big part of this whole process is discovering who is helpful.” Jess tells me. “Maybe the reason the University hasn’t got involved yet is because we haven’t got in touch with the right person.” In any case, this has not deterred them: “If we make a massive noise, it will show the university that people care.” Izzy says. “Money isn’t a problem for Cambridge – we just need to show them we’re worth investing in.”

“There has been overwhelming generosity in response to the campaign”

Nevertheless, the two emphasise the overwhelming generosity they have received in response to the campaign, even, to their surprise, “from people who had never met Clarissa.” They tell me that the first weeks were “a whirlwind of people reaching out and asking how they could help, donating, offering support”.

Support must be a welcome thing given the effort the campaign has required to get off the ground, with both saying they work on it “every day”. I ask them how they have managed to balance this huge commitment alongside all that Cambridge demands, without it getting a bit too much.


Mountain View

Grappling with grief in 8 weeks

The answer is by focusing on Clarissa. “This is such a great way of channelling all that love we have for her into something.” Jess tells me. “We get to celebrate her through this. It’s about honouring someone who deserved to be here. Nobody deserves to lose a life through a lack of available checks.”

“Jess and I have become friends through Clarissa’s death, and there’s not a day I don’t see Jess now.” Izzy says. “We get so much of Clarissa through each other. Sometimes when I don’t see Jess for a while, I find myself missing Clarissa more.”

“I think that’s classic Clarissa in a way.” Jess adds quietly. “You couldn’t not love her straight away, and it meant that she really did bring people together. In her death, as in her life, she’s doing that- still bringing people together.”

Follow @clarissascampaign on Instagram for updates on upcoming events and collaborations.

Contact for further information on how to support or get involved with the campaign.

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