A woman was reunited this week with a nurse who saved her life 30 years ago as she volunteers for the same charity that her rescuers were from.
In 1993, Catherine Conteh was enduring an agonizing four-day labor in a hospital bed in Sierra Leone, where she faced the certain death of both herself and her daughter.

But the 18-year-old’s cries were heard by a New Zealand nurse and British anesthetist volunteering on one of the international charity Mercy Ships’ floating hospitals off the coast of Freetown.

Aly Hogarth-Hall and Dr Keith Thomson were touring Princess Christian Maternity Hospital when Aly heard a woman in pain.

Aly, now 52, said: “With Catherine being in labor for four days, the nurse told me that she would die, and the baby would die. It was communicated in a very matter-of-fact way, which shocked me – that this would be the outcome without any intervention. I’d never encountered anything like that.”

I didn’t know what to do, so I thought, I’ll pray for this woman and hand it over to God.”

As Aly’s prayer ended 30 years ago, amazingly, help arrived. Upon hearing Catherine’s story, Dr. Thomson offered to pay for the surgery in full of his own pocket.

Despite the stress of the four-day labor, both Catherine and her baby, a daughter named Regina, were completely healthy.

Catherine did get the help she needed; however, in Sierra Leone, 26 years later, in 2019, 717 mothers die annually for every 100,000 live births, according to WHO. (1) This is among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

Looking back on that day, Catherine recalled what she thought: I will lose my life. If nothing happens, I will lose my life. That kept on playing right in my heart, in my mind.”

She remembers a hospital nurse telling her: “Look, these strangers who came in are going to pay for your cesarean section. So we’re just waiting for the doctor to come in, and then we can start the process.

All Aly did was pray for me at that moment. She prayed for me. And which I valued, and I’m grateful to God for that, you know? ‘Cause praying for someone, for me, is like a currency that you can buy anything with.”

After the emergency cesarean, Aly and Catherine formed a lifelong bond. Along with American Gina Willig, Aly visited her in the hospital wards while she recovered.

I call her sister, and she calls me sister,” said Catherine, “because it takes a pure heart and someone with pure love, meeting someone and instantly loving them unconditionally, you know?”

They parted ways as Aly returned to New Zealand while Catherine had to gain asylum in Australia with her family in the wake of growing conflict in her home country of Sierra Leone.

The two women lost touch through the years, but Catherine held Aly close in her heart. Her daughter grew up knowing the kindness of strangers saved their lives, and both Catherine and Regina became nurses – just like Aly.

Dr Thomson reunited Aly and Catherine by phone before he passed away in April this year after a battle with cancer.

Catherine said: “Hearing her voice again, after almost three decades, was a bit emotional for me. My hope for me and Aly is to physically see ourselves and give ourselves that sisterly hug. And get to praise God together, you know?”


Thirty years later, on October 1, she was reunited with Aly as they volunteered together on board international charity Mercy Ships’ latest hospital ship, the Global Mercy, as it delivers more than 2,350 surgeries over the next 10 months.

It was the first time they had seen each other since the hospital room in Freetown.

Aly is volunteering on board the Global Mercy with her husband for three months during its field service in Sierra Leone. The moment held an even deeper meaning for Catherine, who was coming on board the hospital ship to volunteer in the dining room.

Catherine said: “To see her in person again, I couldn’t believe it. We just sobbed. We cried and cried.

The other aspect is it’s my hometown where I was born. I’m coming home to come and serve not only Mercy Ships but my country.”

Aly said: “To see Catherine again, it’s surreal, and it’s not something I ever expected until we made contact again 18 months ago or so. That’s something I never expected to do, so it was overwhelming, really.”

The pair reflected on Dr Thomson and how much it would have meant to him to see them together.

Aly said: “This is his legacy, in a way. This is a tribute to him in a lot of ways because his dream was for us to come together here, and he realized that before he passed away.”

Catherine said she made the journey from Australia, propelled by the encouragement of her daughter, Regina, now a 30-year-old mother to a young son.

She added: “It’s a privilege for me, serving. Apart from being my people, any aspect of serving somebody is a privilege because you may not have that privilege tomorrow, so if you have it today, it’s a blessing by itself. I felt so blessed to come back and serve my people.

The pair will spend the next month volunteering while the ship’s crew carry out surgeries and train more than 200 Sierra Leonean healthcare professionals.




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