- Publish Date
- Wednesday, 11 October 2023, 10:09AM
A Kiwi nurse has been reunited with a woman whose life she saved during childbirth in Africa 30 years ago.
Aly Hall was a young volunteer on board the Anastasis, a hospital ship docked in Sierra Leone in 1993, and during a tour of a local hospital in Freetown, she came across a woman in agonising pain.
“A nurse explained to me that her name was Catherine and that she has been in labour for four days,” Hall told the Herald.
Catherine Conteh, who was 18, had been in pain for so long that she had started to fear her death and that of her unborn daughter if a caesarean operation was not performed.
At the time, however, the country’s civil war meant Conteh’s family was unable to pay for the surgery.
“I was told to have [the] surgery to get the baby out. But [I] had to pay for the operation.”
Dr Keith Thomson, an anaesthetist also serving on Anastasis, stepped in to pay for the operation.
Anastasis was the first vessel operated by Mercy Ships, an organisation that has provided surgery and medical aid aboard hospital ships in countries where people have struggled to access basic healthcare for more than 40 years.
Figures from the World Health Organisation in 2019 show that up to 717 mothers die each year for every 100,000 live births in Sierra Leone.
This is one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world and is 700 times more risk than in New Zealand.
Thinking back to 1993, Hall says: “I do remember taking Catherine’s hand and being at the side of her bed and praying for her and asking God to help her in the situation.”
Thirty years later, the two women were once again brought together through the power of social media and Thompson, who sought out the two women for a book he was writing before he died earlier this year.
Hall and Conteh recently got the chance to see each other again. “I never thought I would see her again,” Hall said.
“To see Catherine again...it’s very surreal, really. It’s not something I ever expected until we made contact about 18 months ago.
“That’s something I never expected to do, so it was overwhelming, really.”
Speaking about the moment they saw each other, Conteh said: “To see her in person again - I couldn’t believe it. We just sobbed. We cried and cried.“
Both Conteh and her 30-year-old daughter Regina are now nurses, like the woman who saved them.
Regina, herself now a mother to a young son, also purchased a school in Freetown in a bid to help local children who do not have access to education.
“There are so many people around the world who did not get the opportunity of a second chance - but I did. And I am grateful to God, always.”
They dedicated their reunion as a tribute to Thomson. “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 realised that before he passed away,” Hall said.
The two will spend the next month volunteering on a mercy ship’s crew as the medical team carries out surgeries and trains more than 200 Sierra Leonean healthcare professionals.
This article was first published by the NZ Herald by Paridhi Bakshi, Te Rito journalism cadet, and is republished here with permission.
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