The last time Catherine Conteh saw the deeply familiar smile in front of her in Freetown, it was under dramatically different circumstances.
Fresh off the plane from Australia on Sunday, Catherine arrived on the dock beside the Global Mercy™ where she was greeted by Aly Hogarth-Hall – a face she had not seen in person for 30 years. Without Aly, the last 30 years – as well as the life of her daughter and her grandson – might not have even been possible.
Their first encounter took place in a hospital in Sierra Leone, where 18-year-old Catherine had been lying in obstructed labour for four days. Catherine and her husband, Augustine, had been counting down the days to meet their first baby, but things took a terrifying turn when the baby got stuck during delivery. Without the means to afford a Caesarean section surgery, Catherine was left with no option but to wait.
Sadly, Catherine’s plight wasn’t one of a kind. In Sierra Leone, as of 2019, 717 mothers die annually for every 100,000 live births. This is among the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world, according to the WHO.
Catherine felt helpless, like all the strength was draining from her body. She knew deep down she was facing impending death: “I will lose my life. If nothing happens, I will lose my life. That kept on playing right in my heart, in my mind.”
But she kept holding on to hope and faith that all would be fine.
An Act of Kindness from Strangers
This is where Aly, a Kiwi nurse who was volunteering with Mercy Ships, first crossed her path. After hearing Catherine’s cries of pain, Aly went to investigate. She was astounded at what she learned. Aly recalled: “With Catherine being in labour 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 was going to 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.”
After Aly’s prayer ended a fellow Mercy Ships volunteer, anaesthetist Dr. Keith Thomson from the U.K., who was touring the local hospital with Aly, joined her in the room. On hearing Catherine’s unique story, he unexpectedly felt God’s calling to pay for her surgery in full with his own money.
Catherine was quickly taken to the operating theatre for a Caesarean section. Despite the stress of the four-day labour, both Catherine and her baby, a daughter named Regina, were completely healthy.
“All she did was to pray for me, at that moment. She prayed for me,” reflected Catherine. “Which I valued and I’m grateful to God for that, you know? Because praying for someone, for me, is like a currency that you can buy anything with.”
After the delivery, Aly, along with another Mercy Ships volunteer, Gina, stayed in close contact with Catherine. They visited her in the hospital wards while she recovered. They brought her food and made her laugh and admired her newborn daughter. While they’d been strangers just days before, Catherine and Aly quickly formed the type of bond that comes through a life-changing encounter.
“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?”
Reconnecting After Years Apart
They parted ways as Aly returned to New Zealand while Catherine gained asylum in Australia 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. The knowledge that the kind acts of these volunteers had saved not only her life, but her daughter’s, pressed on her – leaving an impact that rippled long after the surgery itself.
Years later, Catherine unexpectedly received a message from Dr. Thomson asking if she’d like Aly’s contact information. Catherine didn’t hesitate – and before long, she was holding her phone, greeted by a familiar voice from long ago on the other end.
“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?”
A Reunion 30 Years in the Making
Some 30 years later, on October 1, 2023, this hope finally came to light. Their reunion was the first time they’d seen each other in person since the hospital room in Freetown where Catherine recovered in the days following. Aly is volunteering on board the Global Mercy during its 10-month field service in Sierra Leone. For Catherine, on board the hospital ship to volunteer in the dining room alongside Aly, the moment held an even deeper meaning: “I’m coming home to come and serve, not only Mercy Ships but my country.”
And for Catherine, despite having experienced a life-changing encounter with Mercy Ships, it would also be her very first time stepping on board one of the hospital ships.
She made the journey from Australia, propelled by the encouragement of her daughter, Regina, now a 30-year-old mother to a young son. Regina, inspired by the story of her birth, has also now become a nurse, and has even volunteered with Mercy Ships in the past.
When she turned the corner to the dock and the hospital ship came into view, Catherine was stunned. Then, Aly’s face came into focus, waiting on the dock to greet her. It was a moment she’d dreamed of for years but didn’t know if it would ever truly happen. For both volunteers, the reunion brought a flood of joy – and old memories.
“To see her in person again, I couldn’t believe it,” said Catherine. “We just sobbed. We cried and cried.”
During their time together, they thought fondly of Dr. Thomson, who recently passed away. “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,” shared Aly.
As they prepare to bring hope and healing to other Sierra Leoneans on the Global Mercy, Catherine reflected on the significance of the moment. One act of kindness changed her own life immeasurably – and now, she hopes sharing their story will have a ripple effect of its own.
“One person will hear the story, and they will make a change,” said Catherine. “I see it as the power of helping.”