Almost 30 years ago, Catherine Conteh’s life and that of her unborn baby were saved by a doctor and a Kiwi nurse visiting her West African city. Today, she is paying that help forward, as grateful thanks to the ‘angels’ who changed her life forever.


Exhausted and terrified, Catherine Conteh writhed in agony, unable to receive the pain relief and emergency surgery she so desperatel­y needed. She had been in labour for four days and neither she nor her baby were expected to survive the night.

It was 1993, and Catherine was 18 years old. Although married, she was still in secondary school in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. It wasn’t unusual for teenage girls to have trouble giving birth. If they were very young, sometimes their bodies weren’t physically capable of withstandi­ng the natural birthing process without complicati­ons arising.

Not much has changed today. Some women are left with obstetric fistulas, permanent birth injuries caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment. Practition­ers in the traditiona­l childbirth settings often have no diagnostic equipment to pick up critical concerns in time to avoid the injury. Many of these young women are rejected by their husbands, family and sometimes their villages. And if a child is born with deformitie­s, they’re often considered cursed and babies can be left alone to die.


Catherine, her husband Augustine beside her, had laboured for 24 hours in the community with a traditiona­l midwife. When there was no progress, the woman advised them to see a nurse she knew who had clinical training. They took a harrowing bus ride and shuffled along the sidewalk for 15 minutes to the nurse’s clinic. After another 24 hours of agony and still no progress, the nurse took Augustine aside.

“I can’t help them,” she said. “Catherine is exhausted, which means the baby will be, too. They need a hospital.”

So the couple took another slow and agonising journey to Princess Christian Maternity Hospital. But when they arrived, there was more bad news. They needed to pay for the pain relief and an emergency caesarean. Equivalent to AUD$152, this represente­d six months’ wages in Sierra Leone.

Augustine tried to raise the funds with their families but no-one could come up with such a sizable sum. So they allocated a bed in the corner of the labour ward and a curtain was pulled across so mother and baby could pass in peace.

Kiwi nurse Aly Hogarth-Hall, a volunteer on-board Mercy Ship, Anastasis was visiting the maternity hospital as part of a small group of medical volunteers invited by the local anaestheti­st to take a tour of what he nicknamed ‘Cottage Hospital’.

“As we toured the wards, the stark and unhealthy conditions were alarming,” Aly says. “The walls were

painted brown, and it looked dark and neglected. The patients didn’t look like they fared much better. I saw old IV tubing that was far from sterile.” The local anaestheti­st confessed that sometimes the tubing had to be washed out and re-used. Aly found the lack of medical supplies and basic equipment more than a little confrontin­g.

“While we toured the wards, I heard distraught cries coming from down the hall,” Aly recalls. “I found a teenage girl in distress, lying in a dark room. I questioned the nurse who explained Catherine’s life-threatenin­g predicamen­t. She told me she’d been in obstructed labour for four days, there was nothing to be done and they would both die. Her tone was so matter-of-fact I felt stunned. The blasé way she spoke about Catherine’s grave situation was shocking. Apparently, it was a daily occurrence: ‘No money, no treatment’. The situation seemed inhumane.”

The rest of the Mercy Ships medics arrived, including English anaestheti­st, Dr Keith Thomson. It was clear to all that mother and baby would be dead within hours if no help was given.

When Dr Thomson heard the amount needed for the caesarean, he paid it in full. Catherine was taken straight into surgery even though no-one expected the baby had survived four days of labour, and they knew Catherine’s exhaustion increased the likelihood of surgical complicati­ons. Hours later, a doctor arrived in the waiting room.

“Catherine has survived the procedure. She has a healthy baby girl,” he told Aly and her colleagues.

“It was such an emotional moment,” Aly says. “I was so grateful I’d been in the right place at the right time.” Hugs and tears of celebratio­n flowed in the waiting room which no longer seemed so dismal in the light of such miraculous news.

Catherine woke from her surgery to find strangers looking at her, and a baby in her arms. “I went from knowing I was dying to that. It was surreal,” Catherine recalls. “I felt like I was surrounded by angels. It truly touched my soul. I decided then, that one day, I would pay it forward.”

The grateful parents named their baby girl Regina and over the next few days, Aly visited the hospital frequently with her American friend and volunteer nurse Gina. They took dressings, antibiotic­s, and IV fluids to help with her recovery. The hospital didn’t supply even the most basic needs, including food. Families had to cook on equipment placed beside their loved one’s beds.

“It wasn’t just that two lives were saved, it was the message that they were both worth saving. Love in action generates an enormous impact,” Aly says.


Catherine and her family stayed in Sierra Leone for another 18 months, while the civil war advanced. After seeing the tragedy on the news, Dr Thomson asked if they wanted to migrate to Guinea. They rapidly replied with a grateful: “Yes!”

But then Guinea had similar issues and, as refugees, they were no longer welcome. They expelled all Englishspe­aking refugees and threw Augustine in prison for five days. Again, anaestheti­st Dr Thomson arranged flights to Ghana and a safe place to stay.

“I’ve been grateful every day since we could immigrate to Australia as refugees in 2005,” Catherine says. “After arriving in Perth, I began my medical training to become a nurse. Then in 2011, when Regina was 18 years old, she signed up to volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy during a return field service to Sierra Leone.”

“It is thanks to Mercy Ships that both my mother and I are alive today,” says Regina, now 29 and working as a nurse in Perth. “That alone makes me want to give something back.”


Earlier this year, while scrolling on Facebook, Aly noticed an old post with her name on it. Dr Thomson was trying to reunite Aly and Catherine, three decades later. He put them in touch and they reignited their friendship. The remarkable encounter formed a close bond between the two women, who now talk frequently. They intend to volunteer together on-board the brand new Global Mercy when it visits Freetown, Sierra Leone next year. It will be exactly 30 years since they first met at Cottage Hospital.

“Through Aly’s and Keith’s compassion and love in action, our family survived,” says Catherine. “But so many mothers still exhaust traditiona­l remedies before seeking medical help, which means in remote areas, this leads to horrifical­ly high rates of unnecessar­y death.”

Remarkable stories like this motivate the volunteers involved in this global charity.

“Today, 79% of maternal deaths still occur within a health facility. The lack of running water, equipment, gowns, gloves, and emergency blood, means hospitals still can’t function at the capacity needed,” Aly says. “It’s also horrifying to think that maternal deaths in Sierra Leone still account for 36% of all deaths in women aged between 15 and 49.”

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 ?? ?? Clockwise from top left: Catherine Conteh and her daughter, Regina; Aly Hogarth-Hall; Augustine, Catherine and baby Regina in hospital; Regina was a volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy during a return field service to Sierra Leone in 2011.
Clockwise from top left: Catherine Conteh and her daughter, Regina; Aly Hogarth-Hall; Augustine, Catherine and baby Regina in hospital; Regina was a volunteer onboard the Africa Mercy during a return field service to Sierra Leone in 2011.

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