Face to face after decades

Catherine and Aly reunite on the Global Mercy™ hospital ship

The last time Catherine Conteh saw that familiar smile in front of her in Freetown, it was under very different circumstances.

Fresh off the plane from Australia on Sunday, Catherine arrived at the dock next to the Global Mercy™ hospital ship, 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 lives of her daughter and her grandson, would not even have been possible.

four days lying in obstructed labor. Catherine and her husband, Augustine, had been counting down the days to meet her first baby, but things took a terrifying turn when the baby got stuck during delivery. Without the means to pay for a C-section, Catherine had no choice but to wait.

Unfortunately, Catherine’s plight was not unique. In Sierra Leone, as of 2019, 717 mothers die annually for every 100,000 live births. This is one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, according to the WHO.

Catherine felt helpless, as if all the strength was draining from her body. Deep down she knew that she was facing imminent death: “I will lose my life. If nothing happens, I will lose my life. “That kept ringing in my heart, in my mind.”

But she kept holding on to hope and faith that she was going to be okay.

An act of kindness from strangers

This is where Aly, a New Zealand nurse who was volunteering at Naves de Esperanza, first crossed her path. After hearing Catherine’s screams of pain, Aly went to investigate. She was amazed at what she learned. Aly recalled: “With Catherine in labor for four days, the nurse told me that she and the baby would die. He communicated in a very matter-of-fact way, which surprised me: that this was going to be the outcome without any intervention. She had never encountered anything like this. I didn’t know what to do, so I thought, “I’m going to pray for this woman and give her to God.”

After Aly’s prayer was over, Ships of Hope volunteer anesthetist Dr. Keith Thomson from the United Kingdom, who was touring the hospital with Aly, joined her in her room. Upon hearing Catherine’s unique story, he unexpectedly felt God’s call to pay for her surgery in full with her own money.

Catherine was rushed to the operating room for a C-section. Despite the stress of the four-day labor, both Catherine and her baby, a girl named Regina, were completely healthy.

«The only thing she did was pray for me, at that moment. “She prayed for me,” Catherine reflected. «Which I appreciated and I’m grateful to God for that, you know? Because praying for someone, for me, is like a currency with which you can buy anything.

After the birth, Aly, along with another Naves de Esperanza 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. Although they had been complete strangers just days before, Catherine and Aly quickly formed the kind of bond that comes through a life-changing encounter.

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

Reconnecting after years apart

They separated when Aly returned to New Zealand, while Catherine was granted asylum in Australia following the growing conflict in her home country of Sierra Leone. The two women lost touch over the years, but Catherine held Aly close to her heart. The knowledge that these volunteers’ acts of kindness had saved not only her life, but also that of her daughter, impressed her, leaving an impact that lasted long after the surgery itself.

Years later, Catherine unexpectedly received a message from Dr. Thomson asking if she wanted Aly’s contact information. Catherine didn’t hesitate and before long, she was holding her phone, greeted by a long-familiar voice on the other end. .

«Hearing her voice again, after almost three decades, was very emotional for me… My hope for me and Aly is to see each other physically and give us that brotherly hug. And get to praise God together, you know?

A reunion after 30 years

Some 30 years later, on October 1, 2023, this hope finally came to light. Their reunion was the first time they saw each other in person from the hospital room in Freetown, where Catherine recovered in the following days. Aly volunteers aboard the hospital ship Global Mercy during her 10-month field service in Sierra Leone. For Catherine, who was aboard the hospital ship to volunteer in the mess hall, the moment had even deeper meaning: “I’m coming home to come and serve, not just Ships of Hope, but my country.”

And for Catherine, despite having experienced a life-changing encounter with Ships of Hope, it would also be her first time boarding one of the hospital ships.

She made the trip from Australia, spurred on by the encouragement of her daughter, Regina, now 30 and the mother of a young son. Regina, inspired by her birth story, has also become a nurse, and has even volunteered at Naves de Esperanza in the past.

When she turned the corner toward the dock and the hospital ship came into view, Catherine was stunned. Then, Aly’s face lit up, waiting on the dock to greet her. It was a moment she had dreamed about for years, but she didn’t know if it would ever really happen. For both volunteers, the reunion brought back a flood of joy and old memories.

“Seeing her again in person, I couldn’t believe it,” Catherine said. «We were left sobbing. “We cried and cried.”

During their time together, they fondly remembered Dr. Thomson, who recently passed away. «This is his legacy in a way. “This is a tribute to him in many ways because his dream was for us to meet here, and he realized that before he passed away,” Aly shared.

As they prepare to bring hope and healing to other Sierra Leoneans on the Global Mercy hospital ship, Catherine reflected on the importance of the moment. One act of kindness changed her own life immeasurably, and now, she hopes sharing her story will have a ripple effect of its own.

“One person will hear the story and make a change,” Catherine said. “I see it as the power to help.”

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As volunteers on hospital ships, we travel to provide free world-class health services and safe surgical care. We are dedicated to strengthening local health systems, making a difference in communities with limited access to health.