A good Samaritan who saved the life of a stranger and her unborn baby more than 25 years ago has enjoyed a poignant reunion with her, after she flew more than 10,000 miles to nurse him through major surgery.
Catherine Conteh, 44, first met British anaesthetist Dr Keith Thomson, 71, in March 1993 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he was volunteering with a medical charity and found her in a maternity hospital as her loved ones were saying their goodbyes – unable to afford the £70 needed for a lifesaving caesarean.
Horrified to see an 18-year-old girl in such anguish, father-of-two Keith, of Ascot, Berks, whose wife, Fiona, 68, is a housewife, funded the op, which cost the equivalent of a year’s salary in the impoverished country.
So began a lifelong friendship between Keith, now retired, who has two grandchildren, Isla, five, and Hamish, three, and Catherine, who now lives in Perth, South Australia, and has two children, Regina, now 26 and a nurse, and Derek, nine, named after Keith’s dad.
Eternally indebted to Keith for his kindness, Catherine, now a nurse, who is married to miner Augustin, 52, said: “When he asked if I would come over after his recent operation, I didn’t hesitate. I wanted to do something for him.
“He has been a best friend and a father figure to me.
In May 1995, the doctor, whose daughter, Rebecca, 37, is a paramedic and whose son, Duncan, 35, is a businessman, helped fund the family’s escape from Sierra Leone to Guinea then in October 2000 to Ghana, after they again came under threat, and also paid towards Catherine and Regina’s education.
Now Catherine feels honoured to be able to return the favour by helping Keith as he recovered from a 12 hour operation on his jaw, which was degraded by radiotherapy, after a diagnosis of tongue cancer in 2005.
“I remember thinking it was strange, because I didn’t have any European friends. I wondered what was happening and if I was actually dead. Then the nurse said they were getting me ready for theatre and a stranger was happy to pay.
“The idea that someone would come and help you without knowing you, someone who did not come from our background and who is totally different but is willing to give you the gift of life is incredible.”
I asked the nurses what was happening and they told me, ‘She’s going to die.’
Also recalling their first meeting, Keith, who is now on the board of directors at Mercy Ships, the charity he volunteered for when they met, which provides medical care and free surgery for poorly served people in Africa on a hospital ship, said: “I was in the maternity hospital in Freetown back in 1993 and could hear a young woman of 18 moaning in pain.
“I asked the nurses what was happening and they told me, ‘She’s going to die. She’s been in labour for four days and urgently ne a caesarean’. Her uterus would have ruptured and she would have bled to death.”
“It was no problem for me to offer the money. When you go to Africa you meet a lot of people and you know that you can’t help everyone, but sometimes you get a voice in your head that says, ‘Help that person’.
“The next day I returned and she was sitting up smiling, holding baby Regina with her husband Augustin by her side. I stayed with them for about half an hour.”
Keith explained: “I felt very privileged, having been able to help her. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.”
But in November 1994, while working at the Thames Valley Nuffield Hospital in Slough, Berks., he got chatting to a scrub nurse, Maureen Burt, who mentioned she was going to Sierra Leone with a church group.
And five years later, in November 1998, they met up for a second time – enjoying a very emotional reunion at Conakry International Airport in Guinea, where Keith had travelled with his wife to do some voluntary work.
Friends for life after all he had done, Keith then helped Catherine, her husband and children escape from Guinea two years later, in 2000, when Augustin was arrested and held in a prison cell for five days as part of a crackdown on Sierra Leone refugees.
Through his contacts with Mercy Ships, he helped arrange transport to and accommodation in the African country of Ghana – where he visited them twice and paid for Regina’s primary school education and for Catherine to take a hospitality course.
Catherine said: “When I heard he was sick it was incredibly sad for me and my whole family. He’s always been there to give assistance and offer reassurance so to hear he was unwell with that kind of illness was awful.”
Catherine and Keith met on five further occasions in 2006 in Australia, in 2008 and 2009 in Ascot, UK, in 2016 in Sierra Leone and for Keith’s 70th birthday in 2017 in Southampton before she came over to help nurse him on June 1, after his 12 hour operation.
Keith said of his friend, who was inspired by him to become a nurse: “She’s a fantastic nurse. There was no one else I would want more than Catherine. I have been remarkably privileged to have such a relationship in my life.
“I call Catherine and Regina my starfish. I’m coming to the latter part of my life now and I know I’ve not had the worst life. I feel proud of what I achieved and if I could be remembered for anything it would be for my starfish,” Keith said.
Catherine, who graduated in nursing 2013 and now works as a general nurse in Perth, while her daughter Regina has also recently qualified as a nurse, said: “I think all the time if God could give me the grace to do a little bit of what Keith has been doing, that will be a great thing.
“I know I cannot fill his shoes because he’s so special. He’s an inspiration to me.”
It’s the best gift you can give anyone – that of life.
She said: “As years go by I’m still processing what he’s done. I know what it’s like to have nothing and now I’m able to see the other side of the coin – to be able to work and look after myself and my family, thanks to him.
“It’s the best gift you can give anyone – that of life. You are giving them the chance to achieve their purpose. For me I think that purpose was becoming a nurse and helping other people.”
“He’s an amazingly generous person and without him I and my daughter wouldn’t be alive. I can’t thank him enough.”