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 anesthetist 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 $90 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.
Catherine, Dr. Keith and Fiona (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
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.
“He gave me the ultimate gift – a chance to live again. If someone would have told me I'd be an educated person I would not have believed them. Dr. Thomson made something out of nothing."
Dr. Keith with Regina and Catherine at his 70th birthday party (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
For Keith's kindness to Catherine and her children – his informal godchildren, who call him Uncle Keith – did not stop at that one lifesaving act.
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 honored to be able to return the favor 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.
Catherine in hospital the day Regina was born (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
She said: “I remember seeing Keith for the first time, all those years ago when I was in labour with Regina.
“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.'"
–Dr. Keith Thomson
Catherine continued: “It's a privilege for me to be able to help him when he needs someone. He's my best patient."
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 needs a caesarean'. Her uterus would have ruptured and she would have bled to death."
Dr. Keith and Catherine's family (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
“Her family had no money. She was there with her mother and her husband was running around Freetown desperately trying to raise the £70 which is the equivalent to a year's wages there," Keith said.
“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."
Catherine, Dr. Keith and Fiona (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
Keith explained: “I felt very privileged, having been able to help her. It was a very emotional moment for all of us."
Following his incredible experience, Dr. Thomson returned to the U.K. and to normal life.
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.
Augustin, Catherine, nurse Regina Niehaus and baby Regina. PA Real Life/Aaron Chown
Giving Maureen $12, he asked her if she bumped into Catherine Conteh to pass it on to her – although he thought it would be unlikely, as Conteh is a very common name there.
Fortunately, during her time in Freetown, Maureen asked the pastor of a church if he knew Catherine, only for him to say, 'She's over there helping with the food.'
This led to Catherine renewing her contact with Keith, who went on in May 1995 to pay for her family to flee to the neighboring country of Guinea, as the civil war intensified.
"I remember us seeing a little five-year-old girl holding up a sign saying, 'Uncle Keith, thank you for saving my life and my mum's'"
–Dr. Keith Thomson
After that, the friends kept in touch via email and phone calls – with Catherine's husband Augustin translating, as she was still learning English back then.
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.
He said: “I remember us seeing a little five-year-old girl holding up a sign saying, 'Uncle Keith, thank you for saving my life and my mum's. You are most welcome.'"
The medical bill for Catherine's surgery (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
Keith continued: “That was one of the most emotional moments of my life – meeting up with that then five-year-old girl. I never thought that would happen.
“We spent time at church together and visited an island and the beach. She was a remarkable child."
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.
Dr. Keith Thomson and Catherine Conteh at Keiths home in Ascot. PA Real Life/Aaron Chown
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.
Then, in 2005 Catherine and her family emigrated to Australia as part of a UN refugee resettlement program – the same year as Keith was diagnosed with tongue cancer.
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 Regina in Sydney, Australia (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
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.
“Whenever I feel low I ring her. She is a remarkable woman. She's been through a hell of a lot."
Dr. Keith saved Catherine's life (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
“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."
Meanwhile, the mom, who flew back to Australia on Monday, remains deeply moved by Keith's incredible generosity towards her family and forever grateful to have him in her 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."
Dr. Keith with Catherine and Regina at his 70th birthday party (PA Real Life/Aaron Chown)
Catherine added: “Uncle Keith is a big part of my life. If it wasn't for him I would not be in the position I'm in.
“He's supported us throughout Regina's life in every country we've lived in. When I told him I wanted to go back to school he would say 'You can do anything you want to do.'
“He's an amazingly generous person and without him I and my daughter wouldn't be alive. I can't thank him enough."