Nurse Catherine Conteh first met British doctor Keith Thomson in 1993 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he was volunteering with a medical charity.
At the time, Catherine who is now 44, was just 18 and was writhing in pain due to being in labour for four days.
Unable to pay the £70 fee for an emergency caesarian in the country, Catherine began to say bye to her family. Horrified to see the situation, father-of-two Keith, now 77, decided to pay the fee which was equivalent to a year’s salary.
The two managed to become friends and even maintained their friendship through the years, though it was difficult to find one another again at first.
So when Catherine heard that Keith, now retired, was having an important surgery to treat his tongue cancer, she decided to fly 10,000 miles from Australia, where she now lives, to his home in Berkshire.
‘He has been a best friend and a father figure to me,’ said Catherine. ‘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.’
Recalling the labour 25 years ago, Catherine said: ‘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.’
Now Catherine feels honoured to be able to return the favour by helping Keith as he recovers from a 12-hour operation on his jaw after a diagnosis of tongue cancer.
‘Sometimes you get a voice in your head that says “help that person”,’ said Keith.
‘I felt very privileged, having been able to help her. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.’
He then returned to the UK but when he heard a friend was travelling to Sierra Leon, he gave them Catherine’s details and some money to help her once again.
Fortunately, Catherine was traced and the two managed to stay in touch. They met once again in 1998 when Keith went to Guinea to do some voluntary work, where Catherine’s family had fled to following a civil war.
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”.
‘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.’
In 2005 Catherine and her family emigrated to Australia as part of a UN refugee resettlement programme – 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.’
She visited him in 2017 to celebrate his 70th birthday and is now back with him now to nurse him back to health after being inspired by him to get into the medical profession.
‘She’s a fantastic nurse,’ said Keith. ‘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.’
Catherine added: ‘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.’