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Maud Kells: The night I was shot and left for dead

Suddenly out of the darkness ran two masked figures in camouflage clothing pointing something shaped like a gun, covered in leaves

Maud Kells at her home in Cookstown
Maud Kells at her home in Cookstown
Maud being evacuated from the scene
Maud on the way to hospital
Maud after the shooting
Maud with church members during her recovery

When Maud Kells was born on the family farm in Cookstown 80 years ago this week, the doctor, who delivered her after a difficult forceps birth, said it would be a miracle if she survived. Yesterday, this redoubtable and hugely inspiring lady celebrated her 80th birthday with the launch of her autobiography, which details her extraordinary life as a missionary, including the night five years ago when she was shot by a bandit in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

An Open Door: A True Story of Courage in the Congo is a fascinating and insightful read, taking the reader on a journey from her early years training as a nurse, midwife and missionary to her arrival, aged 25, in the Congo where she was replacing martyred missionaries.

Maud, who was shot just days after being awarded an MBE and is also a former Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year winner, went on to spend five decades there, providing maternity care and working to build a hospital and nursery in the rainforest village of Mulita.

Here we run two extracts from the book, recalling the night she was attacked - and how friends and colleagues helped her to recover.

An Open Door: A True Story of Courage in the Congo by Maud Kells with Jean Gibson, is published by 10Publishing and is on sale now, £9.99

In her own words... Maud Kells on the night she thought she was going to die

The African night was quiet as I closed the shutters and prepared for bed. A whiff of smoke from dying fires hung in the air. It had been the usual busy Sunday and I was still recovering from the New Year celebrations on Thursday with all the attendant distribution of food and clothes. Onande, my night guard, moved around outside, checking the compound, making sure the gates were well secured with ropes. On occasion his system worked so well the midwife from the hospital was unable to undo them if she needed me in the night, forcing her to waken me by shouting over the hedge.

Tonight, however, there was no shouting. My neighbours were already settled for the night and only the high-pitched chirp of crickets and the occasional croak of a nearby frog disturbed the silence.

"Mademoiselle, are you awake?" I fought my way into consciousness and checked the time as the knocking on the shutters woke me. Just after midnight. I had had a couple of hours' sleep. I recognised Mama Rebecca's voice.

"What's the problem?"

"A mama has come to maternity who has had three caesarean sections before."

I blinked the sleep out of my eyes as I assessed the situation. "How is she? How is the baby's heartbeat?"

"Everything is fine. She is not in any danger. I'm just letting you know."

I was pleased that Rebecca the midwife had heeded my request to be kept informed of emergencies but it sounded as though all was under control.

"Do you need me for anything? Is there a nurse surgeon there to do a caesarean section?"

"We are fine, we can cope. Nguza and Ramazone are there. I just wanted to let you know what was happening."

"Very good. If there are any problems, if you need IVs or medical supplies from the house here, come back and call me."

"That's fine. I'll do that."

I settled back into bed, grateful for trained staff who ensured I no longer needed to deal personally with each situation.

"Madame, please come, it's an emergency. No one else can do it. We need you."

I shot awake again. It was a male voice this time. Only 15 minutes had passed since the previous call. The knocking on the shutters was insistent.

"I've talked to the midwife, I've dealt with that problem. Everything is under control." I tried to sound patient. It was probably an over-anxious husband in a panic.

"No, no. You need to come immediately. The lady's very ill. They have sent me to get you."

"Why? She's having a caesarean section, she'll be okay," I tried to reassure him.

"No, no. You need to come."

With a sigh, I dressed quickly and slipped my feet into my sandals. Although my bedroom was beside the front door, the key for the Yale lock on that door had been lost during the war so I went out through the back door, locking it behind me. Onande met me on the doorstep.

"Mademoiselle, I heard you talking to someone. Do you need to go to the hospital?"

"Yes, I think it's the husband of a maternity patient who is insisting that I go."

"I'm coming with you."

The hospital compound was only 300 yards from mine but Onande took his protective duties seriously. We checked that the back door was securely locked and set off together, the white dust path picked out in the light of my torch. The gate of my compound was already open and I wondered vaguely whether Rebecca had left it open or the husband who had come to my window.

Between the maternity department and the operating suite, a group of people had gathered: hospital staff and relatives of the patient.

"Mademoiselle, why have you come?"

One of the midwives was confused.

"The man said you needed me. Didn't you send him to call me?"

"No, we didn't send anyone."

"Where is the husband of the patient? I'm sure he was the one who called me."

"I think he's in the theatre with his wife, in the waiting area."

"Well, I don't understand it. Do you need me for anything?"

"No, no. Everything is under control."

I looked at Onande. All appeared calm. "Then we'll just go back."

I was aware of a slight unease. In all my years at the hospital I had never had a hoax call. We went back through the gate of the compound and up the side of the house towards the back door. Suddenly out of the darkness ran two masked figures in camouflage clothing pointing something shaped like a gun, covered in leaves. One of them grabbed Onande and ran off with him. For a moment I froze, then thought of the cash I kept in the house in the absence of local banks. Doubtless a 75-year-old lady seemed an easy target.

"You won't scare me; you won't get the better of me," flashed through my mind as I reached out to grab the weapon. The noise and the pain were instantaneous. I didn't realise a gunshot would be so loud. Pain shot through me from front to back.

A scream that seemed to come from somewhere else brought my attacker up short and he took to his heels as I continued to yell at the top of my voice. It was my only means of getting help but a disturbing stillness followed my screams. Where were the neighbours, the pastor, the chef de poste, the hospital staff?

Blood was pouring from a wound between my shoulders where the bullet appeared to have passed through. Desperate to stem the bleeding, I staggered to the wall of the house, pressing myself against it as firmly as possible. Time seemed to stretch indefinitely as I stood there, fighting to stay conscious and keep the blood flow under control. Call after call elicited no response. Images flitted through my brain: pictures of Jesus left on the cross, crucified and alone.

As on that night, people were too terrified to come near and identify with the victim. It looked as if this was it. I would die here in Mulita where I had invested so much over the years.

I had no fear. I was very conscious of God's presence surrounding me and the Holy Spirit's whisper that He was in complete control of the whole situation. He reminded me of Scriptures that had been precious over the years: 'The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in' (Psalm 121:8, esv); 'My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth' (Psalm 121:2, esv). While I was standing there with no physical help appearing, I thought, "Lord, are you taking me now?" I prayed my daily prayer whatever the situation: "Forgive me, Lord, for anything I've done wrong." Then I added: "I'm ready to go, Lord. But there are a few things I'd like to finish off on earth before I go."

"Mademoiselle is dying! Mademoiselle is dying!" A Congolese friend, Mado, visiting me in Mulita, appeared from the guest house where she was staying.

Having suffered from hearing problems all her life, it was ironic that she should be the first to respond to my screams. As she joined in my attempt to call for help, Mado shouted: "Mademoiselle is dead! Mademoiselle is dead!"

"Mademoiselle is manifestly not dead," I thought to myself. "Mademoiselle is still shouting!"

Onande, a wiry little man, having managed to wriggle free and escape the bandits, came running up, taking in the situation as he tried to get his breath back. "I'll go to the pastor's house and call him."

Realising the pastor was too frightened to come out of his house, Onande dashed off to reassure him that the bandits had gone. His explanation seemed to have the desired effect because almost immediately I heard the drum going as an emergency message went out to the community. I was frozen to the wall, keeping pressure on my back as firm as possible. I could still feel the blood dribbling from my wound and knew that once I moved it would be difficult to stop.

However, I could not stand there indefinitely. As the medical staff supported me into the house, shock and blood loss took over and everything grew dim as I collapsed onto a mat on the floor.

‘A rumour spread that I had died and there were fears it would set off violence’

As the mists cleared, I became conscious of hands cleaning me up, of faces hovering above me. I realised John, whom I had trained to take over from me in maternity, was erecting an intravenous drip to replace fluids. "You're alright, Mademoiselle. We've stopped the bleeding and dressed the wound. You're on the couch in your house and I'm just putting up this drip for you."

Behind John I could make out the nurse surgeons Nguza and Ramazone, attending to me rather than patients in the hospital. "What are you doing here?" I asked. "Go and see to that poor lady waiting for the section."

"She's fine, Mademoiselle. Don't worry." John tried to keep me calm.

The room seemed to be full. Local people had come to offer help and to see what was happening. Gradually I recalled the hoax call and the attack that I had thought was going to end my life. Perhaps my work in DRC was not yet finished.

The pastor sent some people to look for my attackers and others as messengers. They informed the chief of the area, who lived at the Lowa ferry crossing six kilometres away. At 3am the chief arrived with his entourage of soldiers and promised to contact his superiors in Punia, the army commander and the state administrator.

Our resourceful hospital secretary lifted my camera from a nearby cupboard and began taking photographs of all that was happening, building up a photographic record of the night. Among them are pictures of the chief and police interviewing me in my semi-conscious state at 3am.

I described the two men I had seen at the time of the attack, although for some reason the police thought there were three. They immediately despatched a search party and at 4am returned to tell us they had picked up one of the men trying to find his way out of Mulita. Not being from the area, he did not know the roads and had been found by local people, who brought him to the police. A German company who were working on the roads in the area agreed to lend the chief a vehicle to get to Punia. On the final leg of the journey he overtook the messengers whom the pastor in Mulita had sent by bicycle to the church leaders there, and so he gave them a lift into town. With the difficulties in travel and communication, it was 5am before the news of my shooting eventually got out beyond the local area.

Church leaders in Punia tried to contact the church president but his phone was out of order. However they managed to get through to Dr Mola, who had been our first Congolese doctor in WEC. He and I had established a firm friendship back in 2002 when we lived next door to each other for two years in Nebobongo. Dr Mola contacted everybody, including WEC headquarters in England and MAF in Nyankunde. My friends in both organisations were upset at the news but sprang into action. MAF immediately rearranged flight schedules so that a plane could come and pick me up.

In the meantime a rumour spread locally that I had died. The governor, afraid that the shooting might be the start of a major incident, sent a large number of troops from Punia, armed with guns and grenades. My death could have set off a spiral of violence. Thankfully God preserved my life and saved Mulita from any further trauma.

John monitored my vital signs, checking the dressings and keeping me reassured when I was conscious enough to hear him. He reminded me that everyone in the church was praying. Mama Jani, my faithful house help, washed my dress and cleaned up the mess in the house. When I asked her later how she managed to get the blood out of my dress, she replied: "You always taught us to soak uniforms in salt and water overnight when there was blood on them so that's what I did." Thoughtful and practical, she packed a bag in preparation for my transfer to hospital.

At midday everyone was relieved when plane engines were heard overhead. The MAF pilot was Jon Cadd, a good friend. He came with other good friends of mine, German missionaries Dr Matthias and Sabine Holmer, who were based at Nebobongo. As soon as they heard what had happened, they volunteered to come down and help with the evacuation. Jon was delayed first by bad weather at Nyankunde and then needed to fly to Nebobongo to collect Matthias and Sabine, so eventually reached Mulita 12 hours after the shooting. By then I was almost unaware of what was happening, though I had a vague sense of people coming into the house.

Jon, Matthias and Sabine brought medical equipment and blood donated by another missionary, Mareike from Germany. Over the next 90 minutes they gave me blood, did an ultrasound to assess the extent of the damage and supplemented my difficult breathing with oxygen. Preparing to take me to Goma where there were British troops with more medical equipment, they contacted the British embassy. However when their investigations showed that my lung damage did not appear to be as extensive as first feared and they managed to get my blood pressure raised to a more normal level, they decided they could do all they needed at Nyankunde hospital. I have no recollection of those 90 minutes of treatment, of being taken to the plane or of the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Nyankunde, but by the time I got there I was beginning to regain consciousness.

I came round as we landed roughly on the uneven terrain at Nyankunde, aware that kind hands were moving me from one place to another, taking me from the plane and transporting me to hospital. Still largely oblivious of my surroundings and with no sense of time, I experienced a great sense of relief to know others were taking care of everything.

The Mulita hospital staff had sutured the back wound and put in a surgical drain. At Nyankunde they opened the wound to check if there were any remnants of bullet. Once satisfied that it was clear, they sutured it again. However it refused to heal, so five days later they removed the sutures and left the wound open with drains in place, continuing to dress it two or three times every day.

After six days in hospital, I was discharged to the home of Jon Cadd, the pilot who had come to evacuate me. Jon and his wife Cher were kind and hospitable, opening their home also to Matthias and Sabine so that they could continue caring for me, looking after my dressings and intravenous drips. Jon loved animals and kept me amused with his numerous pets, including chameleons, snakes and a parrot which he had taught to drink Coca-Cola.

Any movement I made set off waves of pain, but medication to treat the pain made me nauseated and sleepy. Trying to work out why I was feeling so ill and weak, I asked the doctor to cut down the medication. I began to feel better and decided I would rather have pain than the dreadful nausea...

Sometimes reading helped to take my mind off my own situation as I followed the adventures of others. I was particularly impressed by two books I read at Nyankunde. Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose is the story of a young American couple who served in Indonesia as missionaries with New Tribes Mission during the Second World War. They were imprisoned by the Japanese in separate prisoner-of-war camps. When I read what that young wife suffered, and compared it to my own situation of love and care, I thought: "What I'm suffering is mild in comparison. I have little to complain about." It helped me to put everything in perspective and the happy ending cheered me greatly.

Another book I enjoyed was The Help, set in Mississippi in 1962 and an interesting study of black maids in a white world. Coming from a background of living and working with Africans as colleagues, I found the whole topic gripping. Reading the book and watching the accompanying movie helped me forget about myself and was part of my recovery. As I enjoyed this time of reading and reflection, I suddenly realised that the only chance I had to read over many years was when I was unwell. In a normal day there was always too much to do to sit down and read a book. If I tried to read at bedtime, I would fall asleep.

Even during my times back in Ireland I was always busy preparing for and speaking at meetings, keeping house, looking after the garden and visiting. I rarely set aside time just for myself. It was somewhat of a revelation. This recuperation time also gave me a chance to look back and realise with gratitude how much I owed to MAF. If it had not been for them, I could not have carried on the work I had done in Mulita over the years. Not only had they made this remote area accessible, but the pilots had become my friends and cared for me when I needed help. Set up 70 years ago by two young men with one little plane flying in Sudan, the organisation is now an international network flying more than 140 light aircraft to around 1,700 destinations. I took time to thank God for the vision behind the whole organisation and the Christian love shown by their staff.

I realised again the truth of Paul's words to the Corinthians about the Christian family being the body of Christ: 'But God has put the body together … its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it' (1 Corinthians 12:24-27).

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