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The Nuba Mountains Doctor

Tom Catena is an American medical doctor. He chose to practice his profession in a particularly difficult area of Africa - Sudan - more precisely in the Nuba Mountains. Out of nowhere, he has opened a hospital and every day he is at the service of the populations most in difficulty. His dedication earned him the 2017 Aurora Prize.

By Godfrey B. Kampamba

The desire to serve in a desperate situation that needed help made a young American lose his own heart to Africa. Born and brought up in the sprawling city of New York, in the USA, Dr. Tom Catena’s graduation from Duke University Medical College only meant one thing: service to the needy in a rural setting. It did not matter where this place would be located on the globe. Therefore, after a short stint as medical doctor in the US Navy, it was time for Dr. Catena to set out on a mission.

In an exclusive interview, Dr. Catena highlights some of the heart-rending experiences of a medical doctor trying to make things work in the dangerous and frustrating Nuba Mountains in Southern Sudan, where only faith has so far kept everything together.

Although the lot fell on Kenya, fate pointed to Southern Sudan as his final base. In the last decade or so, Dr. Tom Catena has become a household name in the Nuba Mountains and beyond, because of his selfless service to the poor. He founded and runs the 430-bed Mother of Mercy Hospital, which stands out in the middle of nowhere. This health facility has been responsible for the survival of many of the victims of the violent campaigns of Sudan’s former dictator, Omar al Bashir.

Dr Catena also concentrates much of his effort on humanitarian affairs and dreams of leaving the Nuba Mountains a better place than he found it.

Tom Catena with patients at the Nuba Mountains Hospital.  Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund
Tom Catena with patients at the Nuba Mountains Hospital. Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund

Dr. Catena has made it clear that he has chosen to live in Africa and that he likes the idea of staying in one place and becoming part of the community. Considering the fact there is no lack of trouble spots in the world, and Africa in particular, one could ask what prompted him to leave the comfort of his home in New York to go and live in as hostile a place as the Nuba Mountains.

“It is interesting”, he says, “because when I was in university, before I even became a medical doctor, I always wanted to be a missionary and that desire to be a missionary is what prompted me to actually go into medicine.” He explains further that upon graduation from medical school, and after having worked in the US Navy for four years, he joined the New York-based Catholic Medical Mission Board. This would later act as a springboard making his dream to work in a rural area come true.

“So, I chose a place in rural Kenya, a place called Mutomo. It is a hospital run by the Irish Mercy sisters”, he says. Before long, Dr. Catena moved to the city of Nairobi, where he ended up working for five years. “When I was in Kenya I kept hearing about  Sudan, about the conflict in Sudan, that this place has been destroyed by civil war, and that there were no health facilities there”, Dr. Catena says, adding “I heard that there were some NGOs working there but were leaving because of the conflict. To me it sounded like a very desperate situation.”

Tom Catena with Nuba Mountains in the background.  Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund
Tom Catena with Nuba Mountains in the background. Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund

Regardless of the news coming out of the Nuba Mountains, the reality he was hearing about attracted him so much that he did everything to find out more about the place. Bishop Macram Max Gassis, the now-retired bishop of El Obeid, was at the time building a hospital in the Nuba Mountains, and “I heard about it through a friend of mine. So I contacted his office”, Dr. Catena explains. It did not take long before “I went up and we opened up the hospital and started operating in 2008.”

It is curious that throughout his sharing, Dr. Catena betrays an unflinching affinity to Christianity and his faith. “I am what you may call a cradle Catholic”, he says. He explains further saying “I grew up as a Roman Catholic. My parents are very devout believers. My father was a great example. He went to Mass every day and really brought us up in the faith, together with my mum. They were very strong believers and I think I grew up with that idea.” He also speaks of a moment in university when he mingled with evangelicals, and one would fear he would convert to be like them. But he says he gives credit to that friendship and encounter with evangelicals because, according to him, “through these evangelicals, I got the idea of being a missionary. Then after college, I went back to this more orthodox Catholicism. So I think I have been very fortunate my whole life, to have always been with people who are always strong in the faith, to kind of guide me and to mentor me.”

Ever since he moved to the Nuba Mountains, Dr. Catena has made his medical services to the needy the most important thing in his life. His typical day, in the middle of nowhere, speaks mountains. “Basically, I get up around 05.30 am, and we are fortunate enough to have a priest with us. So, I go to Mass every day.” Dr. Catena recites the Rosary on the way to church for Mass, which begins at 06.30 and ends at 07.00. After Mass, he grabs something quick to eat at home before going to the hospital to start to work at 07.30.

Inside the Hospital. Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund
Inside the Hospital. Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund

From 7.30, Dr. Catena is on his feet, swinging from ward rounds to operating theatres, to administration and then to all sorts of very demanding hospital chores. On a busy day, he would see up to 500 patients in the wards before going to attend to cases needing attention in the operation room… “And if I am on call at night, then I will be back and forth to the hospital with different kinds of emergencies that come in. The day is very full. It is very exhausting, there is no doubt”, he explains. “It’s exhausting physically, and more so emotionally, especially when you have a bad outcome or difficult cases. It is very exhausting work.”

Much as his work requires a lot of concentration, Dr. Catena recounts moments when the activities of the military - the soldiers - have interrupted his work and the hospital routine. “There have been quite a number of times when we would be in the operating room, and patients would be on the table asleep, and we are operating and we hear airplanes going overhead. Then we hear the bombs dropping and you have to make a decision. So we just kind of keep going with the operations and keep doing what we have to do. Other times, we’ll be between cases and a bomb drops. We just have to drop on the floor in the operating room and we just wait there till the airplanes pass.”

Dr. Catena says that the most frustrating thing for a Doctor working in the Nuba Mountains is not the fear of losing one’s life, but rather “being in the remote environment and not having what you need to get things done, dealing with the limitations of our knowledge. Only faith,” he says, “allows us to keep moving forward, knowing that God is with us despite the hardship and problems.”

He mentions the fact that the fall of Dictator Omar al Bashir is a blessing for the Nuba people. The Transitional Government has made people feel that “for the first time in Sudan, in more than 30 years, there is now some hope that we have a peaceful resolution to our conflict, the conflict in Darfur and everywhere else in Sudan.”

That sigh of relief in Dr. Catena’s life has come with some interesting development in his own existence. The doctor who is at the centre of helping despondent hearts patch up their lives has lost his own heart to a local Nubian, who was born in the mountains and went to school under a tree. “We got married in 2016 and that was very positive. It was a great change in my life. It made the work a lot easier, knowing that there is someone to share the burdens with,” Dr. Catena says.

The greatest dream of the Nuba Mountains Doctor is to leave the place better than he found it. Through personal efforts and those of individual and private well-wishers, Dr. Catena has managed to train some medical personnel in a number of fields.

Tom Catena with local villagers. Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund
Tom Catena with local villagers. Photo credit: Sudan Relief Fund

Today, Mother of Mercy Hospital boasts a staff of a number of trained personnel, including 27 registered nurses, clinical officers and pharmacists. The hospital will soon be joined by a group of the first four qualified Nubian medical officers, trained with proceeds of personal and private initiatives.

Staff development, or Capacity Building, is something that is very dear to Dr. Catena’s heart. “For me this is something really very important for any group that works in the developing world. You have to go and work with the local people. So, if there are people there who are not trained, get them trained.”

In October this year, Dr. Catena was invited to join leading health care experts and decision makers from around the globe at the World Health Summit in Germany. Capacity building was one of the concerns he presented at that gathering. He says, “the key to all this staff is to have the local people trained up to your level and beyond that, so that by the time you are going to leave, you must have something already fully intact.” He adds, “that’s been a big part of what we do in the Nuba Mountains, and I have to present that at the health summit.

In 2017, Dr. Catena was awarded the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, and he says the prize money that comes with the award has been useful in pushing forward the Nuba Mountains agenda, especially in the efforts on Capacity Building. “The Aurora Prize that I was awarded in 2017 has been a big help to me personally and to the hospital. The award was also a publicity, making us well known”.  In 2018, Dr. Catena was appointed Chair of the World Wide Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, a position he holds in addition to his activities in Southern Sudan.

His main preoccupation is to sensitize and get people involved in doing humanitarian work. He is convinced that “everybody can be involved in that, no matter what you do, no matter your job, no matter your pay grade. Whatever you do, you can be involved, even if it means getting involved in advocacy.”

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02 January 2020, 08:39