This week, in recognition of the United Nations’ upcoming Human Rights Day, we honor Architect of Change Dr. Tom Catena.
Dr. Catena is a man who is truly moving humanity forward. A Catholic missionary who is the only doctor permanently based in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, Dr. Catena works around-the-clock to care for the citizens of this war-torn area, where the population is more than half a million people. His incredible work is captured in the new documentary “The Heart of Nuba.” Maria Shriver is honored to serve as an executive producer of the film.
We recently connected with Dr. Catena to learn more about his incredible work.
1. What were you doing before you moved to Sudan, and what brought you there?
I arrived in Africa on January 17th, 2000. Before coming to Sudan, I spent seven years in Kenya working as a lay missionary doctor at several different mission hospitals. The first was at a small rural hospital in Eastern Kenya, followed by another mission hospital in the Turkana desert of northern Kenya. Lastly, I was at a large and busy mission hospital in Nairobi that was started by an American Maryknoll priest. It was in Kenya that I heard about a Sudanese bishop who was building a hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. It seemed like a nice challenge to help open a new hospital in a very remote region with very limited healthcare.
2. What inspires you to serve in this way?
I’ve always wanted to work as a missionary in some capacity. I studied mechanical engineering in college, but that didn’t lend itself to work in the mission field, so I decided to study medicine. My inspiration to serve is based on the directives given by Jesus in the Gospels. He directed us to “serve the least of his brothers and sisters” and “sell all you own, give the money to the poor and follow me.” I take these literally and do my best to follow them.
3. You are serving an area where the government is literally killing people. What have you learned from your experience?
In May 2014, our hospital was bombed on two separate occasions. While we were in the foxholes waiting for the bombs to drop, I was thinking “hey, what are these people doing? Don’t they know there are people down here?” And that is precisely the point. Of course, they knew we were there and they were trying to kill us. Our lives were unimportant and the government was telling us in a very visceral way that our lives didn’t matter. This brought home the point that the source of most of our conflicts is the idea that one person’s life is more valuable than someone else’s. We have forgotten that we are all children of God and therefore somewhat related.
4. What keeps you hopeful amidst such conflict?
I have hope that the grace of God will see us through this conflict. Also, the Nuba are incredibly resilient people and they will make it. We have tens of thousands of internally displaced people from the conflict here and most of them are living in makeshift shelters and under trees. They’ll walk for six hours to reach us for their treatment. Many are pregnant women who make the long trek here, wait all day to be seen and get an ultrasound of their baby. They come into my office quietly and just want to know if the baby is okay and whether it’s a boy or girl. They never ask for anything or complain about their situation. They’re just happy they had a chance to see their baby. Then they turn around and start the six-hour walk back to their temporary shelters.
5. What is life like for you in the Nuba Mountains? What does a typical day look like?
The life here is quite basic and rather difficult. Nearly everyone is a subsistence farmer and the rains were poor this year and this means food shortages for the upcoming year. The work of the subsistence farmer is heavy and exhausting.
My day starts at 6 AM with the morning mass. We are fortunate to have two priests with us who celebrate the mass every day. By 7:30, I’m on the wards starting the ward rounds. I’ll do a full ward round, seeing all of the inpatients on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The number varies from around 300 to 450 patients. We’ve just been joined by a pediatrician, so that’s been a big help as he sees many of the children. On Wednesday and Friday, I do a partial round and then start my work in the operating room, where I’ll usually do around 15 operations. The other days I’ll be in the outpatient clinic after rounds and will see around 40 patients. Late evening and nighttime I’m on call for emergencies.
6. The region you serve is populated with people of different faiths. How do they live harmoniously and how has that influenced your own faith?
The Nuba Mountains are a unique place. Here there is a mix of Muslim, Christian and animists and there is no religious conflict here. Even within families, it’s very common to have people of different religions—Muslim father, Christian wife and some Muslim and some Christian children. Despite different religious traditions, all Nuba seem to have a sense of God and are not ones to denigrate another’s beliefs. Fortunately, the fundamentalists are not here to foment hatred and turn people against each other. Hopefully, the Nuba can maintain this peaceful coexistence.
7. How can people support your tremendous work?
I think people can help by becoming more aware of the long conflict here in the Nuba Mountains and the of the long history of marginalization of the people of Nuba and Darfur. The problems here overshadowed by those in Syria although the conflict here is much older than the Syrian conflict. If anyone is interested in helping, they can send donations through the African Mission Healthcare Foundation. They have a portal for donation to our hospital (Mother of Mercy) and their website is www.amhf.us.
Dr. Catena is a true Architect of Change, helping create a more caring, conscious and compassionate community. Watch the trailer for “The Heart of Nuba” below and learn more about the film here.