In a world facing endless threats to global health, those working in healthcare are some of the most important people for local communities — but perhaps none more so than Dr. Tom Catena.
Catena is the only permanent doctor in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. He serves more than one million people and is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Resources are so slim that he sometimes sees 400 patients in one day, in a building frequently without electricity or running water. He performs around 1,000 operations a year — and is sometimes faced with “performing an operation that I am not fully comfortable doing, knowing that there is no other option.”
Since the South Sudanese Civil War broke out in 2011, an estimated 400,000 people have been killed in the area. Yet Catena sticks around, helping out while other aid workers left.
“This is a part of the world that has never really known peace,” Catena said in a lecture at Boston University School of Medicine. “It’s chaotic, but you can still do a heck of a lot with limited resources.”
Dr. Tom Catena at work. Photo on Toronto Hye
Tom Catena: From the US to Sudan
Catena graduated from Duke University Medical School in North Carolina. A committed Catholic, he was drawn towards missionary work outside of the United States.
The paediatrician and gynaecologist became the only permanent doctor in the Nuba Mountains in 2007. He treats everything from leprosy to victims of barrel bomb attacks in the 435-bed Mother of Mercy Hospital, which he founded in 2008. The building has several areas for patients and staff to take refuge in the event of attacks.
Catena’s work has been celebrated with various high-profile awards. In 2017, he was awarded the $1.1m Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. He was also appointed as Aurora’s Chair, working with the broad remit to inspire people to take action and uplift others in lesser circumstances.
In addition, Catena recently won $500,000 through the annual Gerson L’Chaim Prize from African Mission Healthcare, for “outstanding Christian medical missionary service.”
“The prize money will give us a big boost and hopefully help to put us on some solid financial footing,” Catena told Fierce Healthcare. “We are completely dependent on individual donors yet are the only major referral hospital for a population of over one million.”
The hope is that the doctor’s blossoming international profile can help work towards the Nuba 2020 project, which is trying to raise $7.5m to secure the hospital for the next 20 years — training staff, expanding assistance to villages and securing power for the hospital.
Advice for others
On top of all of this, Tom Catena continues to think about how to help others grow. In an interview about volunteering with the Catholic Medical Mission Board, he encourages people to make an effort to reach out to those they admire, and find areas where they can contribute.
“There is a lot people can offer,” he says. “You don’t have to know everything. You can go with what you know, be open and willing to learn, and you can contribute a lot.”