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Dr. Tom Catena: The Man the Nuba Call Jesus Christ


In the Gospel of Matthew, a man walks up to Jesus and asks him, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus replied by saying to uphold the commandments. The young man assured Jesus that he has kept all of the commandments and asked what else is required from him. In turn, Jesus replied, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The young man — who had great wealth — walked away feeling sad because he could not part with his riches. Jesus then famously exclaimed to his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” One rich man who has entered the eye of a needle is Dr. Tom Catena.

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became the world’s youngest country after decades of fighting between the South-led opposition and the Khartoum-based Sudanese government. Unfortunately, soon after declaring their independence, South Sudan found itself immersed in its own political turmoil when the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, fired his vice president Riek Machar over suspicions of a coup. The removal of Machar served as a catalyst for a bitter war between the two, each backed by those loyal to them. Within the first month of fighting, nearly half a million South Sudanese were displaced; current statistics estimate that approximately two million people have been internally displaced, with over 500,000 refugees.

In the 1980s, the indigenous Nuba people joined forces with the South-led opposition in hopes of self-autonomy. This goal was first realized in 2005 after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, and again in 2011 following a referendum granting the South’s independence to become South Sudan. To the great dissatisfaction of the Nuba people, however, the Nuba Mountains were excluded from the 2011 referendum. Today, the Nuba Mountains officially belong to Sudan and are entangled in yet another series of massacres led by President Omar al-Bashir — the same man indicted on genocide charges over Darfur.

In a region rich only in starvation, massive displacements and violence, the casualties are many. What hope exists for the indigenous Nuba people who are under constant bombardment where survival has become a daily struggle? One glimmer of hope comes from Dr. Catena. Raised in Amsterdam, NY, Tom Catena graduated from Brown University with a degree in mechanical engineering. With a passion for missionary work, he set out to use his newly learned skills after graduating to help those in need. Unable to find much missionary work within his field, Dr. Catena decided to pursue a career in medicine and subsequently enrolled at the Duke University School of Medicine. During his fourth year at Duke, Dr. Catena travelled to Kenya for his first missionary work as a striving physician. Thereon, he continued his missions in Guyana and Honduras, until eventually stumbling upon South Sudan. It was there that Dr. Catena began serving in the Nuba Mountains at the Mother of Mercy Hospital, an institute he helped establish, supported only by a handful of international organizations. Dr. Catena is the only physician in the area and is responsible for the care of 500,000 people.

Fighting has recently flared up in the Nuba Mountains, and an embargo continues to be imposed by al-Bashir’s government, prohibiting any humanitarian relief into the region. As a result, medical supplies and aid are almost entirely donor-dependent. Goods are brought into Uganda and are then transferred to Sudan on a truck. These goods are then covertly transferred to another truck so that they can finally reach their destination at Mercy Hospital.

Dr. Catena’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. At 7:30 a.m., he begins rounding on his patients. By noon, Dr. Catena makes his way to the outpatient clinic, which lasts until 5 p.m. Dr. Catena serves up to 400 patients every day. In the evening, administrative duties begin as he inspects and deals with issues related to electricity, water and medical supplies. By 8 p.m., Dr. Catena’s day finally finishes, with only a few hours left for any self-reflection. As the only doctor for the Nuba, Dr. Catena has no one to consult and no one from whom to seek advice.

Being the sole doctor for half a million people with scarce medical supplies is not the only challenge. The Nuba are a very traditional people who lack a Western concept of medicine. For example, the Nuba continue to treat yellow fever by burning specific areas of the body, namely the wrist, the elbow and the shoulder. In this region, the idea of a curse serving as the agent of disease is far more likely than a virus.

Though Dr. Catena is forced to crawl into cobra-infested caves to avoid airstrikes and continues to practice despite the fact that the hospital has been bombed 11 times, the most difficult task is dealing with his patients’ deaths: “It’s physically painful.” With no real medical team except for the sixth-grade-level educated staff trained directly by him, Dr. Catena bears the burden of his patients’ deaths. He has no partners with whom to shed his tears, except perhaps with the family of those whose loved one had just passed away.

The purpose of this piece is not to preach to others to be grateful for what they have. Nor is this an open letter to condemn the world’s great leaders’ silence on the massacres inflicted on the Nuba people. Rather, it is to pay tribute to a man who embodies what it means to be a physician. Dr. Catena, the American missionary surgeon serving 500,000 people, has no desire to stop his work in the Nuba Mountains: “For me, it’s a privilege to be in a position where you can offer your services to people. I don’t see it as a hardship. I’ve been given quite a bit in this life. Let me go and try to do something with it. ” Between the countless lives he has saved and his display of pure selflessness, it is no wonder the Nuba refer to Dr. Catena as Jesus Christ.

Not everyone is able to give up a life of luxury to move to a war-stricken region under constant bombardment to care for half a million patients; in fact, few people could. For those of us who are not able to, or are unwilling to, follow in Dr. Catena’s footsteps, I leave you with the words of American author Napoleon Hill: “If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.”

Ghady Rahhal Ghady Rahhal (4 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Medical College of Wisconsin

Ghady Rahhal graduated from SUNY with a bachelors in Molecular Biology and minors in chemistry and philosophy. Shorty thereafter, Ghady moved to Boston and worked as a Network & Clinical Analyst for a healthcare company that focused on community-based care. Prior to attending college, Ghady lived in Lebanon which has given him an appreciation for Global Health - a field which he continues to be active in today. Currently, Ghady is a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin.