Antonov aircraft drop shrapnel bombs with alarming frequency on the war-torn Nuba Mountains in Sudan, as they have since 2011, sending civilians fleeing to caves and riverbeds in fear for their lives. From the time they can walk, children are trained to run to bomb shelters for safety during air raids. Neither water nor electricity is reliable, and the residents of this inhospitable region make due with few resources. Still they manage to live, pray and love.
This is where Dr. Tom Catena, the only trained doctor/surgeon at the only surgical and referral hospital in central Sudan, chooses to make his home. Constantly on call, “Dr. Tom,” as he’s lovingly been nicknamed by patients and staff, is considered a savior in these parts.
Thousands of miles from the comforts of his upstate New York hometown and his Brown University alma mater in Providence, Rhode Island, he simply can’t imagine living and practicing medicine anywhere else.
A mission in the making
Born in Amsterdam, New York, into a close-knit Italian-American family, Catena and his six brothers and sisters were raised to appreciate all aspects of school, sports and religion. These priorities were instilled by Catena’s father, a retired family court judge, and his mother, who managed the home and family.
“My parents were not overly strict but instilled a set of values that has stuck with me to this day,” he said.
Catena played youth football, baseball and basketball. In high school, he excelled on the football field and threw shotput for a year. A straight-A student, he graduated as class salutatorian of his high school, outranked only by his cousin.
Initially, Catena thought a career in politics might be his calling, but once he got to Brown, his interests gravitated more toward sciences due to his interests in math and physics. This led to his pursuit of a career in medicine.
Spiritual teachings, in addition to Catena’s academic and athletic activities, played a major role in shaping his journey. His parents, and preceding generations of his family, are Roman Catholics. Catena discovered an affinity for the Christian faith as a young boy. At Brown, he was an active Campus Crusade for Christ leader.
A Rhodes Scholarship candidate, he rounded out his university years by pledging Delta Phi Fraternity and playing football as a nose guard, receiving Associated Press All-America honorable mention and all-Ivy League accolades.
“My experience as a student-athlete was very challenging, yet very rewarding,” he recalled. “Majoring in mechanical engineering and playing football was a serious time commitment.”
As Catena would later learn, college football proved a great foundation for medical school, residency and his missionary work.
“The invaluable lessons I learned as a student-athlete are very relevant to my situation now as a doctor in a war zone,” he said. “Time management is important to me as the doctor at a 400-plus-bed hospital. And, in our setting, we have to work as a team, often under conditions of extreme stress and fatigue — lessons learned on the ‘fields of friendly strife.’ It certainly isn’t a cliche to say that intercollegiate sports are a wonderful training ground for the game of life.”
Finding his calling
After earning his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Brown in 1986, Catena enrolled at Duke University School of Medicine on a U.S. Navy scholarship, where he graduated in 1992. After he completed an internship at the Naval Medical Center San Diego in 1993, Catena joined the U.S. Navy, and for the next four years, he served his country as a flight surgeon. After his discharge from the Navy in 1999, Catena began residency in family medicine at Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana, while also participating in medical mission trips to Guyana and Honduras.
After experiencing international mission work for the first time, Catena decided to focus his efforts in Africa. Leaving behind the comforts of home, he moved to rural Kenya, then on to Nairobi and South Sudan before settling into the Nuba Mountain region of central Sudan in 2008, where he helped to establish the Mother of Mercy Hospital. Since coming to Africa in 2000, he’s been a lay missionary with the Catholic Medical Mission Board.
“I liked the challenge of going to a very remote part of the world and helping establish a hospital among a people with virtually no access to health care,” he explained. “There was such a huge need here. Doctors take care of sick people, and there were lots of sick here with no options for treatment.”
Making a difference
While there are clinics, the Mother of Mercy Hospital is the only option for surgical procedures for nearly 1 million people. As the hospital’s only trained doctor/surgeon, Catena treats a wide range of patients from expectant mothers to those with bombing injuries, malaria or leprosy. For his services as medical director, Catena earns approximately $350 a month
In addition to serving an overwhelming number of Sudanese people daily, the hospital has been bombed multiple times and remains under constant threat of attack. Throughout these difficult times, Catena relies on his faith to persevere.
“I definitely feel called to service here and believe that our good Lord gives me the strength to carry on with the work,” he said. “The Nuba people are incredibly resilient and constantly inspire me with their courage and toughness. Thousands of Nuba have been displaced from their homes, yet they’ll walk for hours just to come for a vaccination or an ultrasound of their baby. They never complain about their situation; they just want to know if it’s a boy or a girl.”
Catena has no plans to leave his current post anytime soon. In fact, he’s even more rooted to the region since his marriage to Nasima, a Sudanese woman, in May.
“The day of our wedding had to be moved back, as local officials feared the Sudan government aircraft would bomb us on our big day,” he said. “An anti-aircraft gun was posted nearby just in case an airplane was spotted. One of the fighter jets made an early morning pass. But there were no other incidents, and the wedding went off very well with a large crowd in attendance.”
Through his efforts and an unending quest to allow the Nuba community greater access to and more control over their own health care, Catena hopes his legacy will be in the establishment of high-quality hospitals and Christian service-based clinics.
“The challenge is to instill in them the values they will need to truly lead a life of service to their people,” Catena explained. “We are making slow progress on all fronts. We have several nurses, lab personnel, pharmacy personnel and two doctors currently in training, but the process will take a long time and is more of a marathon than a sprint. We’re here for the long haul to help make things happen.”
Many organizations and publications, including Time and Catholic Digest, have lauded Catena for his work, but he shies from the spotlight, unless it offers a chance to educate the world about what’s happening in Sudan. He also hopes that his work in the Nuba Mountains might inspire others to consider a life of service as a career path.
“Student-athletes — especially football players — are well-suited for this endeavor,” he said. “They already have the values of hard work, self-sacrifice and teamwork, which are vital to function in this environment.”
Tom Catena and his former Brown University football teammate, Ken Carlson, reconnected in a Manhattan cafe in 2013 to discuss Catena’s journey after leaving Brown. Inspired by the doctor’s extraordinary efforts in Sudan, Carlson, a director/producer, decided to create a documentary about Catena’s passionate work. The full-feature film project called “The Heart of Nuba” released in October 2016.