“Even when things are really bad and the fighting is serious and [we’re] in fear of being killed or have problems with the staff or logistics, I really feel like I want to stay here” – Dr. Tom Catena
It’s been nearly 20 years since award-winning American Christian missionary, Dr. Tom Catena arrived in Africa. Next month, Catena will complete his second decade of service as he has become one of the continent’s most important people.
Catena, a 55-year-old native of upstate New York, is the only surgeon serving 1.3 million people in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, a region hit hard by government bombings against rebel-controlled communities.
The Duke University graduate and former U.S. Navy doctor told The Christian Post in an interview that he originally traveled to Kenya in the early 2000s and only planned to stay for one year.
But one year turned into two, and two turned into three, and before he knew it, he found himself being called in 2008 to help open and run a new hospital in a war-torn region of Sudan in desperate need of help as they faced genocidal violence and starvation.
“Once I came here, I just kind of stuck,” Catena said. “It was difficult and challenging. But even in the worst of times here, there is no place else I’d rather be.“
“Even when things are really bad and the fighting is serious and [we’re] in fear of being killed or have problems with the staff or logistics, I really feel like I want to stay here,” he said.
Catena has all the reasons to stay now as he got married three-and-a-half years ago. Additionally, he and his wife, a local from East Nuba, are in the process of adopting a 1-and-a-half-year-old boy from South Sudan and are expecting his arrival any day now.
“I am more or less here to stay,” Catena told CP.
Catena’s days begin at 6 a.m. and he attends mass before he goes to work at The Gidel Mother of Mercy Hospital supported by African Mission Healthcare.
The hospital has over 435 beds and also supports six clinics throughout the Nuba Mountains.
The hospital, Catena said, sees about 200 to 500 patients per day depending on the time of year and whether fighting is ongoing or not.
“There is a wide range of emergencies that we see,” he said.
“Everything comes here. Everything from tropical illness to malaria and pneumonia and diarrhea to Tuberculosis, leprosy, all manner of cancers, surgical problems.”
Although the hospital itself was targeted directly by bombing raids in 2014, there hasn’t been much active fighting in the rebel-controlled area for the last few years. While fighting escalated in 2011 following a breach in a former ceasefire, Catena said there has been a new ceasefire in place since October as negotiations with South Sudan are ongoing.
As a result, Catena said the hospital is seeing an increase in patients who are coming over from the government-controlled areas.
“Since the ceasefire was signed in October, it has gotten much busier because people that were on the government-controlled area can cross over into our territory and access our hospital,” he said. “During the previous eight years in the civil war, they could not cross over to us and seek care.”
Being the only surgeon in a region with over 1 million people suffering from various illnesses or injuries, Catena shared the “secret” to managing his time with hundreds of patients to see and surgeries to perform.
“A lot of it is just trying to see who is really in the worst shape and focus on that person or people and work backward from there,” Catena said. “In terms of time management, it’s a lot of trying to cut corners when we can and keep things moving forward.”
“Most of the work can be done by nurses. If it’s a wound that needs to be dressed, I don’t dwell on that patient and just try to keep moving to the next one,” he continued.
“The secret really is to just keep moving forward. You meet with each patient one at a time, but you really try to get the nuts and bolts of the problem and try to just keep moving forward to the next person. Otherwise, there is just no way to get through to see everybody.”
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