When Amsterdam native Dr. Thomas Catena got off the plane from Sudan, the smell of New York City bus exhaust and cold February air stung his nostrils.
“In Sudan, the air has sort of a sweet smell,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “from the earth and the flowers.”
Catena has spent the past 13 years providing medical attention to the poor and sick in war-torn sections of Africa, emerging once every few years for a month-long leave stateside. This time, he’s in New York City mainly to attend the Ivy League Football Association Dinner tonight at the Marriott in Manhattan.
Every two years, each of the eight Ivy League schools brings together their best football alumni, ones who have done the most good since graduation, and honor them at the dinner. In years past, noteworthy people like actor Tommy Lee Jones and Augustus White, a distinguished surgeon and educator, have been honored.
This year, Brown University nominated Catena over scores of other distinguished graduates. Catena earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering back in 1986 at Brown, cleaning up on the football field before moving on to medical school at Duke University.
According to Mike Wallace of Brown, who was on the board of nominations, the missionary doctor was a clear winner this time around.
“The work he’s doing is just incredible,” Wallace said, “I figured if I didn’t vote for him, I’d be punished by God.”
For the past five years Catena was the only doctor operating the only hospital with surgical capabilities in an area the size of the state of Georgia — in a country consumed by civil war. Catena’s facility, the simple stone, 350-bed Mother of Mercy Hospital is almost constantly at full capacity.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been locked in civil war with President Omar al-Bashir’s government for many years. During times of relative peace, Catena treats everything from hernias to malaria and leprosy. When the fighting gets hot, which it often does near the hospital’s perch in the Nuba Mountains, he deals with more serious injuries.
“They send these crude planes and just throw bombs out the back,” he said of al-Bashir’s government forces, “They’re not very accurate, but they do a lot of damage.”
When a bomb falls or ground forces move in, Mother of Mercy is left to pick of the pieces, often literally. Shrapnel and bullet wounds are as common for Catena as skinned knees and sprained wrists would have been if he’d pursued a career in the U.S.
Though he’s never been shot at during his time in Sudan, or at his previous post in Kenya, a violent death has always been a distinct possibility. The reigning government knows where the hospital is and that it’s busy patching up rebels, but so far Mother of Mercy hasn’t been attacked.
“They might be trying to hit us and just missing,” he said, adding the nearest bomb dropped less than a mile from the hospital.
He’s helped thousands of people, people who would have surely died if he hadn’t been there. It’s rewarding, he said, but the work has taken it’s toll.
“I get malaria about twice a year,” he said, “just like the common cold, although it’s a lot worse than the common cold.”
During Wallace’s research and nomination process, he found pictures of Catena during his days as a guard on the Brown football team.
“He had to be 220 pounds,” he said. “Now look at him. He’s lost a worrying amount of weight, but God bless him.”
The man now carries a striking resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi — not a look attained without suffering. He said his faith carries him through.
“It’s rooted in my Roman Catholic background,” he said. “Caring for people is part and parcel with being a Christian. The Gospels say to care for the least of these. That’s all I’m doing.”
As part of the dinner, the Ivy League schools collected about $45,000 to be presented to Catholic Charities for support of Mother of Mercy.
There will be speakers and a video detailing Catena’s exemplary work, but it’s not going to his head — his head is too full of Sudan. On Wednesday, he heard a small village six miles from his hospital was bombed. There is a doctor filling in, but he feels needed.
“It’s hard to get too caught up,” he said, “because in a few weeks I know I’ll be back there.”
Prior to returning he expects to visit family in the Amsterdam area, including his brother, Montgomery County Court Judge Felix Catena.