Monetary donations for Dr. Tom Catena’s work can be sent to: Dr. Tom Catena, Comboni Missionaries, 1318 Nagel Road, Cincinnati, OH 45255-3120.
When Dr. Tom Catena arrived back at his hospital a week ago, the main ward was full of wounded soldiers. In the labor and delivery ward, two pregnant women were having complications.
He had been on a brief trip home to see his family in Amsterdam and receive an award, but now he was checking in with each of his patients, moving from one to the next in a hospital he helped found.
Catena’s hospital is in the African nation of Sudan, in a southern region of the country called the Nuba Mountains. Catena’s hospital is also in the middle of a civil war.
That evening, another patient arrived. This one, Catena could do nothing for. The man had been the victim of a bombing about two hours away.
“I was right here at the hospital when they brought him in,” Catena said last week via Skype. “By the time they reached the hospital, he was already dead.
“That,” he said, referring to his work with the wounded soldiers, the pregnant women and the bombing victim, “was my first eight hours back.”
Catena, 50, was back to doing what he has made his life’s work: tending to people a world away from where he grew up. He was also back to heeding a call to service and letting the people of the Nuba Mountains know their lives are as valuable as his.
Catena has volunteered his medical skills in Sudan since 2008. Before that, he volunteered at a hospital about a five-hour drive from the capital of Kenya. In all, Catena has served nearly 15 years in Africa, helping people who otherwise wouldn’t be helped.
He does it to honor his Christian faith.
“That” Catena said, “is the whole reason why I’m here.”
His service to the people of Africa was the reason Catena was honored earlier this month by a national organization.
A 1982 graduate of Amsterdam High School, Catena went on to Brown University and starred as a nose tackle on the football team. The honor, a 2014 Gold Medal, came from the National Football Foundation, marking Catena’s life of service.
“I’d like to accept this award not on behalf of myself, but on behalf of the people of the Nuba Mountains, who are incredibly brave and wonderful and open and hospitable people,” he said.
It’s also not the first honor he’s received. His work has been featured in Time magazine and elsewhere. There’s even a Facebook page — maintained by friends — with more than 800 likes, “Honoring a Hero: Dr. Tom Catena.”
Catena’s path to the Nuba Mountains went through Amsterdam, Brown and the Navy.
He grew up in Montgomery County, the fifth of seven siblings. His parents, Gene and Nancy, still live in the city. One of his brothers, Felix Catena, is the longtime Montgomery County Court judge.
They get to see him only once every couple years on visits home. One such visit came recently with his award. It was from that visit that Catena arrived back in Sudan a week ago.
Catena’s parents recalled him as an obedient child who never misbehaved. He was also a child who was content with what he had, his father recalled.
“He never asked for anything, he never wanted anything,” Gene Catena recalled. “Materialism was not part of his vocabulary.”
Felix Catena recalled his brother as someone who was always bright and always did well in school. He then became someone whose strong faith led him to a life of service in Africa.
“We’re just reassured that Tom is doing what he’s supposed to be doing, and he’s just helping many, many people firmly in the belief that the Lord is guiding him,” Felix Catena said, “and that no harm will come to him. That’s our hope and our prayer.”
Catena majored in mechanical engineering while playing football at Brown, but he also wanted to go into missionary work. The best way he could do that, he decided, was to join the Navy and go to medical school.
Eventually, he took a couple of medical mission trips to Latin America. When the organization he worked with identified a need for a general practitioner in Kenya, Catena went.
By 2000, Catena was in the village of Mutombo, about a five-hour drive from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The last two hours of that drive were by dirt road. Kenya was relatively stable.
By 2007, Catena was ready to take a new job. He spent a few months working in what is now South Sudan. In 2008, he arrived in the Nuba Mountains, which remains part of Sudan. His main guide there has been his faith.
Catena said one of his favorite stories in the Bible tells how Jesus invites a rich man to sell everything he has, give to the poor and follow him.
“I think that invitation was not just to that man 2,000 years ago,” Catena said, “that’s an active invitation that’s ongoing.
“I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from that.”
Nothing is about what he had to start with in the Nuba Mountains. His first task was to help build a hospital, and with the help of the local Catholic diocese, that’s what he did. From stone quarried from nearby, as well as cement, mud and hard work, Mother of Mercy Hospital was born.
“When I first came to Sudan, I thought it would be a tremendous challenge, a chance to get started on something from zero, from the ground up,” Catena said.
He was also well aware of the history. Sudan, south of Egypt, has been wracked by civil war for decades. By 2008, though, the country was three years into a fragile peace. That peace was broken in 2011, and strife continues.
“I knew this was not a place to go to and expect a lot of peace and quiet,” he said. “I knew that was part of the bargain.”
There’s been fighting between Sudan and South Sudan. More immediate, though, is the fighting between Sudan and the people of the Nuba Mountains, many of whom side with the south.
The hospital is usually far from the front lines, Catena said. Early on, there was fear that the hospital might be overrun until rebel forces pushed the northern army out.
As Catena explains the situation, the constant nature of his job comes out. Someone comes to ask him a question. He pauses to answer.
He’s helped in his work by speaking Arabic, a language that ties most people in the region together. The people of the Nuba Mountains are a mix of Muslims and Christians.
A couple times, he continued after answering the question, the ground forces got too close for comfort as a nearby village saw shelling. The fighting can be one-sided, as the Sudan government drops bombs from the air.
In his acceptance speech, Catena recalled the time in May the bombs came too close for comfort. On consecutive days, bombs came down near the hospital. One hit near his residence.
Catena and his meager staff cowered on the hospital floor. His first thought: “Don’t they know there are people down here?”
He then said he became “acutely aware of what it feels like when someone doesn’t value your life.”
“I was in the same position as everybody else,” Catena said. “We were all laying there as equals. My life was as useless to the Sudan government as the lives of all the Nuba.”
When the fighting returned, aid organizations left. Catena’s organization left, too, but he stayed.
Just by being there, Catena told the crowd, they convey to the Nuba “that they are loved, they are wanted, that their lives are inherently worth something in the eyes of God.”
He said staying was probably the easiest decision he’d made in his entire life. Catena is the only doctor at the only hospital in the Nuba Mountains.
He has staff made up of Nuba, some trained on the job. A few have been able to go to a nursing school in the south.
The conditions are difficult, made worse in 2011 by the outbreak of civil war. With aid organizations no longer in the country, food and vaccines don’t get in.
They do OK for equipment, bringing it in from Nairobi. The difficulty of getting resupplied, though, means they have to resterilize and reuse much.
Donations come from those who hear of Catena’s work through the Cincinnati-based Comboni Missionaries. Donations made in Catena’s name go directly to his work. The organization also sends support.
The Rev. Brian Quigley, Comboni’s mission director, said Catena and his staff are obviously doing their jobs under difficult and dangerous circumstances.
“He’s a very dedicated physician filled with great compassion,” Quigley said.
Catena spoke last week after another long day on the job, one of a series of long days that has stretched back years. He’d just finished up in the operating room an hour before.
As for the future, Catena said he and his staff will be there as long as the hospital is full. If the bombs come again, he said, “we’ll figure something out.”
“We’ll move the hospital, we’ll set up tents up in the hills,” Catena said. “We’ll do something to keep some level of service going.”