Hero missionary doctor celebrates 20 years in Africa, continues serving hundreds each day

Ceasefire in Sudan leads more patients to seek care at Christian hospital

Dr. Tom Catena
Dr. Tom Catena | African Mission Healthcare

It’s been nearly 20 years since award-winning American Catholic 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. 

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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. 

Dr. Tom Catena and his wife, Nasima Mohammed Bashir, sit on a rock in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.
Dr. Tom Catena and his wife, Nasima Mohammed Bashir, sit on a rock in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. | African Mission Healthcare

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.” 

Dr. Tom Catena with children in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.
Dr. Tom Catena with children in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. | African Mission Healthcare

“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.”

Catena said even though he tries to be in bed by 10 p.m. each night, he's always on call for any surgical emergencies that arise. 

Since the hospital has an operating budget of about $1 million a year, Catena will return to the United States in April and stay for just over a month to take part in the already-launched fundraising campaign Nuba2020

The campaign, run by African Missions Healthcare, seeks to raise money to help keep The Gidel Mother of Mercy Hospital running.

“We charge patients a very small fee. It is maybe 20 cents per visit. It can’t come close to covering the costs of running the hospital,” Catena stressed. “We have to raise almost all that money from individual donors. The goal for the fundraising campaign is raising running costs for a few years to give us a little bit of breathing room. We can’t raise money every year and just barely scrape by. We have to have a little bit of cushion to make sure that we can go along for 10, 20, 30 years.”

Part of the goal of the campaign is to raise money to start a school to train nurses, midwives and clinical officers, Catena said. 

“There are very few healthcare professionals in the Nuba Mountains,” Catena explained. “I mean, maybe eight or nine clinical officers in all of the Nuba Mountains. There are maybe 30 trained nurses and three trained midwives. We really need to increase this number of trained health personnel.” 

Catena said they would ideally like to expand the number of clinics that the hospital sponsors in the Nuba Mountains from six to 10 or more.  

“I can guarantee anybody that wants to support us that whatever they give will go directly to the work here in the Nuba Mountains,” he said. “There is no other agenda or anything else going on.”

After 20 years in Africa, Catena did not rule out the possibility that he could one day return to the United States to work if the opportunity is right. He said he doesn’t want to return to the U.S. to continue his family practice but did express interest in one-day teaching in a university’s global health program.

When asked if he’d ever return to the U.S. permanently, he replied, “Maybe when I get older and this life is too tiresome. It takes a lot of energy to work here. Maybe I would be looking at something where I am not so actively involved with patient care all day, every day. Maybe in the future, but it depends on the family and other things.” 

In 2016, Catena was the focus of the documentary “Heart of Nuba.” And in 2017, he won the prestigious Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. 

Those wishing to donate to the Nuba2020 Campaign can do so by clicking here

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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