Since 2011, war has raged through Sudan’s Nuba Mountain range. While most Americans have never heard of the Nuba Mountains or the war, the life of Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary doctor from New York, has been completely shaped by it.
Catena moved to the Nuba Mountains, a place of peace but with very limited resources and not a single permanently stationed doctor, in 2008. He started Mother of Mercy Hospital with the assistance of only a few clinical personnel and assistants to serve the medical needs of a population of over half a million people. Far from centers of medical development and with scarce resources, without even electricity and running water, Catena and his team were forced to be resourceful and creative in their treatments.
Then, on June 6, 2011, civil war erupted between the Nuba people and the Sudanese regime over territorial disputes and the exclusion of the Nuba region from the democratic vote. As those working alongside him in the hospital fled, Catena, the only surgical doctor in the area, realized that he could not leave.
“If I left, people would not have any care at all… It was a moment of moral clarity,” he said in a 2016 interview with the Aurora Prize , “We call ourselves missionaries, and yet when the times get rough we take off. That’s not much of a Christian witness.”
Catena remained in the region, his task seeming more impossible than ever. Yet he is the man for the job. On call 24/7, Catena often checks up on around 400 patients a day, and performs around 140 surgeries every month—several every day.
The medical needs of a 3,000 square mile region trapped in a brutal civil war is unfathomable, and the war continues with no end in sight. The Sudanese army drops bombs on civilians daily in an attempt to crush the rebellion. Even the hospital grounds have been hit with bombs 11 times, as humanitarian aid is prohibited by the Sudanese government. Catena’s entire life, his every waking hour, consists of operating on the brutally wounded, and tending to the rest of the region’s medical needs such as disease and childbirth, without the aid of electricity or most modern medical conveniences. And yet Catena is at peace with his life, and to leave is unthinkable.
“Now I’ve been here for 8 years,” Catena said, “For me it’s a privilege to work with these people. I really feel a substantive obligation to do my best to take care of them. That’s just how it is.”
Dr. Catena is recognized globally as a preeminent humanitarian medical professional, and has been recently named the 2017 Aurora Prize Laurate. Without the support of any government (in fact, under attack by the Sudanese government) or any other doctors, the courage and resilience of this one man has saved thousands of lives in the Nuba region which would have otherwise gone without any aid.