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September 26th, 2015:

Il Dottore dei Nuba – The Nuba’s Healing Hand

Tom Catena

Medical doctor Tom Catena has been considered by Time magazine of last 16 April among today’s 100 most influential people, see http://time.com/3823233/tom-catena-2015-time-100/
Andrew Berends presents Dr. Catena like this:
Meeting Tom Catena is the closest I have come to meeting a saint. He runs the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan with an unparalleled level of devotion to his Catholic faith and the Nuban people who seek his care. Much of the region falls under rebel control. Civilians struggle to survive amid ground fighting, aerial bombardment and starvation warfare at the hands of their government. Humanitarian organizations are prohibited from delivering aid. Catena defies the ban and is the only surgeon serving a population of 750,000 people. He works tirelessly, day and night, treating all ailments, war injuries and starvation. He tells me his greatest reward is the sense of peace that comes from serving people in need, rebels and civilians alike. In spite of the hardship, he is exactly where he wants to be.

The South African Comboni magazine Worldwide has interviewed him.

How long have you been working in the Nuba Mountains? How did it come about?
– I’ve been working in the Nuba Mountains for close to seven and a half years. I first heard about the Nuba Mountains from a friend of mine named Sr Dede Byrne, who is a friend of (Comboni) Bishop Macram Max Gassis. I met Sr Dede in Kenya in 2002 and she told me that Bishop Macram was planning to build a hospital in Sudan and thought I might be interested in working there. I contacted the bishop’s office in Nairobi and began discussing with them some of the details involved in opening the hospital. Finally, in early 2008, we were ready to open. A Comboni Sister, Sr Angelina has been the hospital matron since the opening of the hospital and we have since had two other Comboni Sisters (Sr Rocio and Sr Vincienne) working with us here.

You have worked in other parts of Africa but once you said that the Nuba are special. What makes them special? What kind of link do you feel with those people?
– One thing that struck me early about the Nuba is that they are a proud and independent people and because of this, they have always treated me as an equal—not as someone above them or below them. I like the fact that an elderly woman here will call me by my first name (and not address me as ‘doctor’) and not put me at arm’s length even though I’m a foreigner.

I feel a rather strong connection to the people here and think that is borne of sharing common fears and sufferings. I think after spending some time here, one feels a bit cut off from the rest of the world and tends to feel close to those who have remained behind in this forgotten part of the world.

What are your daily endeavours? What kind of operations and how many do you perform usually? Do you get medicines easily?
– The day starts with the daily Mass at 6:30 a.m. We are fortunate to have two Apostles of Jesus priests with us who are very faithful in saying the daily Mass. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, I do a full hospital round on all of the patients from around 07:30 to 13:00 and then go to the outpatient clinic to see patients referred from the clinical officers. Clinic usually goes on until 17:00 or 18:30, depending on the time of the year. Night time is for emails, administrative work and emergencies.

We do anywhere from 150 to 200 operations per month and they run the full gamut of surgery. We do everything from abscess drainage and tooth extraction to ventriculo-peritoneal shunts on small babies with hydrocephalus. Our anaesthetist has been trained on the job and does outstanding work.

Getting medicines out here is a real challenge. We place the order from here to our office in Nairobi which then has to get the medicines from Nairobi to us here in the Nuba Mountains. This takes a tremendous effort from the office staff in Nairobi given the inevitable logistical nightmares and great expense to move things here.

How do you see yourself among the Nuba people? Do you feel their affection?
– I feel very comfortable around the Nuba and feel this is home now. They are very appreciative of all the efforts the diocese makes on their behalf. Last year, we received a donation of shoes from the US and we sent them with one of the Comboni Sisters to a very remote village. Two weeks later, 40 people from that village walked for three hours in the pouring rain to bring us gifts and sing and dance for us as a way of saying thank you. The close feelings with the Nuba took some time as they don’t readily trust anyone who shows up. This is likely due to the centuries of oppression they’ve suffered at the hands of outsiders. One certainly has to first earn their trust but once that is done, they will stick by you through thick and thin.

What are the people’s greatest needs in that remote place? What do you miss most?
– There has been virtually no development in this part of the world. There are very limited health care facilities of any type. There are some schools, several of which are run by the diocese and some others which have to rely on untrained local teachers. All of the schools were closed during the first three years of the civil war but several have now re-opened. There are no paved or maram roads anywhere—most of the roads are dirt tracks carved out through the bush. There is no running water, electricity or sanitation.

You have often been in danger. How many times have you been bombarded and had to run for your life?
– The hospital has been directly targeted twice—once by a Sukhoi-24 bomber and then by an Antonov. Eleven bombs were dropped on the hospital and its periphery but there was no major damage or casualties. Our village has been bombed on two other occasions. The Sudan Air Force bombers have been flying overhead on a frequent basis (sometimes daily, sometimes weekly) since the start of the conflict over four years ago. The sound of the Antonov or Sukhoi will send us running to the foxholes for protection as one never knows if this is one’s day.

What gives you strength to follow such a (lonely and painful) path?
– My only explanation is that the prayers and support of many people has sustained me during these past several years. I’m always amazed to hear from total strangers that they’re praying for us here and am a firm believer in the power of that prayer.

When the suffering that surrounds you is too much, don’t you feel the temptation to run away? On those occasions, what ties you to your post? What is your ‘secret’?
– Yes, of course there has been the feeling that I just need to get out of here and away from all of the suffering and problems. Nearly every day and certainly every week, there are situations that are truly disturbing—a baby or child dies, a post-operative patient dies or has complications, someone is very sick and I just can’t figure out their problem. These are all highly stressful situations that have to be confronted and dealt with. My only consolation is to know that I am certainly not perfect and that I am not the one in charge of life and death. Only God has the ultimate say on who lives and who dies. My role is to do my best and be faithful to my calling. After a patient dies, I go through a grieving process which includes trying to learn something from the situation. I then really struggle to try to stay focused and get back to the task at hand. If I become incapacitated by grief (which is easy to do) then I will be unable to help the next patient who needs our assistance.

In a way, your task is so out of proportion to the common strength of a human being that it reminds us of Mother Teresa, working herself to the bone, struggling in an ocean of death and suffering. Have you by chance thought about her? She even lost, for many years, the ‘connection’ with God. Lots of people think that this diminishes her, while we dare to think the opposite. What do YOU think?
– Yes, I understand her feelings very well. I wouldn’t say I have had any great crisis of faith here in Nuba but certainly feel a disconnection from other people and from Western society. Perhaps it would be more of a depersonalisation whereby I don’t quite feel whole and don’t think others can relate to what I’m experiencing.

We think that life is prayer and work. That has to do with the old tradition of ora et labora, but goes even further. What is your experience?
– Yes, I would agree with that especially since there is not much else to do here in our isolated location. I would certainly like to have more ora and less labora but that is not possible now. Medical people are not known for leading balanced lives!

When do you feel really at peace with yourself?
– The best time of the day is the 20 or 30 minutes I have alone in the chapel before the morning Mass begins. That’s my time just to pray and reflect without any distractions.

Another obvious question: what was your happiest moment in life and the most difficult?
– My happiest moment was my graduation from medical school as I felt that I was finally on my way to accomplish some of my goals in life. The most difficult times have been those when I’ve had interpersonal conflicts with others—these are much worse than any danger or fear from attack. These conflicts are inevitable in a high stress environment such as ours but our faith teaches us that we must embark on the slow and difficult path to reconciliation.

You are in daily contact with the suffering of people victimised in a war that is again almost forgotten by the international community. How do you feel in that corner of the world? Do you have questions you would like to ask the world leaders?
– Yes, we do often feel forgotten by the rest of the world as this is a relatively small conflict in a very remote part of the world. The tragedy is that the people here have been suffering for the better part of 30 years with no clear end in sight.

I think much of the suffering here could be alleviated if there was pressure put on the Sudan government to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Nuba Mountains. The international organisations that normally provide food relief, vaccines and drugs are afraid to come to Nuba as this would be a ‘cross border’ operation and they feel it would violate the sovereignty of the Sudan government. World leaders could use their influence to push the Sudan government into opening a humanitarian corridor into Nuba but it seems the political will to do that is not there. The conflict here seems to be just below everyone’s radar.

We would like to end with an infinite and heartfelt thank you, for your selfless dedication to people in need and for inspiring and challenging us to a greater commitment to humanity.

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