On a medical mission: Dr. Tom Catena to speak on serving in Sudan

by Stephanie Radu

Serving in Sudan

At the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, Tom Catena, M.D., is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, nearly every week of the year. With a small staff of laypeople, nurses and occasional physician volunteers, he makes the rounds on 435 beds daily and performs more than 1,000 operations annually.  The hospital where he serves is without running water and lacks electricity at night.

Compensated by almost solely by gratitude, Dr. Catena has served for more than a decade at Mother of Mercy, even though the hospital and his life are constantly threatened by the on-going armed conflict in Sudan. He is the sole doctor in the entire region and he has always stayed, even when others left.

Visit with OHSU students

Dr. Tom Catena:
A conversation on medical service

May 13, 12 – 1 p.m., RLSB 3A001
free, open to all OHSU
hosted by the Global Surgery Student Alliance

For his humanitarian service, Dr. Catena has been recognized with prestigious awards and has become a role model for those interested in international medical service—including me—so it will be a privilege to welcome him to OHSU.

On May 13 Dr. Catena will visit OHSU for a noon conversation specifically for students and faculty who are interested in medical service. He will share his experiences as a medical missionary and discuss opportunities for physicians and those in training to serve in areas with critical medical needs.  All OHSU students and faculty are invited.

A world without medical privilege

In preparation for Dr. Catena’s visit, I dove into literature, podcasts, and films that provided a glimpse of who he was and what his practice looks like. When learning about his work, an overarching theme that struck me was: privilege.

Mother of Mercy hospital in Sudan, photo credit Dr. James Peck

The word privilege is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a right granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor; and the beauty of this term is that it can mean radically different

things within different perspectives.

In medicine, privilege can look like a team of educated health professionals with immediate access to medicines, diagnostic tools and medical records. It looks like sterilized operating rooms filled with clean surgical tools, anesthesiologists and trained staff. And, privilege looks like access to Dr. Google and Dr. YouTube through one high-speed click. These points of privilege allow care teams to define better outcomes for our patients.

Our privilege is not watching shrapnel tear children apart. It is not diving into foxholes whenever you hear the familiar sound of Antonov engines. It is working in an operating room that is not as warm as the African sun or filled with bugs attacking the wound that you are working on. It is not having to watch patients die for a lack of medications and humanitarian aid. Not to mention a lesser recognized privilege such as safety—privilege is knowing you are working in a hospital and living in a home that will not be regularly bombed (at least 3,740 times since 2012) by a government targeting the sole doctor in the entire region.

Standing up to genocide

Dr. Tom Catena with volunteer Dr. Jim Peck and clinical officers and nurses.

Dr. Catena has chosen to live and work in a world without these privileges. After medical school at Duke University,  serving as a flight surgeon for the US Navy, and completing a family medicine

residency, he left to practice in rural Kenya; desiring to serve those most in need. Through his work has chosen to stand against genocide in Sudan. In doing so, he has redefined our modern understanding of a missionary.

In 2017, Dr. Tom Catena was awarded the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity to genocide, along with the one million dollars that he received with it. “The Heart of Nuba”, an award-winning documentary, featuring his work and the infamous quote “He is Jesus Christ” by a local Muslim chief was featured in a New York Times video and article. These accolades offered insight into how truly remarkable his work is while urging support of organizations allowing doctors and humanitarians like himself to serve the most vulnerable communities.

On one of his rare trips back home to the United States, Dr. Tom Catena offering his time to speak with students at OHSU is nothing other than a privilege. On behalf of the Global Surgery Student Alliance OHSU Chapter, we are excited to welcome Dr. Catena.

Learn more about Dr. Tom Catena

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oLEl2sdRP4 [Youtube Aurora Prize Video]
https://peterattiamd.com/tomcatena/ [Podcast]
https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-hes-jesus-christ.html [NY Times]
https://theheartofnuba.com/meet-tom-catena/ [Heart of Nuba]