“Start by Helping One Person”

“Start by Helping One Person”

2017 Aurora Prize Laureate Dr. Tom Catena is a Catholic missionary from Amsterdam, New York, who has saved thousands of lives as the sole doctor permanently based in Sudan’s war-ravaged Nuba Mountains where humanitarian aid is restricted. Here he talks about hope, courage and finding a new home.

2017 Aurora Prize Laureate Dr. Tom Catena on hope, courage and finding a new home.

Becoming a doctor

As a boy, I wanted to be a politician, believe it or not. I wanted to be a US senator and maybe President. My ambition was to go into law and then into politics. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy and one grandfather was a fairly high-level judge in my home state, New York. I wanted to follow his path and go into politics. Thankfully, that changed as I got older. But my initial thing was to go into politics and be a congressman or a senator.

I went to Brown university, started there in 1982, and I wanted to be an engineer. Later in high school I developed a love for the sciences, especially math and physics, but I felt there was something missing: I wanted to do something where I was helping people.


                                                   Dr. Tom Catena in Armenia


That was my underlying ambition – to be in a job where I could work with people and really help them. Engineering is not like that. You work with machines, you develop things, design things, but it’s not a people-oriented job. I was offered a job after graduation with General Electric, in the nuclear power industry. That was some kind of defense contractor work. I turned it down. 

Following your heart

At my time in the university I started thinking I wanted to be a missionary. That was my overriding idea. I was studying mechanical engineering, I wanted to be a missionary – there’s nowhere they meet. They’re totally different areas. Mechanical engineering at that time was more about designing and building weapons systems. These were the jobs in the US, working for defense contractors, doing this kind of work. It doesn’t fit so much with doing missionary work. 

I said, what can I do so I could keep my love of sciences an also be a missionary? And then it just came to my head – why don’t you go into medicine? With medicine you can do the sciences, you can take care of people, you can work with people and you can still do your job as a missionary. And this was a good marrying of the two areas. I went to the Duke University Medical School.


Another place, another service

I started in Kenya. I did some short-term things when I was doing my post-graduate medical training in the US and South America but started full time in 2000. January 2000, I went to Kenya as a missionary of the CMMB and since then I’ve been in Africa, lived in Africa and worked there. 


                                 Dr. Tom Catena in Nuba Mountains, Sudan


I didn’t know much about the Nuba before I went there. I read a bit about them, heard about their history, but it wasn’t till I got there that I really understood who they were. This is a very independent, very resourceful, very resilient people that have been traumatized and oppressed for centuries. Despite all these problems, they maintain dignity and pride, and keep moving ahead. If anybody else in the world had suffered what they have suffered, people would have given up and died 50 years ago. These people have persisted through so many trials and tribulations, you just feel something from them. You feel like you want to come and help them, assist them in their journey to come up and to improve the standard of living there. They are for me a very special people. 

They say, come and help so we can do things for ourselves. This is their attitude, which I love. They’re independent. They have the drive to do something for themselves. I think they can make it with a little bit of help.

Getting through tough times

The work can be very challenging. It can be very frustrating, but I think in the end, the personal reward you get from taking care of somebody gives you a lot of instant gratification. Taking care of somebody, see them improve – I think there’s no better feeling than helping somebody else, whether it’s in the medical field or educational, any arena. Anybody who gives receives much more in return. 


                                 Dr. Tom Catena at UWC Dilijan, Armenia


The reward of living this life is tremendous. It gives you a personal high, knowing that you’re helping somebody, knowing that we’re serving God by doing this gives you tremendous satisfaction. I don’t think I could do another job. Doing any other job just for money would be meaningless to me. This for me is worth much more than any money I could make. 

If this [publicity] can be used as a vehicle to shed light on what’s happening in the Nuba mountains, the plight of the people, how the people have suffered, how they need some help in certain areas just to get them going so they could eventually help themselves, that would make me very happy. That would be the goal. Secondly, there may be more of a selfish reason – to shed some light on the work that the church is doing. 


Stepping up 

I think people feel hopeless. They feel the problems are too big. They look at them and tend to see too big a picture. The problems are too big! Poverty, famine, terrorism – what can I do as an individual? I can’t do anything. There is no understanding that you, as an individual, are not going to solve these huge issues, but you can do something, if you go and help one person. 

When you start getting into this work, people are always telling me – what are you doing in Africa? That place is hopeless, they’ve been fighting forever and they’ll keep fighting. For me, I don’t care if they keep fighting. When you go as an individual and you help one person – that is everything. You don’t see this on a bog global level, you see this on a personal level. You, as an individual, can help some other person on a personal level. That’s something. 



                       Dr. Tom Catena at the Yerevan State Medical University


Coming to Armenia

I heard about Armenia that people were very nice and warm and friendly there. But when I came here I was still shocked. I’ve not been anywhere where I’ve seen people so open, friendly, welcoming, hospitable, warm. There is a warmth here, in people, that is really touching. You feel here how the people want to welcome you. It’s a very touching way [to show that] they want you to like their country. 

I’ve never been exposed to such hospitality in my life. I’m very touched by the people here. I feel like I’m with my own family when I come here. And it’s everybody. Everywhere I go, it’s the same reception. Really, you have something very special here. I want the Armenian people to know – you have something very special in this country. Don’t lose that. Don’t get too wealthy and too disconnected and too much like we at the US where we keep people at a distance. Keep this warmth. This is part of your culture and I hope you never ever lose that.


                                 Dr. Tom Catena at UWC Dilijan, Armenia


Living in constant danger

When there are airplanes over your head and you hear them bombing, you feel terror. You feel it down to your bones. I think if you don’t feel fear, you’re not human. I feel afraid, I feel like this could be my last day on Earth, I really feel that. But I think I get courage from people around me. For me, I can get out of here, I can leave. People around me, they don’t have that option. This is their home. They don’t have the option to pick up and leave. 

I take courage from the people there – the young, the old, the middle-aged – everybody is there, they’re staying, they put up with a lot more difficulties than I’ll ever have. So, for me it’s like, let me just stay with these people. I’ll take my chances to stay with them. Yeah, I feel afraid, but when you’re surrounded by the people who are very brave, you take courage from that.


Second home

No matter how long you stay in a place, if you’re not from there, you’ll always feel separate. When you’re the only white person and everyone else is African – that can be very isolating. The people there are very warm and kind, but still, there’s some degree of separation. And the work is very hectic. Most of my time there, it’s work, go back to the room, go back to the hospital, back to the room again. It’s a very one-dimensional life. Work and a little bit of rest, work and a little bit of rest – back and forth, back and forth. There’s not much else that I’m doing. 

I’ll always think of my home in Amsterdam, NY as my home. No matter where you are, that’s where you were born, where your family is, where your parents and everybody else are. But I think now even though I say that’s my home, in my heart, I feel more at home at the Nuba mountains than I do in the US. I think I’ve been in Africa long enough that I feel I probably don’t even fit in the US anymore. The fast-paced lifestyle, the values, what happens in the US – I almost feel like I’m more comfortable in Nuba where it’s much more of a familiar relationship. People value relationships. They value time spent with others. I also married a Nuba woman, so there’s that.


                        Dr. Tom Catena at the 2017 Aurora Prize Award Ceremony


Certainly, I miss my family and friends. To be honest, I miss them a lot. My nieces and nephews are growing up and I’m missing their weddings. It’s difficult. I feel like I’m missing out. My first grandnephew or grandniece will be born soon, and I’ll miss that. These are big milestones in the family and we’re all pretty close. For me, that’s part of the sacrifice. If you want to be a missionary, you have to leave that behind and go ahead with the work. Most of all I miss cheeseburgers, I think. More than anything!