A young man stands in the doorway of a destroyed house in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Sudan. April 4, 2012. © Adriane Ohanesian
The local people don’t trust modern-day medicine too much: elder women in the family would first attempt healing rituals and only then ask doctor Tom for help. Catena himself has donated blood multiple times, but realized he would weaken if he were to do it too often.
The only doctor at the 435-bed hospital serves half a million people and works 24 hours a day, ignoring the grave danger posed by bombs falling from the sky. “We work and we run for shafts the moment warplanes appear. There are shafts everywhere around the hospital. People in Nuba do the same,” Tom says. The hospital has been low on resources since the day it first opened, but medical care was still provided to those injured in the war in Darfur and people who migrated to Gidel from Sudan’s central and southern regions. Catena caught malaria two times in the first few months at the hospital and lost 50 pounds.
Catman on defense
Doctor Tom has only left his post twice since 2008. He last visited his parents Gene and Nancy in New York on Thanksgiving Day in 2014. In December of the same year, the USA National Football Foundation awarded Tom a gold medal – he played defense on his college team while studying at Brown University. He even had a nickname: Catman. “If you mix Mother Teresa with Mean Joe Green [former all-pro American football player], you’d get Catman, who represents everything that an athlete student ought to have,” says Tom’s teammate George Riley.
Besides being a successful athlete, Tom Catena was awarded a Roads scholarship for outstanding achievements in architectural engineering. After getting a degree in architectural engineering from Brown, he decided to attend medical school at Duke University. After four years at Duke he left for Kenya for the first time, where he decided to devote his life to treating people. “Only here I understood what real medicine is,” he says.
“We should learn hospitality from the Nuba ‘hill people’,” he says. “Knock on any door and they’ll invite you in and do everything to make you feel home.”
Doctor Tom also learned fortitude and “endless bravery that you wouldn’t expect from these people.”
“People here don’t complain, they don’t feel bitter toward the government or others,” he says, remembering the children who fell victim to the Sudanese government’s bombings a year ago and their brave mother. While running away from the bombings at 4 a.m. three out of the nine children burned to death in the shafts, and Tom couldn’t save the lives of the other three from the remaining six kids. “It’s hard to describe how valiantly their mother faced the pain of the tragedy,” Catena remembers. “She just continued to take care of the children who survived. People are very defiant here.”