Courage You’d Never Expect

“People have courage you would never expect.”

These words, spoken by Dr. Tom Catena, the only resident physician practicing under harrowing conditions in the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, aren’t intended to be about his own selflessness in the face of danger—though he’s encountered plenty. They’re about the families he treats, day and night, in a remote, sparsely equipped hospital amid a civil war that has raged continuously since 2011. The hospital where he works (and lives, hardly leaving except to check on patients forced to flee during aerial attacks) has been bombed by the Sudanese government enough times he now knows the routine when an airplane looms overhead. 

But that doesn’t make “Dr. Tom,” as he’s affectionately known, give in to the despair he believes is one of humankind’s greatest enemies. Instead, he draws hope and inspiration from the war-torn men, women and children he treats in this largely forgotten region of the world, where electricity and running water, much less most types of foreign aid, are nonexistent. He speaks of people who have received terrible burns across their bodies; of toddlers who have lost legs to shrapnel wounds, requiring him to amputate; of leprosy and malnutrition and children burned to death during middle-of-the-night attacks.

And yet, Dr. Tom sees hope. Or, as he calls it, “iron resolve.”

He points as one example to the 60-year-old woman he treated who had fled with her family to hide out in a cave, only to be hit with a shell that destroyed her foot and fractured her thigh bone. While she was recovering in his hospital after he amputated her ravaged foot, airstrikes came again. The hospital itself was hit, and in the aftermath, an 11-year-old girl started crying hysterically. As the girl and the woman huddled on the hospital floor after the attack, the woman—in great amounts of pain herself, with her leg propped in an uncomfortable position—began to speak calmly to the little girl, reassuring her. She reached out with warmth and positive stories, simply to make a child feel more comfortable despite her own anguish.

Moments like those are when Dr. Tom says he learns from the people of southern Sudan; the lessons he’s collected since he first came here in 2008 include toughness and a commitment to dealing with anything that comes his way, without bitterness. 

As the only doctor for a 435-bed hospital that serves nearly 500,000 people, Dr. Tom needs that resilience. He has been called upon to provide care under conditions he never dreamed about when he first studied at Duke University Medical School. No one is forcing him to be here; in fact, the Catholic mission organization that sponsored him wanted him to evacuate and return to the United States when the civil war started in 2011, but he insisted on staying because the community needs him.

He does it all—delivers babies, treats cancer, trains his staff and much of the time, repairs wounds inflicted by war—without access to medical technology or, often even electricity or running water. He doesn’t have reliable telephone access, but that doesn’t matter because he’s always on call, always available. 

But he wants to do more. Just as the woman comforting a child made an impression on him with her ability to look on the bright side, he, too, would like the world to hear more positive, uplifting stories. Dr. Tom believes the more people hear about humanitarian efforts around the world, the more we’ll be able to inspire every person to make a contribution in their own way to helping others. Already he’s made an impact; quite a few doctors in training from the U.S. and India, among other countries, have told him he’s inspired them to take action.

That’s a start. On his wish list is also to finish the children’s ward the hospital began 5 years ago; after the foundation for it was built, the ward was never completed because war strained the facility’s resources. Dr. Tom hasn’t forgotten this project. In fact, he sees a brighter future ahead, despite all he’s seen. “If you just have hope, some ray of hope—that keeps people going.”


Dr. Tom Catena was a finalist for the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the annual Aurora Prize aims to raise public consciousness about atrocities occurring around the world and reward those working to address these major issues in a real and substantial manner. The Prize is awarded annually on April 24 in Yerevan, Armenia.
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