Doctor answers call to heal in war-torn region of Sudan

On the night of Christmas 2012, after most of the lights were dimmed at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the remote Nuba Mountains of central Sudan in Africa, New York native Dr. Thomas Catena was awoken by the persistent hum of airplanes. 

What followed was a long night of bombs falling into the valley from converted Russian-made cargo planes courtesy of Sudan’s political regime in Khartoum. It was the latest terrifying message from Sudan’s leadership to squelch separatist ambitions in the conflict within a conflict situated between Sudan and South Sudan. 

Since about 2011, the Sudanese government has been fighting the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebel group in Sudan’s Kordofan state — an isolated region in Central Sudan where the Catholic Church maintains a rural 300-bed hospital, but where the local bishop, Bishop Macram Max Gassis of El Obeid, Sudan, functions in exile from Kenya for fear of his life. 

It is here, in a place accessible only by a single dirt track road from South Sudan, that Catena serves as the region’s only surgeon, treating both war-related injuries and a wide array of tropical and other illnesses. He refused to evacuate when the hostilities ignited two years ago. 

A native of Amsterdam, N.Y., Catena entered the Duke University School of Medicine in 1988 on a U.S. Navy scholarship, and, in 1992, he joined the U.S. Navy, becoming a naval flight surgeon.  

Catena has worked in Africa for 13 years, first in Kenya, now in Sudan. He trained in family medicine in the United States and in general surgery in Kenya. He is Mother of Mercy Hospital’s founding medical director. Catena is supported in part by the New York-based Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB).  

During a recent visit to the United States, he spoke with Our Sunday Visitor by phone about the conflict in the region and the role of the Church in helping its residents. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Can you give us a little of the background of what has been happening in Sudan in recent years? 

Dr. Thomas Catena: The South signed the peace agreement in 2005, and in 2011 the South was to have a referendum to remain as one country or be independent of the North, and they did vote to separate. The area where I work in is part of the North, but we were supposed to go through a separate referendum or what was called a “popular consultation” process in 2011.  

The Sudanese president, who had interfered in elections, caused a lot of problems and the popular consultation for that region never took place. The North asked the local militia to disarm and shooting started in June 2011, and we started receiving casualties. People did not want to be part of the North and wanted to be some sort of self-determination.  

Nobody has had confidence that the Khartoum government in the North would allow another state to leave. We have seen ground fighting, aerial bombardments of the airstrip and of several villages. 

OSV: Might the political situation there collapse or disintegrate? 

Catena: Nobody is really happy with the Khartoum government, which has done nothing constructive. There are several opposition parties and other groups who got together and signed a charter for regime change and to set up a new government.  

There hasn’t really been any stability in Sudan since it garnered independence from Great Britain in 1955 and it will be a tough go; there is no clear way forward. 

OSV: The bishop in exile for your region then advised the local Catholic schools and your hospital staff to evacuate? 

Catena: We received emails from the bishop’s office in Nairobi saying this might be our last chance to evacuate and that anybody who wants to evacuate do so should. We didn’t know if we were going to be overrun and if the hospital would be bombed. Our Uganda and Kenya expatriate staff at the hospital were given the room to decide for themselves if they wanted to stick it out, and so all the laity except staff decided to leave. I stayed with two Comboni religious sisters and with all the local staff, but all the non-Sudanese staff left.  

Overall, the (local militia) have pushed back the Northern forces and they have not reached our area, but the closest bombing was about a mile away. Most of the injured soldiers come to us. 

OSV: Tell us a little about the Catholic Church’s situation there in Central Sudan. 

Catena: The bishop is based in Nairobi with a small staff there and has had death threats. We have a few parishes and priests and sisters. The schools have all been closed since the fighting started, but we have started to open the primary schools. It is kind of dicey and we will see how it goes, but the hospital and the (Catholic) radio station are still there. 

OSV: What was the objective of the Christmas Day bombing? 

Catena: I think it is a terror campaign, and, of course, they have killed and mangled a lot of people, but some of it is to drive people off the land to the refugee camps in the South and to drain away popular support for the soldiers, to make the people dependent on the North. They were bombing an area with no military base, so they were scaring civilians from cultivating crops, demoralizing them into refugee camps. 

OSV: Is malaria the most common ailment you see at Mother of Mercy? 

Catena: I think at the end of the year, when we do statistics, malaria is our most common situation and peaks in our fall, after the rainy season. About 2 percent of our patients die, quite a few at home. Last year we admitted 2,000, and so about 40 patients died on average. We are fairly new to the region and so Western medicine is new to the people who have their traditional ways of doing things, quite honestly most of which are harmful.  

OSV: Why should Catholic medical professionals consider the importance of field work or overseas medical mission trips? 

Catena: This is one way to improve their physical examination skills, because you won’t have the technology to make a diagnosis. So it helps professionals hone those skills in a time when technology has taken over.  

We have people in the United States whose pets get better medical care than many Africans, and it’s kind of absurd. It gives you an idea and appreciation for what we have in the United States.  

OSV: How does the Catholic Medical Mission Board support your projects? 

Catena: CMMB is a sponsor for me as a lay missionary since 1998, and I have been full time since 2000. They were very supportive financially when we first opened the hospital in terms of establishing the operating room and lab equipment. They also sent volunteers for eight or nine months, but they were evacuated.  

The work is overwhelming at times, and it is real medicine — there is never any doubt about that. There is no fighting with insurance companies, and we can do medicine in the Catholic environment. 

OSV: How does your faith tradition inform your work? 

Catena: If I were not a Christian I would not be there. From the time I was in college I wanted to do this kind of mission work and a way to live out my vocation as a practicing Catholic. I don’t think I can do this work without this strong faith: The work is too difficult. I am doing this to serve Christ, not to just patch up wounds and treat people. The medicine would tend to lose meaning without that service to the poor and to Christ. We have daily Mass there with the priest in a chapel and it is a great way to get the morning started. 

OSV: What do you love most about Sudan and why? 

Catena: I tend to like the Africans: they are friendly, open, solid people. It is a beautiful place, it is open, fresh, unadulterated. I like the Sudanese spirit and attitude toward life. It is anti-materialistic. Family and relationships are important — I like that aspect of their life and find it very appealing. Though it is hard to get used to the slow pace of doing things. 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.