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American doctor who runs remote hospital in Sudan now chairs worldwide humanitarian initiative

DR TOM CATENA
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Dr. Tom Catena will help promote vision of foundation that helped his project survive.

An American physician and Catholic medical missionary, who has worked almost single-handedly to treat hospital patients in a remote part of war-torn Sudan, has been named the first chairman of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. Aurora bestows an annual award that includes a $1 million purse for humanitarian projects. The initiative 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.”

Dr. Tom Catena, medical director of Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains, was awarded the 2017 Aurora Prize for his humanitarian work in Sudan. For the next year, he will be serving as a kind of missionary for Aurora, traveling the world to promote its message while also bringing more attention to the needs of Nuba Mountains residents.

The co-founders of Aurora, Vartan Gregorian, Noubar Afeyan and Ruben Vardanyan, were to announce his appointment Tuesday during a forum, the Aurora Dialogues, in Berlin, Germany.

The Aurora Prize is given on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors. Finalists are announced each April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, in Yerevan, Armenia.

Catena, a native of Amsterdam, New York, was the subject of the 2016 film The Heart of Nuba. He earned his medical degree at Duke and then worked in Kenya for eight years. But, he said, he was looking for more of a challenge.

“I was looking to get involved on the ground floor of something. I had been in mission hospitals that were already well established. I wanted to go somewhere that was starting from the very beginning, someplace that was very remote,” he said in an interview on Monday. “I wanted to go somewhere where there weren’t other doctors, where there weren’t other hospitals, and just as I had these thoughts going through my mind I heard about this hospital in the Nuba Mountains that this bishop, which is Bishop Macram Max Gassis [of El Obeid Diocese in Sudan], was in the process of building. … We started cooperating on how to get things started and bought the drugs, and in 2008 I went out and got the hospital opened.”

Under his direction, the hospital has expanded from 80 to 435 beds and serves half a million people, many of whom live in the mountains without electricity, tap water, or telephone lines.

That would be challenging in peacetime, but war has compounded the difficulties. When Catena arrived in 2008, the area was peaceful. But in 2011 a civil war broke out between the Sudanese government and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, resulting in complete isolation of Sudan’s South Kordofan Province. He has often had to treat injuries resulting from bombings in the war-ravaged territory.

“We work and we run for shafts the moment warplanes appear,” he has said. “There are shafts everywhere around the hospital. People in Nuba do the same.”

The Aurora Prize came at a crucial time for the hospital, just when major international donors had withdrawn support. The Prize money covered the $180,000 for all the medicine that was needed for 2018, helping to treat about 130,000-140,000 outpatients, 78,000 inpatients, and 2,000 operations.

“Without that Aurora Prize we probably would have had to close up shop, because we wouldn’t have had the money to pay for the drugs in 2018,” the doctor said.

The prize also helped give the hospital publicity, which in turn helped it to raise more money to pay the salaries of local staff.

Now, Catena worries about the fate of negotiations between the government and the rebels. Although a ceasefire has held for almost two years, as yet there is no peace agreement.

“There’s not much news coming out, but from what I’m gathering, they’re trying to start peace talks,” he said. “But I think the position that the SPLA rebels have and the position the government has, I don’t think they can find common ground to reach a durable peace.

“I’m afraid we might end up going back to the default position, which is going back to fighting again,” the doctor said.

Catena accepted the chairmanship of the Aurora Initiative because he felt he was “sort of getting pigeon-holed” in the Nuba Mountains. “I was kind of doing my thing there in this remote area, and I thought this might be some kind of vehicle where we can expand what we’re doing,” he said. “And I thought their whole idea of ‘Gratitude in Action,’ the whole reason for their being, is very admirable.” He said he hopes to “create some synergy between what we’re doing in the Nuba Mountains and what Aurora’s trying to do—sort of combine those two efforts to expand what we’re doing in Nuba but also expand humanitarian work in general, expand what Aurora’s trying to do.”

He will be able to leave the hospital to do the work because for the past two years, he has been assisted by Clarke McIntosh, an American pediatrician. Also assisting when he is on trips for Aurora are two physicians from Uganda.

Of the Nuba people, he said in a 2016 short video that it is a privilege to work with them. “I feel a sense of obligation to do my best to take care of them. That’s just how it is. It encourages me quite a bit to see the patients’ resilience, to see how some patients suffer things you can’t even imagine and how they stay calm, how they can laugh, how they can still joke and carry on with life. To me it’s unbelievable.”

 

 

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