Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary and the only resident surgeon practicing under harrowing conditions in the Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, was at USC on Tuesday, February 5, for a wide range of programs.
The USC Institute of Armenian Studies, in collaboration with the USC Keck School of Medicine, the USC Office of Religious Life, the USC Dornsife Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the USC Shoah Foundation, the USC Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, and the USC Caruso Catholic Center hosted Dr. Catena, who met with USC Leadership and participated in public discussions with faculty and students.
In 2017, Dr. Catena received the Aurora Prize for his humanitarian work, which honors awardees with a $100,000 grant. In addition, the award recipients are given the unique opportunity to continue the cycle of giving by selecting an organization that inspired their work to receive a $1,000,000 award. The Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, established in honor of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, is granted annually to an individual whose actions have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes.
Originally from New York, Dr. Catena moved to Sudan where he has been working as a physician and surgeon since 2008. For the last nine years, Dr. Catena has been on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the Mother of Mercy Catholic Hospital, where he cares for more than 750,000 citizens of Nuba.
He sat down with Sareen Habeshian to discuss his humanitarian work and his new appointment. Portions of this interview first appeared on CivilNet.am.
Sareen Habeshian: What are the great challenges of humanitarian work?
Tom Catena: I think probably the biggest challenge is you’re often in remote regions and with very difficult logistics systems so probably the important problem is getting materials; what you need out into the field is the biggest problem. The second problem is you’re often dealing with a traumatized population and people that are not used to doing things like we’re used to in the Western world. So you’ve got to kind of adapt to how they do things, their speed of doing things, the way of interacting.
S.H.: How did you adapt when you first arrived in Sudan?
T.C.: I think it took a lot of patience, a lot of just kind of slowing down, not pushing people to do things as I’m used to doing them. Seeing how they get things done and adapting into their pace, and finding the benefits of doing some things the way they do it.
S.H.: When you first arrived in Sudan, did you know you were going to stay that long and move there?
T.C.: My initial desire was to stay until I could hand the reins of the hospital over to somebody else. I knew that would take some time. I thought it would be less than 10 years but now it’s been ten and a half years I’ve been there but there is some light at the end of tunnel because we have four people in medical school in Kenya and Uganda. One guy is going to finish in about a year and the others will finish over the next four or five years so I hope maybe 10 years time from now I’ll be able to clearly hand the reins over and they can take over.
S.H.: Then what do you plan on doing next?
T.C.: Well maybe I’ll stay on for a while in a teaching role, maybe eventually down the road when I’m too old to do operations and do all the hard data they work in the hospital, maybe work in the global health area. I’d like to work at a kind of teaching hospital maybe in the U.S. or somewhere that has a global health program.
S.H.: Why do you do the work that you do?
T.C.: I can’t find a more satisfying job than what I’m doing. I can’t find a more frustrating job but at the same time I can’t find something which would give me more satisfaction. I’m a Catholic missionary so for us the role is fairly simple and straightforward. Christ said, go and take care of the least of my brothers and sisters and that’s what I see myself and other missionaries doing every day, so it’s a pretty simple thing.
S.H.: Do people ever get past the ‘oh wow’ aspect of what you do? And is it possible to do that, to have a career where you combine your faith and your profession in a way that serves humanity?
T.C.: You’re right the ‘oh wow’ comes and stays with you for maybe a year and then it goes away. The fascination of living in a foreign culture, living in Africa, all the weirdness of it, that does go away after some time and then you’ve got to see what keeps you there. For me it’s a couple of things: one is my faith, which says look you’ve made a commitment to these people, you need to stick it out in good times and in bad. It’s almost like a marriage you know, stick it out and keep taking care of these people. The other thing of course is you see the need and this really pulls at your heart. You see yourself in an environment which doesn’t have decent health care, it doesn’t have doctors and the people themselves kind of pull at you. You have people who are very resilient, they’re very strong, they don’t really want handouts but they just need a bit of help to get through. They push you to keep going there with the work but you have to get beyond the initial fascination with the foreignness of it. If you dig deep down into what is really keeping you to do this work, it’s possible but you have to have something which will keep you going.
S.H.: Where does the Aurora Initiative fit into this mission of yours and your lifestyle?
T.C.: The mantra of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative is gratitude in action. The Aurora founders, they’re finding a way to honor the people that helped their ancestors who survived the genocide. I’m not Armenian but of course I know about the Armenian genocide. I look at it this way: I was given so many things in life, everything from start to finish. Born into a wonderful family, great parents, great siblings, the best education in the world was given to me, so how do I give back? For me it’s kind of not fair. Why was I given all these benefits in life and 99 percent of the world were not? So I feel it’s gratitude in action, so I give my gratitude by acting as a doctor in Sudan for the people that were not given all the benefits that I was given.
S.H.: Do you have to explain the mission of Aurora to the Armenian people?
T.C.: I see it through the eyes of the founders. Armenia was kind of given a lot of help. Armenians were given help after the genocide, help by America, help by France, help by different people, not only countries but by individuals. Now it’s time for Armenia to kind of step forward and say, look we were given help during our crisis, and now it’s our turn and our time to save the rest of the world. You might think, ‘oh we’re a small country we can’t do much’ but Armenians do have a lot to offer.
S.H.: The Aurora Prize awards its laureate a $100,000 grant. What role does money play in humanitarian work? How has it changed what you do?
T.C.: Well, admittedly money plays a huge role in humanitarian work. No humanitarian, whether you’re a mission doctor or an aid worker, can do anything without money. It could be the smartest doctor in the world. You can be out in the middle of Sudan doing great work but if nobody is supporting you financially, you can’t do anything. You can’t buy drugs, you can’t pay staff. Without these things, you can’t do anything. So, money plays a huge role in any humanitarian endeavor.
S.H.: The Aurora Prize also awards the laureate a million dollars to donate to organizations of their choice. What did you do with that million dollars?
T.C.: Right so, you can give that money to up to three organizations so I chose the Catholic Medical Mission Board, African Mission Healthcare Foundation and Aktion Canchanabury. These are relatively small organizations that do very good work on the ground. They support projects and initiatives in HIV care and training of future doctors and nurses. They have leprosy projects and several different projects that they do, providing medicines for different hospitals in Africa. I like these organizations because they’re small, they’re efficient and they have their boots on the ground doing the work.
S.H.: Have you seen impact since the Aurora prize?
T.C.: Yes. One of the reasons we as a hospital are still open is because of that million dollar prize. Without that we would probably have had to close. So I’ve seen a huge impact from that prize.
S.H.: Can you tell me a little about the hospital that you work at? What is life like there? What are the patients like?
T.C.: We’re a 435 bed hospital, which is quite big actually in terms of how hospitals go. We have all the typical wards and departments. Children’s ward, male and female wards, maternity care, we have a TB and leprosy ward, and we do a lot of operations every day. The most common diseases are the typical tropical illnesses: Malaria, Gastroenteritis, Pneumonia. We have a lot of Tuberculosis, it is still very common. We have a lot of patients with leprosy, which in the rest of the world has been pretty much eradicated. We do a lot of surgery. We also see a lot of cancer which people are always surprised by and we’re the only hospital for about a thousand miles offering any kind of chance for cancer care. We have chemotherapy drugs that we use quite liberally to treat a lot of patients with cancer, all kinds of cancers very strange ones and affecting all age groups. The work there is very busy. You start the work day around 7:00 or 7:30, try to do a ward round and see all the patients first thing in the morning. That takes us several hours. From there we go to the clinic to see patients until late. A couple of days a week I do just operations.
S.H.: I imagine that can get quite hectic and time-consuming. What do you do as leisure activity?
T.C.: Good question. To be honest with you, there’s not really much else to do but the work. So, maybe a bit of reading. We do have satellite internet but that’s usually taken up with emails and kind of official administrative tasks that I have to do. There’s not much outside the work that can be done. That’s one of the detriments of working in such a remote location. There’s nowhere to go. Nightlife, restaurants and movies are kind of out of the question. You have to be somebody who is content with isolation to work there.
S.H.: Have you grown content with that isolation? You’re from New York where it’s a completely different atmosphere.
T.C.: I’ve been there so long now, I almost feel more at home in that environment than I do back here in the developed world. I’ve gotten quite used to that lifestyle. For me it’s not a big deal.
S.H.: I read that some time ago when there was conflict in Sudan, you were offered a way out, to escape that conflict but you didn’t take it. Can you tell me why?
T.C.: There were a couple different incidents: the first was in 2011 when the war first started and actually my sponsoring agency wanted to take me out. They said, there’s fighting and it’s too dangerous, come out and when things come down you can go back. We kind of went back and forth for a while and they said, look if you don’t come out we’ll have to terminate you. I was a medical missionary volunteer anyway and I said, okay you have to terminate me but I’m not leaving. The way I saw it, I didn’t leave and the sisters and priests that work with us didn’t leave. We said, look this is the time of need for the people here, we’re here as missionaries. As a missionary if you leave when things get difficult, you’re not much of a missionary, you’re not much of an example to the people of the love of Christ if you take off when things get tough. Of course there were a lot times when it was quite dangerous to stay there but you know, God saw us through and we made it. They came up again, this was just a couple years ago just after I was married. The rebel government where we lived said, look, all the expatriates, all the foreigners have to leave because the Sudan Army is planning to attack and they might come to where you are and overrun the place. So kind of a similar thing happened. The few expatriates we had left, myself and the sisters and one of the priests decided to stay. It ended up being a false alarm. They didn’t actually target our area so we just stuck it out but we said, look we have commitment to these people, let’s stay and come what may. These people can’t leave either so let’s take our chances and stay with them and trust in divine providence to see us through.
S.H.: Now as the chair of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative you are traveling back and forth between Armenia and Sudan. Can you tell me a little bit about what work you’re doing and what your time in Armenia has been like?
T.C.: I’ll be the chairman for one year. It’ll be part time here in Armenia, the other time will be back in the mountains of Sudan. I hope that what I can accomplish with this time is to extend and amplify what Aurora is already doing to make Aurora Humanitarian Initiative more of a player in the humanitarian field. Not only amplify what we’re doing now but to try to take that model and put it to work in other places – not only in Africa but in maybe Asia, Latin-America and other places in the world. Make connections with people that work in this field and see how things go. You know I’ve only done clinical medicine: seeing patients, diagnosing, treating conditions, doing operations, that’s all I’ve done for 25 years. It’s my first venture outside doing something different, so I’m very excited to be here, very excited to be in Armenia and I really hope to make the best use of this time. I really believe in Aurora and what they’re trying to accomplish. The founders you know, Ruben Vardanyan, Noubar Afeyan, and Vartan Gregorian, they are very convincing. So I’m looking forward to working with them and the rest of the group at Aurora.
S.H.: How do you inspire young people to do humanitarian work and to make that their number one priority?
T.C.: I think that everybody whether you work full-time as a humanitarian or you’re an investment banker like Ruben, you want to do something for the world. Everyone has something they can offer. Most people in the world are low to middle income, that’s the majority of the population. If you have a heart for those people and that kind of work, there is something you can do. If you’re an investment banker working in Moscow or New York, you have financial resources, humanitarian workers can’t do anything without money. Give some money, that’s a huge help, don’t look at that as being ‘I’m just giving money.’ No it’s a huge help. If you have something else you could do, you want to donate something, you want to get yourself involved, just go and learn about the situation somewhere. You want to go yourself to one of these areas and learn about it, that’s something. That’s a way to start so you see what projects are out there. What projects have a need that maybe they need your skills,? Are you a carpenter? Are you an electrician? What do you do with your life? Are you a tech person? I don’t know anything about tech so if somebody that comes to Nuba, I pick their brains because I don’t know anything about it. It’s a huge help to us and what we do there. Everybody has something to contribute. Just use your creativity, use your resources, and think for yourself, what can I do to help the poor and marginalized in the world? Everybody has something to offer. And I really want to have people believe that you know, don’t think look at this guy he’s doing all these great things. I’m just doing what I like to do and what is natural to me. It’s not honestly any big deal. You can and anybody else could do the same thing. Maybe not what I’m doing, but something else which is also very helpful.
S.H.: To do this kind of humanitarian work that you’re doing and Aurora is doing, do you think people need that push? Do they have to be convinced that they can do it or is it just a natural calling?
T.C.: I think what people need is, they need to be given the confidence that they can contribute something because I think most people look at it and say, ‘I can’t do that, it’s too difficult, it’s too this or that.’ You just have to give them a little bit of confidence that, no, you can do something. If you’re somebody that is really fearful about traveling and don’t want to move somewhere, you can do something from your living room. There’s always something you can do. I think people just need to be reminded and a little bit of a push to say, yes you can also do something. Otherwise we get a bit complacent.
S.H.: What are the things that make you curious?
T.C.: Well I’m curious how things work, I’ve always had that interest. I actually studied mechanical engineering in college and which is funny because I’m terrible at tech stuff. Now I’m more curious about how things work in a government level or international level. Who moves the levers of government or international organizations to actually move things forward?
S.H.: And lastly, what haven’t I asked you that you think is important, that is a part of your message to the world?
T.C.: Well you know, I think just going back to this theme of everybody has something to offer. I really want to stress that point. I’m a Catholic missionary, that’s a very narrow focus. You don’t have to be a Catholic missionary working in Sudan to do something. You can be anybody that can contribute to the betterment of your fellow man. Whatever effort or time or money you put into helping someone else, I promise you, you’ll get that back a hundredfold in something. Whether it’s just feeling good, you get a hundredfold back if you do something and do it out of your heart and you say, I’m doing this because I care about somebody else, you’ll get that back in spades. No doubt about that. That’s the Aurora message, too.