Sudan: Walking with the Nuba People

American doctor Tom Catena earns top medical missionary award for saving lives in Africa’s forgotten war zone.

An American surgeon – who has cared for more than a million patients – hailed as “the world’s most important doctor” is being honoured with a top international medical award. On 28 January, Florida-based African Mission Healthcare (AMH) announced that Dr Tom Catena is the recipient of the 2019 Gerson L’Chaim Prize for “Outstanding Christian medical missionary service.” The prize is sponsored by Jewish philanthropists, Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson. “Perhaps the primary Jewish responsibility is to love the stranger, and to do so meaningfully—in action, where real people materially experience this love,” said Mark Gerson. “We are so grateful to Tom for providing us with the opportunity to fulfil this Jewish obligation so effectively.”

Dr Tom Catena, a 55-year-old Catholic medical missionary from upstate New York, has served in Africa for 20 years. He is the only surgeon for 1.3 million people in a region.  As a medical missionary, he puts his life on the line living in the middle of the war-torn and besieged Nuba Mountains, a territory fiercely contested by its inhabitants and the former government of Sudan.

In 2011, when the Khartoum government started bombing its own people in this southernmost state in Sudan, most expatriate workers fled. Dr Catena insisted on staying saying, “the source of most of our conflicts is the idea that one person’s life is more valuable than someone else’s. We have forgotten that we are all children of God and therefore somewhat related.”

Since 2008, Catena, a graduate of Duke University Medical School and former US Navy doctor, has been the Medical Director at Gidel Mother of Mercy Hospital. The 435-bed Catholic hospital is the only major medical facility in the Nuba Mountains. Catena is on call 24/7, and sometimes sees as many as 350 or more patients in a single day. Dr Peter Attia, host of the popular podcast ‘The Drive,’ has called Dr Catena “the world’s most important doctor.”

Additionally, Time magazine named Dr Catena “One of the top 100 most influential people in the world,” and he was the subject of a 2015 Nicholas Kristof New York Times opinion piece titled, “He’s Jesus Christ.” African Mission Health has been supporting mission hospitals in Africa since 2010. It launched the L’Chaim (Hebrew for “to life”) Prize in 2016, which comes with a $500 000 award, the world’s largest annual award of its kind dedicated to direct patient care in Africa.

The $500 000 award will go towards the Nuba 2020 campaign to raise $7.5 million to keep the only major hospital in Sudan’s war-torn Nuba Mountains fully operational for the next two decades. Catena is leading the Nuba 2020 campaign.

Mark Gerson commented on Dr Catena’s endless commitment. “The sheer amount of good he does – as measured in clinic visits, surgeries, deliveries, community clinic patients treated, and children vaccinated – with the amount of resources he has is completely stunning. It is simply incredible to even think about how many lives Tom and the team he has built can save and transform with the money from this prize.”

“The people of the Nuba Mountains are the bravest and most resilient people I know,” said Catena. “I am honoured to receive this award that will help enormously with our plans to strengthen and expand the Gidel Mother of Mercy Hospital and our network of clinics in this largely forgotten region of the world.”

“It’s an incredible honour for AMH to recognize Dr Catena’s unparalleled commitment,” said Rabbi Erica Gerson. “For more than a decade, Tom has endured bombings, epidemics, rainy seasons and flooding, loss of power, lack of equipment and staff, and very little connection with the world beyond this area, all because of his dedication to the Nuba people. He exemplifies what it means to ‘walk in all God’s ways and to love Him,’ and we are honoured to be his partner in his sacred work.”

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