By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
The skyscraper-laden landscape of Manhattan can be a confused, awe-inspiring atmosphere for just about anyone. It was certainly true for Tom Catena when he arrived in the Big Apple over the weekend.
It's not surprising, given the environment he's been used to the past several years - treating war wounds, attending to patients stricken by malaria and malnourishment in a remote African outpost ravaged by civil war.
"It's actually very strange," Catena said Tuesday in a phone interview. "Literally for the past two years, I've been confined to about a square half-mile area. Being in New York City, exposed to this environment, all these people, it's a bit overwhelming."
Since it opened in 2008, Catena has been the medical director and sole physician at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of war-torn central Sudan. The Amsterdam native is a veteran of 13 years of mission work in Africa - he spent time in Kenya before coming to Sudan - and his work in the far reaches of Africa warrants round-the-clock dedication in one of the most stressful, grueling environments imaginable.
Tonight, Catena is in New York to be honored at a dinner held by the Ivy Football Association. A standout nose guard at Brown University in the 1980s, Catena studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, but a calling to work in the developing world sent him down a vastly different path.
"I always wanted to do mission work. Even when I was in college, my desire was to do some kind of mission work," Catena said. "That was kind of a lifelong goal. I studied engineering in college, but that didn't go well with mission work. When I graduated college in 1986, the jobs in mechanical engineering were mostly in the defense field, so I kind of changed course and decided medicine would be a better fit with what I wanted to do with my life."
That switch led Catena to the Duke University School of Medicine and later to the United States Navy, where he served as a Naval Flight Surgeon. After leaving the Navy, he did mission trips to Guyana and Honduras during his residency in Terre Haute, Ind., but in 1999 he began his service as a missionary doctor through the Catholic Medical Mission Board, working at hospitals in Kenya.
Eight years later, Catena and Bishop Macram Gassis established Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, with Catena at the helm of a 300-bed hospital serving a region made up mostly of subsistence farmers where malnourishment and malaria plague the isolated population.
"It's very remote, very isolated, very rural," Catena said. "There's no running water, no electricity, no paved roads anywhere near us for several hundred miles away."
Since the hospital opened in 2008, there's rarely been time to pause. During the August-to-November malaria season, Catena said Mother of Mercy's children's ward is constantly filled with 110 youngsters. The same number is there now, with gastroenteritis and diarrhea spreading.
In June 2011, however, things changed dramatically with conflicts between the Sudanese military and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North. In the nearly two years of civil war that have followed, Catena has seen his hospital inundated with victims of the fighting.
"We've been quite busy with war casualties - both soldiers who've been wounded with shell wounds and shrapnel wounds, and we've had quite a few bombardments and we've had quite a few civilians that have been injured in the aerial bombardment campaigns by the [Sudanese capital of] Khartoum government," he said, noting that since arriving back in the US this past weekend he was informed that the town nearest the hospital - about six miles away - was bombed.
The ongoing conflict and the bombing campaigns, coupled with poor rainfall, have crippled the region's agriculture, leading to widespread hunger and malnourishment.
"Right now, in the market, you can't buy food. There's nothing to buy there," Catena said. "People are living on what they grew last year, but most people's food stocks are very low."
Though the workload is heavy and the pace is hectic, Catena said that as the only doctor at the hospital, his work is his way to contribute to the people of the region and he can't afford to take his mind off the task.
"It's not really a viable option just to give up or not do the work," he said. "I just don't see that as a viable option. I just think the grace of God sustains me and the rest of the staff to keep pushing ahead with the workload and deal with the frustrations of working in that environment."
Now back stateside to be honored by the Ivy Football Association, Catena said that his experience playing football helped prepare him mentally and emotionally to deal with the stress that coincides with working around-the-clock at a remote hospital inside a war zone.
"There are things you're taught instinctively in football - to play hurt, to give your best effort when the going gets rough, to deal with adversity - all these things are applicable to work in the mission field," he said.
"About four months ago, I slammed my thumb in a door jamb, the nail came off, it was excruciating pain and I wasn't sure I'd be able to operate," he added. "In the end, even though it was very painful, I was able to keep going and the very next day we had emergency operations come and I was able to go ahead and do them."
Though he'll be in the US through early March once tonight's pleasantries are out of the way, Catena is anxious to return to his work.
"I'm looking forward to getting back, getting back to the people there," he said. "I actually kind of miss it after a few days. I don't plan to come back for a while - it's a long-term mission over there."