Who is the first and only permanent medical doctor serving a catchment area of over one million people in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan and has ample advice to share?

We will give you a hint…

He is a world renowned humanitarian, named one of Times 100 most influential people in 2015, a former All American and capital region football hall of famer, the focus of the 2018 CIMA Social Justice Awarded film — the Heart of Nuba, and the 2017 recipient of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.

The answer: Dr. Tom Catena — champion for the needy, voice for the oppressed, and life saver for the sick. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Dr. Tom and his work, we’ll help get you up to speed.

Dr. Tom performing surgery in the Nuba Mountains

  1. Dr. Tom arrived in the Nuba Mountains in 2008 to serve at the Mother of Mercy Hospital (as the only permanent surgeon). But, his career as a CMMB volunteer dates back a decade before, with his involvement in both short and long term mission trips.
  2. When volunteers were urged evacuate the Nuba Mountains due to increasing conflict and violence, only Dr. Tom and a couple other expats — Sister Rosalie and Sister Angelina — chose to stay.
  3. On any given day, Dr. Tom will treat up to 500 patients. He is on call 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week, delivering babies, performing surgeries, and saving lives that would otherwise be lost.
  4. Dr. Tom’s hope for the Nuba people is that they can one day, “Feel that they belong to themselves, that they’re not under anybody else’s thumb.”
  5. Dr. Tom still serves in the Nuba Mountains as the director of the Mother of Mercy hospital, and uses his platform as Chair of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative to bring awareness to the Nuba people. He is always willing to share insight and advice from his experience with new or prospective volunteers.

Dr. Tom will be the first to tell you that international volunteering is not easy. But, as a life-long volunteer he knows a thing or two about how to overcome some of the most common challenges medical volunteers face. We have collected some of his best pieces of advice over the years and share them here with you.

Advice From Volunteer Dr. Tom Catena

1) For when you are considering becoming a volunteer

Just try it. Make the effort. Try to learn what you can about the place you’re going and just make the effort. If you catch the volunteer bug, like I did thanks to CMMB many years ago, and you want to stick with it, fine, you stick with it. You keep learning. You see areas where you can contribute. You know, I think if nothing else, in a lot of these places, just seeing somebody from another country who says, “Yeah, I’m coming here to help you guys. I care enough about you to come here, and show up in your country.”

2) For when you feel you don’t have enough experience

“Look, I’m just a normal doctor. I am a family practitioner by training. Most of the surgery I’ve performed, I learned on the job. I had some great people when I was out in Kenya, that took a lot of time with me, really experienced surgeons who taught me a lot of techniques. So, whoever you are, and whatever level you’re at, you have a lot to offer.”

Dr. Tom is dressing a Nuba Person's arm injury

3) For when people don’t understand why you want to volunteer

“I think that giving something back is part of what we are expected to do.

4) For when you feel like giving up

“The frustrations can be overwhelming. You kind of have your moments when you say, I’ve had enough. You get annoyed for awhile, and then you come back to your senses. And I am always brought back by the thought that I made a commitment. Am I going to stick to that? Or am I going to back out? Am I going to give up, and take off from the people here? Something with the Holy Spirit and the grace of God draws me back to keep up with the fight. I think that as long as I am operating within the grace of God, that will stay with me. I hope and pray that I don’t wander off from that.”

Dr. Tom and his team treat a young patient wearing a red shirt

5) For when you question the difference you can make as a single person

“This is a part of the world that has never really known peace. It’s chaotic, but you can still do a heck of a lot with limited resources.”

6) For when you are confronted with something new

“There are times in my situation here when I may be performing an operation that I am not fully comfortable doing. If I think the potential for benefit is there, I’ll do it. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. It’s also very humbling because we are reaching the end of our knowledge, and we have to acknowledge that we have limitations. I think it’s just trusting ourselves to God in this case, and saying, “Look– we are really trying our best and I think if we do nothing the outcome will be worse than if we try something.” You have to just do it, just go ahead, and push through. If someone can benefit and you can help, you have to try.”

Dr. Tom sits with his head down praying in a church

7) For when a life is lost

“I’m really not in control of who lives and who dies. I’m here to do my job. In the end, God is in charge of who lives and who dies.”

8) For when you question your own strength

“These people are incredibly tough and strong. They’ve been suffering for so many years and have put up with so much more than I ever will. That gives you a lot of strength to keep on pushing ahead.

Dr. Tom leans over a patient to treat him.

9) For when you are asked why you serve

“For me, it’s a privilege to be in a position where you can offer your services to people. I don’t see it as a hardship. I’ve been given quite a bit in this life. Let me go and try to do something with it.

10) For when it’s time to go home and process your experience

“I think that these kinds of experiences never quite leave you. You try to keep going because there is always somebody else in line that needs your help.” 

Dr. Tom sits on a patients bed taking notes

We hope that above all, these 10 pieces of advice offer some insight into the challenges and joys of volunteering. To learn more about how you can become an international volunteer click the button below to explore our opportunities.

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