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One Doctor, One Million Patients: Documenting ‘The Heart of Nuba’

"I want to give a voice to the voiceless there and I want to show that you can make a difference. Dr. Tom Catena is providing not only care for these people, but he's providing hope and that hope transcends."

“Saints don’t always look the way you’d expect,” writes Frank Scheck. “Case in point: Dr. Tom Catena, the subject of Kenneth A. Carlson’s documentary.

“Serving as the only doctor for nearly one million people living in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan, the middle-aged, bald and lanky Catena more resembles a hard-working insurance salesman than a man who’s sacrificed so much to help others. The Heart of Nuba delivers a moving but thankfully not overly sentimental portrait of this admirable figure.” To read the full article, click here.

Carlson recalls the dispatch that served as the catalyst for his film: “‘Catman needs our help!’ was the subject line of the email. Brown University classmate and football teammate Dr. Tom ‘Catman’ Catena was in a crisis. 

“A truck carrying a year’s worth of precious medical supplies, vaccines and food to the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where Dr. Tom is the sole surgeon for nearly one million people, had been hijacked and raided. The raining season was less than three weeks out. Once it began, there would be no movement possible. People would die. 

“Miraculously, within two weeks the Brown community raised more than $102,000 not only to replace the stolen truck but to fill it with more supplies than it had before! Two days before the heavy rains started, the truck with life-saving supplies arrived at the hospital and lives were saved. 

“I realized the story of Tom Catena was one that needed to be told. It was only a few months later that I was ordered off a cargo plane and found myself on a dusty airstrip in South Sudan, with a half dozen boy soldiers aiming AK-47s at my head. After forty-five minutes the melee reached a fevered pitch. I desperately revealed that I was smuggling my way into Sudan to make a film about my friend, Dr. Tom. Tensions immediately subsided. The mere mention of ‘Dr. Tom’s’ name had the power to set me free, literally saving my life. 

“On the drive into the remote Nuba Mountains, we dodged several barrel bombs dropped by Soviet-built Antonovs. Upon arrival, Tom gave me what I remembered as a 245 pound, All-American nose guard hug. But now he was a slight 135 pounds.

“While I was still taking all of this in, seventeen casualties arrived at the hospital, the latest victims of government bombings in the region. Dr. Tom, always on call, switched into scrubs and high gear. Cameras came out and we started to film. 

“This was the first of two trips I made to chronicle the lives of Dr. Tom and the people of the Nuba Mountains. Both trips totaled just less than six unforgettable weeks. In the end, I left the perilous region of Sudan having ‘gotten’ the story. Dr. Tom, who is as close to a saint as anyone I would ever hope to meet, stays to assist others as they struggle to survive.  

“My concern for him endures. He works selflessly, twenty-four-seven, treating all conditions, from casualties resulting from the conflict to delivering babies to malnutrition. He reminds me that his greatest compensation is the fulfillment and peace that comes from serving others in need. Regardless of the hardship, Dr. Tom is exactly where he wants to be.”

Read more: Documentary Filmmaking is About Discovery and Shaping the Story

Carlson explains to Mun Kang, “I went out thinking I had a film about a conflict and my narrative was going to be Dr. Tom Catena, but what ended up happening is I didn’t know how the film was going to end. Tom was very insistent that this had to be about the Nuba people.”

“I want to give a voice to the voiceless there and I want to show that you can make a difference. Dr. Tom Catena is providing not only care for these people, but he’s providing hope and that hope transcends.” To read the full interview, click here.

Read more: A Surgeon Performs Miracles in Sudan in The Heart of Nuba

Watch more: What It Is Like Being the Only Doctor in War-Torn Sudan’s Nuba Mountains?