Cycling across the United States is something I’ve always wanted to do. Actually when I first conceived of the idea, I didn’t think it was even possible. I was just about beginning my first year of university when I heard my cousin, Jeff, was preparing for the 2015 Transcontinental Race, a gruelling, self-supported race whereby 200 cyclists from around the world would ride as fast as they could from Geraardsbergen, Belgium to Istanbul, Turkey. Each cyclist would try to optimize for time between eating, sleeping, and riding. Those who finished would have covered over 4,000 kilometers and ascended 35,000 meters (or roughly four climbs to the summit of Everest). This feat didn’t really make much sense to me, and I would later call Jeff just to make sure I was understanding these numbers correctly. “I’m just running out of time to do cool shit,” he said in his usual laid-back tone. Jeff was nearing 30 at the time. And while that may seem laughable to some of the older folks, there was something I appreciated about his mellow sense of urgency. At that moment, I wanted to do said cool shit too.
But over the years, that yearning for adventure laid dormant as adult responsibilities piled on top of each other. After hurdling myself over many self-imposed obstacles for five years, I finally, but barely, graduated. I was looking forward to the next phase in my life, and before I knew it, I found my butt plopped into a nice, cushy throne staring at a screen for eight hours on the daily. Work was close to home, hours were flexible, and I was making more money than I knew how to spend. Life was a cruise ship.
One day, I was sitting in my office when I was lulled by the droning mundanity of clicking keyboards and sporadic murmurs of office talk. To prevent myself from reeling over, I plugged into one of my favorite podcasts. The Drive with Peter Attia is a gold mine for genuine and thoughtful discussions about health, performance, and longevity. Spoken with a soft, baritone voice, Dr. Peter Attia hosts and interviews a variety of individuals ranging from record-breaking athletes to forefront medical professionals. On this particular day, I tuned into an interview with Dr. Tom Catena, otherwise described by the episode’s title as “the world’s most important doctor”. The podcast usually opens with a brief summary of the subject’s background and expertise. However, in this episode, Peter throws somewhat of a curve ball and prefaces with his nervous experience he had when first meeting Tom. This completely baffled me because Peter, himself, would make any other individual feel self-conscious and incompetent. From a Stanford Medical School graduate to a McKinsey consultant to an ultra-endurance athlete, Peter is an infuriatingly incredible human. To make matters worse, it’s damn near impossible to hate him. For every ounce of success he has, he grows twice as humble. So when this compassionate and intelligent doctor is seemingly challenged by an even more formidable human being, I’m in disbelief if not completely skeptical.
Tom Catena began his work as a missionary in January of 2000 in Kenya. Even with a medical degree from Duke, he would still have much to learn about the various surgeries and operations to treat the 50-60 new patients that would come in daily. For anyone else, the work would seem insurmountable. After working in Kenya for a few years, he learned of the even harsher conditions that plagued Sudan.
“The modus operandi of my life was always looking for… the opposite of greener pastures. I’m looking for browner pastures.” - Tom Catena
Where most people would be repelled by such conditions, Tom seems to sprint in the opposite direction. So in 2008, Tom began working at Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. When Tom arrived at the hospital, it was seriously underprovisioned and understaffed. Of the eight volunteer expats from Kenya and Uganda and fifteen Nuba locals, Tom was the only doctor. Then in 2011, the civil war that has been ravaging the country reaches the Nuba Mountains placing the hospital staff in a very difficult predicament. Either stay and risk their lives or flee for safety leaving the Nuba people to the whims of war. In the end, all of the staff decided to leave, but Tom in good conscious could not. With the sick babies and mangled bodies coming in, it was hardly a consideration for him. And so Tom would continue to serve as the only surgeon for almost a million people, the last beacon of hope, for the Nuba people in their war-torn mountains.
To say I was deeply moved by Tom’s story is an understatement. Where most inspirational stories bring me fleeting motivation, Tom’s serves as my own personal Walden. Was I doing enough with the precious time allotted to me? Ever since that podcast I thought of Tom and the people of Nuba, and slowly, my cushy life started to resonate a boring hum of normalcy. The complaints I somehow devised in traffic or the grocery line seemed inconsiderate and pointless. My wonderful world full of convenience and comfort took on a gray hue. I realized that I was dying, that we are all dying. I wondered what footprints we should leave in our wake. Something about Tom’s life seemed to hold an answer to salvation.
The “Ride For Mother of Mercy Hospital” campaign is my attempt to spread the story of the wonderful miracle taking place in the Nuba Mountains. Tom’s life is an embodiment of a call to action without words. For me, he reinvigorated that sense of urgency that life is short and precious, and this needs to be diligently cultivated every single day. But the march to death is a personal journey. You don’t need to quit your job and cycle across the country. You could do something more incredible such as tell your partner that you genuinely love them or spend more time getting to know your children. You could reconnect with old friends, apologize for old mistakes, or make peace with your enemies. Again, life is short, so choose wisely. But choose something!
As capable as Tom Catena is, he and Mother of Mercy Hospital could use all the help they can get. With the hospital being completely powered by solar, they are lacking in electricity along with running water, medicine, and basic supplies. And everyday the war continues, more and more patients flood the hospital. So what can you do to help? First, I would say educate yourself about Tom and the Nuba people. A great place to start is with Episode #40 of The Drive with Peter Attia. It’s free on all major podcast distribution platforms. It’s not only one of my favorite episodes but favorite overall conversations between two highly intelligent and compassionate doctors. If you liked that conversation, you could rent or buy the documentary that follows Tom’s work. The Heart of Nuba gives a touching yet heart-wrenching view into the harsh realities the Nuba people have to deal with. Be warned that this film is graphic, but if children can bear the pain of having explosive shrapnel tear through their bodies, you can bear to view it. So toughen up, cupcake! And finally, if you feel so compelled, it would be much appreciated if you could donate to this campaign. The funds raised would go to alleviating many of the scarce resources at the Mother of Mercy Hospital. The more urgent needs include an operating eye microscope, housing, batteries for solar panels, and funds to support C-sections. A more thorough breakdown of the costs can be found on the podcast’s show notes page, along with other great information. A little goes a long way in Nuba, so anything even if it’s a few dollars, it all culminates to a huge difference.
And if you’re interested in following my ride, you can find my occasional posts on my Instagram.
Words cannot express my gratitude for your support.