2016 Feature, Small Newsroom finalist

The Doctor

James Verini

The Atavist Magazine

Feature, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

At The Atavist Magazine, we endeavor to combine the power of narrative journalism with the highest level of digital design. No story more epitomizes that combination than “The Doctor,” a masterful work of courageous reporting and graceful writing by James Verini.

Broadly, the story concerns the ongoing war in the Nuba Mountains in the south of Sudan. But James approaches this conflict through the narrow lens of the only hospital that serves the region, the brutalized victims who end up there, and the sole doctor who tends to them, a man named Dr. Tom Catena. A New York native who played football at Brown University, Catena helped open Mother of Mercy hospital seven years ago. There, he wakes every day before sunrise, walks to mass at a small brick chapel, and then spends 14 hours treating the Nubans who live under a constant rain of bombs from the Sudanese government. He almost never leaves. No doctors will risk death and dismemberment to assist him. It is a monastic, selfless, deeply spiritually existence. It also might be considered futile, self-denying, and monomaniacal.

In pursuit of Catena’s story, James spent a year negotiating access to the hospital, from his home in Nairobi. In February of 2015 he flew on a cargo plane to a refugee camp in Yida, South Sudan, where he crossed—illegally, according to the Sudanese government—into Nuba in a supply convoy. Gidel, home of Mother of Mercy, is a day’s drive from the camp on dirt-and-rock roads. James stayed for three weeks and stayed at the hospital amidst the ongoing fighting, observing as Catena treated and operated on children who’d been burned in a shelling attack, on victims of bombings, on soldiers injured in battle. He then traveled to the front lines, in order to describe the texture of the conflict..

It would have been tempting to paint a portrait of Catena as a saintly savior in war-torn Sudan. But James is too sophisticated a writer to put his reporting to work for an overly simplistic story. He portrays instead—in careful, searing, intensely observant prose—an extraordinary human being driven by an extreme discomfort with, even antipathy toward, the modern world. James captures the fresh horrors that occur in the Nuba every day, the numbness that Catena builds up against them, and the moral outrage that keeps him in that place—treating a people he is both profoundly connected to and undeniably apart from. “The Doctor” is a brave and haunting portrait of a man and a people shaped and distorted by an endless war, and the moments of grace that are found amidst it.

With the powerful photographs of Dominic Nahr and Phil Moore, maps of Sudan, and video from Adam Bailes, the story is designed to place the reader squarely in Catena’s world, with its daily cauldron of violence and recovery.

For the story, James Verini was already named a finalist for the extremely prestigious Michael Kelly award earlier this year, which noted that his “acute powers of observation and elegant prose provide readers of The Atavist a memorable look at Catena’s extraordinary life.”