Reading The Doctor, written by James Verini and published in the Atavist Magazine, is like looking at an anthill through a magnifying glass. Verini's wonderful reporting takes you straight into the horrors of war-ravaged Nuba, focusing on one American doctor's dedication to healing the damage.
From The Doctor, by James Verini:
Catena lives in a cinder-block house with a pitched aluminum roof and a dirt yard, where hornbills and shrikes congregate in the mango and mahogany saplings. On the unadorned poured-concrete porch are two pairs of broken sandals he has been meaning to get fixed for years and a permanently inert broom. Inside, the floors are covered with scrubs, back issues of Time and Sports Illustrated, and well-worn books. Recently, he’d finished G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. (“How does a woman get into an old man’s head like that?”) They came in care packages sent by his father. Catena hasn’t gotten around to throwing out the cardboard boxes, which are all around the floor, too.
His father includes jumbo bars of Hershey’s chocolate, which Catena keeps in a sputtering deep-freezer, the only appliance in a communal staff kitchen. Outside the kitchen is a hand pump where he washes his scrubs. The cleaning women would do this, but he doesn’t like to bother them. The pump basin has been taken over by a family of ducks, a gift to Catena from the supreme general of the Nuban army. A constant assassination target, the general lives mostly in undisclosed locations, traveling with, among other keepsakes, the cockpit seat of a downed Antonov. Very fond of the doctor, he occasionally shows up at Mother of Mercy unannounced, bearing unexplained gifts like an extravagant uncle. Recently, he gave Catena 25 pounds of honey.
Catena attends mass every morning at 6:30 and then works for 12 to 14 hours, six or seven days a week, more if there has been a battle or bombing. On Fridays, he performs a dozen or more surgeries. For his work, the Catholic Medical Mission Board, which employs 1,200 volunteers in 27 countries, pays him $350 a month.
He appears never to tire. When he has visitors, he talks with them enthusiastically into the night, listening intently, always looking them in the eyes. When asked questions he speaks expansively, his conversation full of references to old Saturday Night Live skits and college and professional sports. He recalls not just the scores of decades-old football, baseball, and basketball games, but also jersey numbers, the details of plays.
“I miss the contact,” he told me of playing football. “People think I’m crazy when I tell them that, but I say, ‘You haven’t tried it.’ I mean, running full speed at someone and just slamming into them! It’s, it’s—” he tensed his shoulders and raised his arms and grimaced with pain and joy. “But I worry about what’s happening to my head,” he said.
At night the cleaners, who double as cooks, set out pots of rice, lentils, and noodles on a side table in a small dining room. The nurses are responsible for bringing in the flatware and jerricans of water from the kitchen but never do, because they know Catena will. He also clears up after everyone has eaten.
One night he arrived late for dinner because he’d been delivering a child.
“Do you mind if I shower?” he asked. “I’m covered in amniotic fluid and urine.”