Success Story: From Refugee to Baptist Cardiologist

May 16 • 2018

How a Ugandan Refugee Became a Baptist Cardiologist

This March, Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle welcomed general invasive cardiologist Dr. Julius Kato. He joined Baptist Golden Triangle from St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima, Ohio, where he served as medical director of the chest pain center, director of cardiac rehab and chairman of the cardiology department.

Today, Kato has a bright corner office at Columbus Cardiovascular Care in Columbus, Mississippi, where six academic diplomas adorn the walls. But for Kato, a native Ugandan, accomplishing his goals started with a harrowing journey that forever changed his life.

A Turbulent Upbringing

The third oldest of 14 children, Kato grew up in a middle-to-upper class family near Kampala, Uganda. “Life was good,” said Kato, “that is, until the country’s government was overthrown by Amin in 1971. That was the beginning of hell for me.”

For eight years, dictator Idi Amin controlled the East African country. Amin was a violent leader, responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Uganda’s history. His goals included converting a majority Christian country to Muslim and requiring male children to join the military rather than attend school.

Under Amin’s rule, one of Kato’s brothers was arrested and jailed on suspicion of communicating with anti-government activists. Hours before he was to be killed, Kato’s brother escaped to Kenya. Not long after Kato’s brother escaped, soldiers visited his home.

“They came to kill my whole family,” said Kato. Soldiers held a bayonet to his sister’s throat and pointed guns at him and his mother. His instincts took over, and Kato ran for his life. He sheltered at a friend’s house and later returned to a home that was no longer safe. His mother knew her son must flee—or be killed.

“My mother was very smart,” said Kato. “She designed my escape to Kenya.”

So with little money, Kato said goodbye and fled to the Uganda-Kenya border. At 14 years old, he was determined to reunite with his brother in Kenya. He obtained identification papers and traveled through multiple terrifying checkpoints before finally arriving in Nairobi, Kenya.

Kato walked the streets, homesick for his family and too poor to eat. But food wasn’t the only thing he craved.

“I was hungry for school,” said Kato. Once he registered as a refugee, a Catholic bishop helped him enroll in school. Kato studied hard, and at 19 years old, he joined a group of Ugandan refugees resettling in the United States. Because of his talents in science, Kato was selected to attend a medical laboratory technology program at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Determined to Succeed

As a resettled refugee in Ohio, Kato dove into education. He earned his associate degree in medical laboratory technology. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in cytology and a master’s degree in health care administration and public administration.

Kato took a supervisor position in a clinical lab at Michigan State University, where he taught medical students. According to Kato, his students convinced him to enroll in medical school. He applied and began training as an internist, but cardiology felt like a natural fit.

“I did medicine, and [cardiology] just came to me,” said Kato with a smile.

He would eventually visit a friend in Mississippi—Baptist cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Hector Dox. Kato said Columbus immediately made an impact on him. It was a place he could make a difference with supportive hospital leadership and a growing medical practice.

Kato credits his nontraditional childhood for his ability to make a difference and empathize with his patients.

“I’ve gone through so much, and I’ve turned that to something good in society,” said Kato. “I don’t hold that inside me. I look at my patients as my brother, my sister, and I really feel for them—deep in my heart. When I see them, my empathy for them is enormous, even far more than they think.”

Learn more about care at Baptist Golden Triangle, or find a Baptist physician near you.