Sr. Deirdre Byrne has worn a uniform and a habit, but what counts for her is the opportunity to serve.
Writing about Sister Deirdre Byrne, it’s tempting to come up with a headline such as the alliterative “Sister, soldier, surgeon, servant” kind reminiscent of the John LeCarré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare Sister Deirdre’s life to that of a character in an espionage novel. Reading her resume, one has to wonder what part of the world she has not visited or what adventurous mission she hasn’t been on.
Tonight, she speaks at the Republican National Convention, giving her a national — even international — platform. Last year, when she was asked to be present and be recognized by President Trump at a Washington Independence Day celebration, she told Aleteia, “ The other people who were there were so incredible I kept asking myself ‘Why the heck am I here?'”
Sister Dede, as she is almost universally known, is a member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, an order founded in Italy that has been present in the U.S. for close to 70 years. She spends much of her days seeing patients at either the Catholic Charities clinic in D.C. or the pro-bono Physical Therapy and Eye Clinic at the sisters’ convent. She is also superior of the religious community there.
She has said that her life of service began in utero, crediting the example of her mother and father. Her dad was a thoracic surgeon, and she has two brothers in medicine and a brother who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. Like her father and brothers, Sister Dede studied medicine at Georgetown. She joined the Army in 1978 to help her pay for medical school. Over the next three decades, she served in the Sinai Peninsula, in Korea, and in Afghanistan.
Her military service was interrupted in 1989 when she spent a year doing missionary medicine. In India, she teamed up with a surgeon named Sister Frederick, who also had received a Georgetown education. Sister Dede had been thinking of religious life for some time, but the time was not quite right.
However, when she was back in Washington, training as a surgeon, one of her patients was Cardinal James Hickey, then-archbishop of Washington. They developed a friendship, and the cardinal offered her spiritual guidance. She was also assisted in her discernment by Fr. John Hardon, the Jesuit writer and theologian, who encouraged her to find a religious community where she could continue practicing medicine. The world, he said, “needs Catholic doctors.”
The Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, whose sisters work in both education and healthcare, seemed to be a perfect fit.
A year after helping out with the medical response at New York’s Ground Zero on 9/11, she entered the community.
But she was still in the Army Reserve, and she was called up three more times — in both Afghanistan and the U.S. — before she could be completely with the religious community.
As a 2016 profile in the Georgetown University alumni magazine put it, she’s been “lured back into extreme medicine a few times lately to deliver care in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.” The Global Surgical and Medical Support Group (GSMSG), founded in 2015 by Georgetown alumnus Aaron Epstein, provides medical care in war-torn regions.
Epstein says that Byrne was one of the first to believe in him and back his ideas, volunteering to go with him to Iraq and recruit other U.S. doctors. She went on the first GSMSG medical mission for two weeks. She’s also on the board of medical advisers.
“Sister Dede provides her unique skills to those refugees who need it the most,” Epstein told the magazine. “The Kurds that we serve absolutely love her and always ask when she is coming back again.
“She brings a credibility to our efforts that only a former U.S. Army surgeon turned sister of the Church can — and I think there is only one person like that in the world,” Epstein added. “She is unique, and courageous beyond all measure.”