“In high school, I heard about a little sister from Albania named Mother Teresa, and I said, ‘that’s what I want to do – I want to serve the poor, the poorest of the poor.’”
Before Sister Dede was a sister, she was a bright, young medical student starting out at Georgetown University. Following in her father’s footsteps, Deirdre Byrne hoped to serve others by providing medical care. “With seven siblings, money was tight,” she says, “so I signed on with Uncle Sam.” Through a military scholarship program, she was able to complete medical school, and then gave seven years of military service as payback.
During that time, Byrne served in Korea, practicing family and emergency medicine. While there, she had the opportunity to scrub in and assist for surgeries. This experience awakened a growing passion, and after completing her active military duty and a year of mission work in India, she returned to Georgetown for a surgical training program.
Eight years after graduating from medical school, Byrne found herself once again in residency. She recalls the long grueling hours of those days. “We were on call every other night.” Residents often worked 100 hour weeks. But Deirdre Byrne has never shied away from hard work. “I’m just an average person,” she tells me, “but I work hard.”
Byrne is far from average and has led a truly extraordinary life – one guided by service, passion and humility – but she is right about one thing: she works hard.
After completing her surgical training, Byrne went on to become a skilled and successful surgeon and was even granted the opportunity to oversee the care of her long-time hero, Mother Teresa, during a visit to the United States in 1997.
Throughout her life, Byrne considered a call to religious life, but the timing was never right. “I considered my medicine a gift from God,” she explains. “At one point, I was going to give up my medicine, but was counseled not to. ‘We need doctors,’ I was told.”
And so, she continued her journey, practicing medicine while also trying to discern where she should serve. But in 2000, she was introduced to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts – a religious order over 120 years old. “I met these little Italian sisters. I didn’t think that was going to be my community. But they opened the house to me. They were committed to prayer and service of the poor, but also they had another commitment: Whatever the need is at the time, we must pursue that, and the health care issue is the need.” Sister Dede joined the community two years later.
Byrne doesn’t talk about herself easily. She shares about her patients, the clinic, the community and other volunteers, but her personal story comes out piece by piece.
Later in our conversation, she off-handedly mentions serving at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. She happened to be in New York City, and as soon as she learned about the tragedy, made her way, on foot, into the smoke-filled air to deliver supplies to firefighters. This is the kind of person she is – one who runs toward, not away from suffering.
In 2003, Byrne was called up from the Army reserves and deployed three times over the next six years. One of her tours took her to Afghanistan, where she provided critical medical care to those injured in the war. Stationed six miles from the Pakistani border, she recalls hearing missiles overhead, but the hospital was bomb proof, so she assures me the patients were safe. She tells me about one woman who was carried into the hospital by her brother after having her legs blown off by a bomb. Completely paralyzed and without her lower limbs, the young woman was cast aside by her husband, no longer considered a viable wife. “She had nowhere else to go. No one to care for her,” Sister Dede tells me.
This is the kind of person she is – one who runs toward, not away from suffering.
One phone call back to the Little Workers of the Sacred Heart in DC was all it took for Sister Dede to set out on a quest of procuring the woman a wheelchair. “It was not easy, but eventually, we were able to get her that wheelchair,” and in doing so, restored the woman’s mobility and with it, her dignity.
Sister Dede finally retired from military service in 2009, but continues her mission work abroad, teaching and providing medical care to regions with little access and great need. “My big focus abroad now is Sudan and Haiti and now Iraq is a new doorway for me.” She is also a practicing surgeon, providing care for those without insurance and is co-founder and director of DC’s only pro-bono PT clinic.
As I sit and talk with her, Sister Dede’s countenance conveys contentment and peace. Yet, the moment there is work to be done, she is quick to respond. “We need you,” is all it took for Sister Dede to excuse herself from our interview and jump into action. She quickly transitioned from answering my questions about how her journey led to starting a pro-bono PT clinic to assisting a patient as she lifted her aging mother out of a van.