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Soldier, surgeon, Sister

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Sister Deirdre "Dede" Mary Byrne has spent her life serving others while wearing multiple uniforms. Whether it was military fatigues while a Colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps; scrubs in an operating room or on a missionary trip as a general surgeon; or the traditional black habit of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, Sister Dede fulfills each role with skill and compassion.

Sister Dede grew up in McLean with her parents William, a thoracic surgeon, and Mary, a stay-at-home-mom who raised eight children. Despite hectic schedules and demanding careers, her parents attended daily Mass at St. Luke Church, and instilled in her the meaning of being a devout and faithful Catholic.

Sister Dede said "the garden of vocations is family," and she considers parents to be the best catechists. She credits the support of her parents with her and her sibling's vocation choices. Her brother, Father William Byrne, is pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Church in Potomac, Md., five of her siblings are married and have families, and one sister is single, but helps take care of their mother and other family members. Sister Dede said she always felt a call to the religious life and that her mother often told her "she had a vocation in utero." The call to religious life, however, came after she pursued her other passion - medicine.

Sister Dede joined the Army in 1978 as a medical student looking for a way to help pay her tuition at Georgetown University in Washington. The military offered a scholarship program, so she signed up to serve her country and ultimately would devote 29 years to the military as a doctor and surgeon. She finished medical school in 1982 and practiced family medicine until 1985. She served as a full-time military officer from 1982 to1989, and as an Army reservist, she did a year of missionary work from 1989 to 1990. From 1990 to 1997, she did research and completed a second residency in general surgery in 1997.

During that time, she met three people who would have a huge impact on determining what direction her life would take.

Sister Dede spent time with Blessed Teresa of Kolkata during a visit she made to Washington in 1997. The Missionaries of Charity in Washington blessed Sister Dede with the "gift" of welcoming Blessed Teresa to the city and riding with her to their house, The Gift of Peace. Sister Dede was on hand if medical care was needed.

Sister Dede met former Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey when he required open-heart surgery in 1996. Sister Dede was the first assistant during the surgery and spent almost every day with him during his recovery. She turned to him later as a friend for guidance on her calling.

Sister Dede said that "she came very close to giving up the medical profession" to pursue the religious life, but a conversation with Jesuit Father John A. Hardon changed her mind. He told her that if she didn't find a community that would allow her to keep practicing medicine, he thought that God would feel she was throwing away a gift. Once again, the call to religious life was put on hold.

From 1997 to 1999, Sister Dede practiced medicine in Ventura, Calif., striving to "achieve the best training possible to be able to give to the poor."

In 2000, Cardinal Hickey asked her to come to Washington to serve the poor and focus on her discernment. She was introduced to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts during this time, and she fell in love with the order, which was roughly 80 percent school teachers and 20 percent medical workers. She finally had found her perfect fit and started formation in 2002, professing her first vows in 2004.

The transition to being a full-time sister was not an easy one.

In 2003, the military once again needed her, and as a reservist she was deployed three times and had to take off the habit. She said she basically "lived in scrubs" during that time.

In 2003, she served at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington. In 2005, she was stationed at Ft. Carson in Colorado, and in 2008, she was deployed to Afghanistan. She described that time as having "one foot in the military door and one foot with the Sisters."

When she returned from Afghanistan, the order asked if she could retire from the military, and she did in 2009. She professed final vows with the Little Workers in 2011.

Sister Dede now spends her days as clinical director of the Catholic Charities Medical Clinic in Washington, where she cares for refugees, the poor and the uninsured. If her patients require surgery, she operates at nearby Sibley Memorial Hospital.

Sister Dede's medical background influenced the start of a clinic run by the Little Sisters at their mission house in Washington. Staffed by volunteers and the five sisters who live at the convent, the mission offers a physical therapy clinic twice a week and an eye clinic for diabetics once a month. The clinic is an official rotation site for Georgetown University medical students and George Washington University's physical therapy department.

The Little Workers are an Italian pontifical institute founded in 1894. They have five mission sites in the United States, including the Washington mission started in 1954, one of the oldest.

Sister Dede said she admires the order for making very minor changes after Vatican II and "loves that the sisters … are so humble and little and maintain their faithful vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and prayerful life," she said. "The storm of Vatican II blew over their heads, and all they felt was a little breeze."

When asked how she lives her "dual life" of sister and doctor, she responded that it really isn't a dual life for her. She quoted Blessed Teresa that she is "a sister first." Her vocation is a "healing ministry and God is the healer, and I just try to stay out of His way."

Sister Dede's training as a general surgeon, as well as a family practitioner, gives her a unique opportunity to be able to help those in need. This training especially comes in handy as a missionary overseas.

"The specialties that I might not do here on a regular basis, like orthopaedics or obstetrics/gynecology, I can do there," said Sister Dede. Also, during an emergency there may not be time to call in another doctor. She said it is the "dramatic cases that have told her God was the one really in charge."

With a calming presence, and "Sr. Dr. Dede" embroidered on the apron she wears over her habit, she said patients see her in the clinic and have a sense of security seeing her in the habit.

"It reminds them of their place on earth and that God is in control," she said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015