By Jeffrey Donahoe
Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of a story in the fall/winter 2016 issue of Georgetown Medicine. View the full story in the Georgetown Medicine online archives.
The life and career of surgeon Sister Deirdre Byrne, M.D. (M’82, R’97), has included the political tensions of war and conflict, as well as deep inner peace.
She has performed surgery under challenging conditions in Afghanistan and provided care to returning soldiers as she rose to become a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and as a reservist. She has served as a missionary surgeon responding to natural and man-made crises in Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, and Iraq.
Throughout these experiences and more, Byrne was on a personal journey to discern her calling and to profess her vows as a woman religious. She is now a sister of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts in Washington, D.C., where she serves as medical director of their pro bono Physical Therapy and Eye Clinic at their convent, as well as a volunteer surgeon at the Catholic Charities Medical Clinic (formerly of the Spanish Catholic Center).
Serving the Country Through Army Medicine
A life of medicine, service to the poor, religious vocation, and a Georgetown education now seem that they were all but inevitable for Byrne.
She grew up in the Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia, in a large, devout, go-to-daily-Mass, Roman Catholic family. Byrne quotes her mother that her call to serve others as a religious sister “started in utero,” simultaneously laughing and serious as she shares the story. Mother Teresa was her high school hero.
If the life of a religious was a calling, so too was the life of a physician. By “a miraculous event,” as she calls it, Byrne was accepted to Georgetown School of Medicine. Georgetown was a family tradition: her father, thoracic surgeon William Byrne, was medical class of 1948 and completed a residency at Georgetown in 1956, in addition to her brothers Kevin (M’79) and John (M’87).
With seven siblings, Byrne knew that money was tight. The military offered a scholarship program, so Byrne joined the Army in 1978 as a medical student, and received a military medical scholarship.
After a three-year family medicine residency at the U.S. Army hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Byrne began the scholarship “payback” period. As a full-time military officer, she served 13 months in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt as liaison between the Army and the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery.
After Sinai, Byrne volunteered to serve in Korea to practice family and emergency medicine. “I was thirsty for hands-on experience and was already toying with the idea of doing general surgery,” she says.
“The military was pretty hard core, but I don’t regret a minute of it,” says Byrne.
A Grueling—and Humbling—Surgical Residency
After completing a seven-year commitment of full-time medical service in the Army Medical Corps, in 1989 Byrne spent a year doing missionary medicine. During part of that year she worked in India with a surgeon named Sister Frederick, who had done her surgical training at Georgetown. The friendship and mentorship strengthened Byrne’s dual vocations, but the call to be a religious was put on hold for the call to be a surgeon.
Byrne was accepted into an Army general surgical residency program and deferred this to do surgical training beginning in 1990 and ending at Georgetown in 1994.
“I was thrilled to get into the program,” she says. Work weeks of 100 or more hours are grueling for any surgical resident, but Byrne also remembers the excitement. “The Army had boosted my confidence, and I really flourished in those days.”
“The military was pretty hard core, but I don’t regret a minute of it.”
After residency, Byrne practiced in Ventura, California, training missionary doctors for two years. In 2000 she completed her board certification in surgery. “People sometimes think, ‘Oh, you do missionary medicine over there somewhere, you serve the poor. You must not be able to hack it in private practice’,” she says.
They would be mistaken, because this is a physician who does not settle for good enough. Byrne brings not only top professional training—she is board certified in family medicine and general surgery as well as a fellow of the American College of Surgeons—but also brings years of invaluable experience in resource-limited settings to her practice.
Finding a Religious Home
Also in 2000, Byrne came back to Washington to begin an intense discernment process, finding and joining the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, an Italian order more than 120 years old, made of both teachers and health professionals. It was a natural and immediate fit.
“It’s a very traditional order,” Byrne says. “We pray together every day, including daily Mass and Adoration. We live in community. We’re old-fashioned girls.”
Finally finding a religious home, Byrne took her formal formation in 2002 and professed first vows in 2004. But, once again, the Army would interrupt. “I had one foot in the religious life and one foot in with Uncle Sam,” says Byrne.
In 2003, the Army brought her back as a reservist after she made first vows and deployed her three times over the next six years. This meant trading in her habit for scrubs and fatigues.
“I had one foot in the religious life and one foot in the Army.”
In 2009, she finally retired from the Army for good and professed final vows with the Little Workers two years later.
Meeting Medical Needs at Home
Wearing a black veil and full-length white habit, Byrne enters an office at the Catholic Charities Medical Clinic in D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood with apologies for running late. A minor but emergent surgery had presented a few hours earlier. She performed the surgery in a small but well-equipped room down the hall; for more complex surgeries, she works out of a number of affiliated hospitals.
The modest clinic, a convent until it was renovated in the 1980s, resembles any private practice suite. A tour of the first floor reveals a closet-sized but well-stocked pharmacy, a lab, an ultrasound, three exam rooms, and a patient counseling room. Upstairs, there’s a well-appointed dental clinic and a light-filled chapel. There are two full-time doctors in addition to Byrne, several nurse practitioners, and rotating medical students, including some from Georgetown.
Byrne estimates that most of the clinic’s patients live well below the federal poverty line (about $24,000 for a family of four and about $12,000 for an individual). About half are undocumented. Few patients have insurance, but many pay what they can. “It helps with their dignity,” Byrne says.
A Model of Courage
Byrne, who’s staring age 60 in the eye (a fact that she dismisses with a wave of the hand), says she’s content to stay home, treat patients, and be Mother Superior of the Washington Little Workers sisters. “Mostly I fix the leaky toilets in the house and make sure the bills get paid,” she says modestly.
But 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 and current medical student Aaron Epstein (G’12, M’18), provides medical care in war-torn regions.
The program provides not only care—from front-line medics to advanced cardiothoracic surgery—but also training for local doctors. To date, the GSMSG has had six trips to Iraq. 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.
“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 says. “She is unique, and courageous beyond all measure.”
Byrne says she is blessed. “I entered Georgetown knowing what I wanted to do. It’s what I am doing now: I’m a religious sister and a surgeon,” she says. “I am able to serve Christ in the poor and was able to care for our incredible soldiers.”